A Case for Outlining Part 1

When I was first taught the idea of outlining I completely hated it. It didn’t help that it was presented as ‘my way or the highway’ either. I felt like the outline put me into a box, really confined my thinking and creativity and ultimately made me panic a bit.

Not the best way to introduce a new technique to a young kid.

However all of this changed when I was in the middle of editing my first completed manuscript, a monster of a first attempt that topped 178 computer pages. The problems quickly began to pile up.

Some friends that I had test reading the manuscript started telling me about inconsistencies in my story, small things that I didn’t think would effect the overall story, drastically changing it 20 pages down the road. Character voice changing erratically and even breaking the magic system and contradicting the world lore at times.

These were the most memorable.

My story knotted. Every time I went to fix or change something, I’d have a new problem show up 5 pages later. I had story breaking problems show up in the magic system and power scaling, even worse, I had character interactions that couldn’t possibly happen.

It became perfectly clear, that I needed to do something. I couldn’t keep writing on this scale and not have some way of organizing and viewing my story from a far.

In some form or fashion I needed to learn outlining.

This challenge helped spur my interest in books on writing, and studying what other writers have done. A lot of books I found had some good ideas, like creating a story journal or creating index cards. But what put it all together was a specialist outlining book called, Outlining Your Novel, Map Your Way to Success, by K.M. Weiland. There are other books as well that breakdown outlining techniques, but Weiland’s, I found to be exceptional, very to the point, and easy to read. I got through it in a day, and was happily testing what she covered that night.

I decided to stay away from traditional outlining, and went with a style called guidepost outlining.

I started filling out index cards, broken into arcs and chapters, to help get an idea about my story and what I wanted to do with it. These cards really helped me get a birds eye view of the story and move around scenes, chapters, characters and ideas easily and really helped me shape the story. I translated these cards in their marked order (very important) into the guidepost outline. Taking the generalized notes on the index cards and fleshing them out further. Basically adding a couple of bullet points, some notes on where and what my characters are doing, etc. and moving on, only putting down what is absolutely necessary for my story.

I built a skeleton that I could fill out and build on as I wrote. It changed my perspective on my story, giving me the structure I desperately needed and yet, preserved the flexibility my writing needed.

So…what happened further down the line? What was the bigger picture? There were a few immediate things that happened.

  • I was able to work out the world lore, and that helped me understand and craft a very different story than I originally hoped for.
  • I kept track of where my characters were and because of this, I was able to have character interactions that I didn’t see before, helping deepen those characters and give them extra meaning, besides being side or minor characters.
  • I was able to see new details about my magic system that I had missed before, which lead to problems in power scaling and other inconsistencies that broke the story.

All in all I was very happy with the results. I was enjoying the process again and kicked things into a higher gear. My only regret was that I had to unlearn some negative habits that had worked their way into my thinking, and this process took a couple years to free myself from.

To this day, I’m still amazed at what a difference this has made. How it helped my craft improve and made this life a possibility that I enjoy everyday. I do have some takeaway thoughts from learning to outline:

  • Changing an outline is easier than combing through and changing 50 pages of content.
  • Keeping a key log along with an outline helped me keep the story moving forward and organized, also helped me be aware of things like tropes and themes while not getting in the way of the creative process.
  • An outline is just the skeleton and can be as detailed or vague as needed.

Ultimately, outlining is just like any other tool, its only as good as the person that uses it. In the next post, A Case for Outlining Part 2: The Guidepost Style, I plan on going more indepth and show you how I applied this outlining technique. In the mean time, I’d love to hear what your approach is, are you an outliner? A non-outliner? Or a hybrid? Please leave a comment on this post or feel free to share on Facebook. Thanks again!

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