I view outlines as the dry bones of a book or article.

The inner structure of a story, invisible and yet affecting the shape of the final work. Of course, sometimes these skeletons are larger and more detailed than others. And sometimes major bones are missing. When I sat down to outline this article, the finished product was messy and splintered. Talk of irony…how do you outline an article about outlining? But I digress.

At the very outset, let me say that every writer has their own views on the usefulness and manner of outlining. Some people don’t outline at all. Personally, I like to outline almost everything I write. And I think that at least a basic outline is of great help to any writer skeletonsto help keep the shape of your story as you flesh it out (pun partly intended). The bones help you keep in mind what you are aiming for, and may cut down on major rewriting later on. Having said that, I’m sure there are many different styles of outlining and an almost unimaginable depth you can go, so I’m going to simply focus on what has worked for me.

Outlining is…well, outlining.

For me, it also involves a number of brief synopses laying out a rough draft of what happens and in what order from the beginning of the story to the end. At the same time, these bones need to be flexible to change at any stage. They aren’t rules, they are more like…guidelines. My own outlines change multiple times, and the longer the work, the more often I tend to rearrange parts of the skeleton.

My first outlines, no matter what I’m working on, ends up very sketchy. It involves a lot of thinking, mumbling to myself, writing contradictory points, and backspacing. Basically, I get a rough idea of the whole story or article. There are normally minor, or even major, details that need to be figured out, but the basic pieces are in place. Here’s an example of what I could have written for a book of my own:

Thaniel has dream…introducing prophecy. Runs message to palace…Code 5. Meets Jagger. Given quest by king. Assassination attempt…

I’m sure my first outline wasn’t even that concise, but it’s the basic idea of how the bones start falling in place. Fragments, stray phrases, uncertain grammar, anything goes.

“Outlining like this helps keep the story consistent, so what the character wants at the end is the same thing he wanted at the beginning.”

It also gives the story structure, so you can make sure the beginning doesn’t drag on for too long, the middle is interesting, the climax strong, and the end brief…basically that the skeleton’s parts are all in proper proportions to the rest of its body.

For articles, like this one, a brief outline is about as far as I go. Example:

  • Introduction: Bone theme; need for outline…each writer has their own technique
  • What outlining is
  • First/rough outlines (give example)

Just so you know, while that outline is good for the first part of this article, it is not what I wrote when I actually was outlining. As I mentioned before, I had some trouble this time, so my outline was much more rambling… even having alternative bones in a few places. And the outline really is just guidelines. I’m using it to help me with the order and structure of this article, but I’m changing and rearranging parts as I go as well.

My skeleton for short stories depends. Sometimes I may write a brief paragraph of what happens in the story and call it good. Other times, I might write a detailed outline, with some parts sketchy and some parts more detailed. But both articles and stories are short enough that the lack on an outline, at least a typed out one, probably wouldn’t be too big of a deal (though I find them very helpful and normally always have some sort of outline in my head).

It is with books that outlines really come into their own. 

Normally, I start with a rough outline, like the one I mentioned above, or maybe with a synopsis a few paragraphs long.

Quite often it has a number of vague comments like, ‘Thaniel and the army spend the winter at the pass…maybe an attack; have rangers somewhere,’ or ‘climax…enter Voland, somehow get left behind, travel back…perhaps an attack. Rest at outpost; maybe see mother’s grave.’ As you can see, outlines like this have the basic ‘what happens’ of the story but not always all the muscles of ‘how it happens’.

I normally have separate outlines for subplots…well, I call them outlines, but they are written in a choppy paragraph style most of the time.

I don’t normally have my outlines written nicely with Roman numerals and numbers. Later, I’ll add the subplots to the main outline but this way I can either see each subplot in its entirety, or in its relation to the rest of the story.

And from there, it’s just the long, or maybe quick, work of adding the rest of the bones, connecting them with muscle and…you get the picture. Figuring out the whys and hows and wheres of the different events in the story can be challenging, but it’s so worth it when you actually sit down to write. I like to plan everything out until I know how the book will proceed and the major causes and effects. There may be a few points that are still under consideration, but the gist of it is in black and white (or perhaps multi-colored and white…sometimes I give each different subplot its own color).

Finally, I settle down and write a chapter outline.

This is where things finally start pulling together as I think through the specifics of what will be happening and how long it will take. I figure out more details, though some of the ‘outlines’ are still pretty sketchy, such as: Reach Erathrane woods; Jagger determined to go with Thaniel; they figure out the first riddle. Or Find the Seat of Justice, get the map, then travel through the woods and reach the swamp.

Others are more detailed, depending on how much I know about the chapter or if I have ideas about a conversation. But still, as you can see, the basic arc of each chapter is given even if I haven’t planned out the conversations or the exact details of the trek through the forest.

Now you could start writing your book with just that, but I like to take it one step further.

I expand each chapter outline one last time…but only just before I write it and just after I’ve written the last chapter. Sometimes I write more detailed outlines for the whole book at one time, but I prefer writing my most detailed outline only when I’m about to write the chapter itself, so I can include any changes I’ve made so far. And finally, my outline or synopsis looks something like this:

Being chased; reach Erathrane but horses won’t enter so they take saddle bags and run. Jagger stays with Thaniel; they rest and talk. Jagger says he’s staying because Uncle told him to help. Thaniel finally relents. They look at riddle, figure it out, and set off again through the forest.

As you can see, grammar tends to take second place when I write an outline.

I find outlines very helpful when I write, both so I don’t forget about a twist that I figured out earlier, and so I know what I’m supposed to be writing when I sit down. The story’s skeleton helps cut down on the time I spend staring vacantly at a blank screen or piece of paper because I at least know the basic idea of what I am going to write.

But in the end, it is really up to you. Each writer is different, so figure out how much outlining and what kind of skeleton works for you. And remember, outlining is a means to an end…it’s a tool to help us write, so don’t get so enraptured in forming the perfect bones that you neglect the rest of the story.