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Posted Friday, May 27, 2011, at 12:13 PM

Many very successful authors say they never outline a story before writing it. Stephen King says he doesn't, and I certainly can't argue with his accomplishments. Dean Koontz also says he doesn't outline. More power to them both. That method doesn't work for me, however, and I don't recommend it, especially for a beginner.

There have been a handful of times over the years when I've started a book, made it as far as the first couple of chapters, and then didn't know where to go from there. I'd written myself into a corner and didn't know how to get out of it. That's because I'd tried to write without first creating an outline. It's in the outlining process where I work out any problems, and make sure I have a clear path as to where the story is going.

Remember when I said the plot of your story is its skeleton? Well, the outline is where I figure out the plot.

I start my outline at the opening scene, where I want the book to start. I have the general story idea and the theme in my head, and I find it helpful to write these down in a paragraph or two. But when I start my outline, I see it happening as it will appear in the book. I write the outline in the present tense: "Joan, a recently laid-off librarian, arrives as the run-down mansion that she has inherited from her grandfather. Entering through the front door, she sees that the place is a mess." And so on. It gives me a sense of immediacy, of being in the scene.

(Don't forget your 3-Act Structure. It'll help you keep your outline on the right track.)

Most likely, when I start the outline, I have only the germ of an idea. But there's something about writing down the action as it happens that generates more ideas, and they start flowing like crazy. Soon I reach the point where I'm writing furiously, trying to keep up with my brain as the story begins to take shape. (I always write my outline in longhand.) I'll introduce characters, inserts scenes, move the story forward in a way that often surprises even me. This is the creative process at its best.

What if, halfway through my outline, Joan's crazy Aunt Helen, who has come to stay with her, runs out the back door and shoots a bear? Surprises are good. Even shocking things are good. But you have to make sure that the shock is still logical. At that point I'll go back to an earlier scene in my outline and make sure I insert some tidbit of information that will make the shooting of the bear a valid occurrence. Maybe I'll have Joan and her growing family sitting around the table having their morning coffee and listening to the radio. Maybe there's something mentioned on the radio about a circus coming to town. At the time this didn't seem important; it was just background noise. But when Aunt Helen shoots the bear, the reader thinks, "Aha... the circus!" And don't forget the gun -- I'd better mention something about that earlier in the story, too.

These early bits of information are called Foreshadowing. But what if you want to throw your reader off the track? Can you foreshadow, but have it be false? Sure you can. It's called a Red Herring, and you'll see it used especially in mysteries. In your mystery you don't want to make it too obvious who the killer is, so you throw in some hints that casts suspicion on someone else. That way, when the killer is revealed, the reader is pleasantly surprised. Agatha Christie was a master of the Red Herring. Just read "And Then There Were None" some time.

These are the things I figure out in my outline. I weave events through the outline, creating scenes, adding subplots, bringing in new characters, building suspense. By the time I get to the end, it's admittedly kind of a mess. Notes have been inserted here and there, sections have been moved around. But, rough or not, it's a complete outline and that gives me the foundation I need on which to work. I'll then go through the outline again, moving scenes if I think they need to be moved, making sure all relevant characters are given enough time, cutting those that aren't necessary and tying up any loose ends.

For a full length book, my finished outline might run anywhere from 15 to 25 pages and take me two weeks to a month to complete. A lot of work, sure, but it's worth it. It's given me a map to follow, making the writing of the book easier and more enjoyable.

"To be a person is to have a story to tell." Isak Dinesen

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This is all starting to come together for me. I've learned for in the past couple of months with this blog than from the past 10 yrs of trying to figure it out on my own. One question - If I make a detailed outline, how close to it do I stick when I start writing the book?

-- Posted by ggilmore on Wed, Jun 1, 2011, at 7:50 AM

I read both Stephen King and Dean Koonz, and although I like their books I'm always aware they tend to ramble on and are usually twice as long as they need to be. True, you can't argue with their success, but maybe their books would be better if they'd outline.

-- Posted by charliegarrett on Wed, Jun 1, 2011, at 8:25 AM

I use a detailed outline to map where I'm going in my book and also, as I mentioned, to keep from writing myself into a corner. This does, however, allow for some flexibility. Sometimes (fairly often) a surprising turn of events will occur during the writing of a book. In that case, I don't want to be so locked in to the outline that I won't consider making some changes.

-- Posted by JTennant on Thu, Jun 2, 2011, at 7:21 AM

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Jean Tennant has been writing professionally for more than 30 years. Beginning with short stories, newspaper and magazine articles, she eventually branched out to full-length work, with several novels published by Warner Books, Kensington and Silhouette. Now the owner of Shapato Publishing, LLC, in Everly, Iowa, she teaches writers' workshops throughout the Midwest, for which her schedule can be seen at: www.jeantennant.com. Jean lives in Everly with her husband, Grover Reiser, and their dogs, Kirby and Dakota. Favorite quote: "Outside of a dog, man's best friend is a book. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read." Groucho Marx.
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