Outlining for Fun and Word Count

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Until recently, I was not big on outlining. I believed that making things up as I went along was vital to the creative process, that it kept things fresh and unpredictable, that it prevented boredom. I believed that outlining somehow sterilized the process and rendered it artistically inert.

Wrong.

Now, I’m not here to tell you that you need to start outlining right this minute to be a professional (or, god forbid, “real”) writer. As always, you do what you want. But I’m going to tell you why outlining works for me, and about the significant positive results I’ve had.

The Why

I started my first serious outline while working on a very un-serious project for a friend. It was a casual piece of fiction that got out of hand (like so many casual projects do). Originally intended as a small-scale piece, the cast of characters swelled to gargantuan proportions, and the plot with it. (This happens to me all the time. I seem incapable of sticking to a small, concentrated cast of characters. But that’s a story for another day.)

To keep track of these characters and the emerging and labyrinthine plot, I started making a rough outline. The rough outline became a spreadsheet, which eventually became several spreadsheets. One handled scene order and timing. Another tracked characters through chapters. A third listed personality traits, goals, and ambitions at a glance. For the record, I recommend starting with the first of these and seeing how that goes.

I hadn’t yet considered outlining my more serious work, which is why I think this knock-off story became such a breakthrough for me. I had no hangups about this piece. It was intended for a tiny and personal audience, and I’d never have to worry about salability. That unstrung a lot of my issues and let me start outlining, rather than fretting over some abstract and ill-defined notion of artistic purity.

The other big “why” came out of that great pantsing Mecca, National Novel Writing Month 2010. That year, I wrote the second book of a series I’d been working on for a while. Midway through, I created a whole bunch of new characters, a new secondary plot, and took the story in a whole new direction.

That was a mistake. I later realized that I’d only gone in that direction because I had no idea where the main story was headed. I’d written thousands of words on some new story that didn’t have those problems, hoping that when I got back around to the main plot, I’d somehow have an answer to its nagging issues.

As you can guess, that didn’t work. I ended up throwing away a lot of work and wasting a lot of time — all of which could have been prevented with an outline.

The How

When outlining, I tend to start simple and work toward complex. Since story for me is always centered on the characters, I start with them. I begin with something like this:

That tells me their most basic arc. I do the same for the other major characters. Then I start defining their relationships with one another. Once I figure out the character’s ambitions, story goals, and motivations, it’s time to start blocking out scenes. My scene spreadsheet looks something like this:

I generally include:

  • The scene number
  • The POV character (color-coded for easy reference)
  • The details of the scene
  • Word count
  • Date written
  • Notes on what purpose the scene serves
  • A field for whether or not the scene’s been written (so I can skip over something and come back to it without Ruining Everything Forever)
  • Optional: day of the week (for watching timing issues)

Sharp-eyed readers will recognize this as a variant on the Snowflake Method scene sheet. I use it because it’s served me well in the past.

The important thing to remember when writing an outline like this is that things will change. All the time. The whole point of the outline is not to create a rigid, inflexible flowchart. It’s more like a roadmap showing where all the turnoffs, construction work, and washed-out bridges are. Looking at the notes in my scenes, I can instantly tell which ones are weak and need revising or cutting.

As you write and develop the story, you’ll find problems. You’ll see things that don’t work. You’ll move scenes around. This is good. It means the outline is working. Don’t get hung up on following the outline no matter what. The outline is not the story. At best, it’s a Frommer’s guide. It’s Cliff notes. So don’t sweat it too much.

The Results

After trying the outline on for size, I made a point of tracking how much faster I wrote with an outline in hand.

When simply improvising my work, I averaged anywhere between 500-1500 words a day before I’d burn out. At most, I’d write two or three scenes.

My record when working with an outline was over 6,000. My actual average was somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000, usually an average of four or five scenes.

A dramatic difference. In terms of numbers, there’s no question that outlining works better for me.

But what about enjoyment and spontanaeity? Actually, that’s measurably better as well. Knowing what purpose the scene is there to serve, and its place in the greater story, leaves me free to play around more with the prose without worrying that I’ll get off-track. It’s like being in a theme park where all the entrances and exits are clearly marked. You can still ride all the rides, but you don’t have to wander around looking for a way out afterward.

So, pretty demonstrably, outlining works for me. Does it work for you? Does it not work for you? Tell me your story.

  • Huge fan of planning here, huge fan! For long-form work (i.e. non-poetry) I don’t create spreadsheets, and I often don’t use charts. I do a lot of planning in freewriting, brainstorming pages, and finally, nested lists with section summaries, and bullet points about what needs to happen in each section to move it along. I try to plan through a project to the point that when I am so familiar with what will happen, I can close my eyes and vividly picture it.

    I always thought it fascinating to ask writers how much time they spent planning versus writing for their first drafts. For me the breakdown is roughly:

    90% planning, 10% writing

    Poems on the other hand are pure shit-goes-on-the-page, with anywhere from 10-30 drafts after the fact to tighten up everything inside of it. In that case, it is

    0% planning, 15% writing, 85% rewriting and rewriting and rewriting…

    I wonder what would happen if I tried to outline (short) poems?

  • joniw

    From a reader standpoint, I can see how that character traits spreadsheet would be really useful and make for a better story with more consistent characterizations. Inconsistent characters can really ruin an otherwise good story.

  • You are so speaking my language here!! Make an outline, allow for changes in it and cherish it like the novel manifesto that it is!! 🙂

  • I’ve tried outlines, and frequently they’ve been good for passing the time until the story could begin (such as in anticipation of NaNoWriMo), but there was always a point at which the outline falls by the wayside and I go it alone. Character sketches I’ll do, bits of scenes that come to me, and plot points, but after 2008, I’d say, I haven’t outlined.

    Do I think outlining is “wrong”? No. Really, it would be great to have that level of organization.But really, I sit down and I start a story, and I write it until the story is done.

    • Awesome. I’m a big believer in going with what works for you. Thanks for the comment, Jennifer.

  • Jo-Anne (jtvancouver)

    Daniel,another great post. For years I’ve used outlines for work and before that in university when writing papers; for some reason though, when I began writing fiction the notion of an outline when right out of my noggin. Recently, I realized some similar issues to the ones you mentioned (pre-outline) so sat down and drew a chart of who all the main characters were, how they knew or didn’t know each other and a few of the overlapping scenes. But again, for some reason I didn’t actually do a complete outline.

    I’m beginning to think what stymied me was not knowing really what should be included when dealing with fiction. It’s not a matter of introduction, introductory paragraphy with three points to follow up, 1st paragr 1st point, 2nd paragr 2nd point etc… like it was for university essays! I like the process you’ve set out and really appreciate you sharing it – I think it’s going to be a big help to me!

    • My pleasure, Jo-Anne, and thanks for the comment. I hope you’ll let me know how it goes!

  • Yaaay spreadsheet porn! I do love a good outline. I love the IDEA of outlining and frameworks, despite my original outline for the WIP being all but redundant. I think your character forumla would be beneficial for all writers, even the pantsers. Loving the theme park comparison! 🙂

    • Thanks very much, Catherine! Good to see you around again. 🙂

  • I’ve nominated Surly Muse for the Versatile Blogger Award:
    http://chantellyb.wordpress.com/2012/03/03/badges-boycotts/

    -Chantal

  • I love this post. I really do. Thanks for sharing it.