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Outlining – What Works For Me

August 6, 2011

The other day my online writing group had an “outlining party.” As far as parties go, outlining parties rank pretty low on the fun-o-meter, but it was sure as hell useful. It got my butt into gear to actually put my plot down on paper in chronological format. (I’ve found that the main benefit of writing groups is “getting collective butts into gear to do something”.)

If I don’t outline, my plot gets wildly off track. That’s what happened when the first draft of The Gray Regions – my warrior hero protaganist ended up a pacifist scholar. That screwed my ending right there.
That said, I don’t really have a good method for outlining. My usual technique has two parts.

The first part is some sort of binary tree. I come up with a short phrase to describe the whole book, focusing on theme more than specific events:

Boy’s journey of changing himself and his world

Then I split it in half, and come up with a short phrase to describe each of the halves:

Part 1. Boy’s self-discovery
Part 2. Boy’s efforts against the war

I split those parts in half:

Part 1. Boy’s self-discovery
a. Boy’s journey to the Gray Regions
b. Boy becomes scholar for the Gray Regions
Part 2. Boy’s efforts against the war
a. War is brewing
b. Boy moves against king

and so on, and so forth, until I feel I’ve gone far enough.

Each description is vague and is intended to just be a rough, loose summary of the overall feel of the parts of the book. I see it as being like an artist’s base sketch of ovals and lines before drawing a portrait. It gives me an idea of the structure of the novel.

The second part of my process is to write up all of the chapters and the scenes contained therein. This way isn’t all that unique or interesting (this site calls it the Signpost method). But it’s part of my process so I’ll include it.

Chapter Eight:

  • Jest returns with a party from The Ella.
  • Jest explains to the captain what has occurred.
  • He is punished, but not as badly as he should be.
  • He finds Shan again.
  • Jest is confined to training.
  • His master is Gedo, who tells him how to deal with people.

It’s not a very elegant way to do it, but it’s worked for me so far.

I decided to bring this up because, well, the outlining party didn’t get off to a great start. A few of the other attendees were pretty frustrated from the beginning. Some were attempting the snowflake method, some were looking at going with the flow chart route, but regardless of the technique, most found themselves staring blankly at an empty page. So I explained my way of approaching it, and it was as though I’d revealed some huge secret about life, like when you realize that the aluminimum foil box has folding flaps to hold the roll in place. Apparently my binary tree is actually pretty useful. My writing group is now calling it “the Lynx method” (Lynx is my username) but it’s nothing special, and if there’s a more official name for it I’d like to know it.

Though my way works for me, I’m always looking for new ways of doing things. I’ve read a lot about the snowflake method, but it’s not my style – my brain just doesn’t work that way. I haven’t tried the flow chart method but, again, not my thing. If I find a new outlining technique that totally changes my life, you’ll be the first to know.

But is outlining necessary?

For me, absolutely. Like I said, if I don’t keep an outline, my plot goes all over the place. Other people find outlines to be stifling. Personally, I think that’s a matter of how much detail you put into your outline. I like to leave my outlines loose enough that I have room for creativity. Sure, I have to hit all of the plot points in my outline, but how I go about that is up to me. You don’t have to specify every moment in the book, or even every scene. A vague outline can be just a couple of bullet points highlighting the major plot points of your novel. In my experience, having something to guide me has been a great help. Though as with everything, some of us need more guidance than others. Whatever works for you is what you need to do.


From → General Advice

  1. Kira permalink

    Great entry n_n I know outlining is a thing that everyone does differently, it seems, so it was cool reading your take on it. And yes, the Lynx Method is pretty fantastic.
    I know a lot of people find outlining constricting, and I’d probably agree with them, but outlining is always the second step for me– the first being writing out literally everything that happens in the story in a really jumbled up and condensed shorthand way. The outline is just how I organise it. So it’s less of a plan to follow, and more of the organisation of the plot which I planlessly developed.
    Like I said, though, everyone outlines differently– but I’m starting to realise how much easier it can make the actual writing process.

    • I sort of did that with Exemplary, actually. I had so many plot points that I wanted to hit but no idea how to organize them, so before I even started outlining, I wrote up this big huge paragraph just explaining the entire plot of the book. That’s not my normal style. I suppose, though, that while different outlining methods vary from writer to writer, they also vary from project to project, depending on what each project needs.

      Outlining does help a lot though. Especially for a NaNoWriMo project, which is where I first actually tried out a detailed outline. It saved me, and I think it’s the reason I actually won last year. Being stuck in a plot during NaNo can totally screw you. So now I’m trying to apply it to my other projects.

  2. Bowties! permalink



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