Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Outline: A Weapon in the War on Writer's Block

Today we turn over our regularly scheduled Tuesday craft post to Donna Carrick, of Carrick Publishing, for a guest post on the art of outlining. Donna has an additional article about it on her web site. Don't miss it!

The Outline
A Weapon in the War Against Writers Block

by Donna Carrick
Carrick Publishing

When it comes to story outlines, there seem to be as many opinions as there are authors.

Some will not begin a novel until they’ve constructed a voluminous “story-tree”. Others prefer to draw a loose arc, allowing for deviations as the tale unfolds.

Still others balk at preparing even a simple set of bullet-points, believing the outline enforces perimeters that restrict the natural creative flow.

I’ve had success using several different methods, leading me to believe there are no rules, only the individual needs of each writer and each story. The level of detail required in an outline will be in direct correlation to the complexity of the novel.

When I wrote The Noon God, words flowed organically from my mind to the keyboard in a series of sittings. I knew the story in entirety before I began. Even though I didn’t scribble a single word in preparation, I’d spent the better part of two years becoming familiar with my characters, their family ties and their conflicts.

By the time I started writing, an outline would have been redundant. The Noon God was already fully constructed. Not once did I deviate from the original story line.

Gold And Fishes was an entirely different matter. Because of the nature of the story and the sensitivity of the subject matter (almost 300,000 lost in the Southeast Asia Boxing Day tsunami of 2004) it was imperative to remain true to the events of that disaster. To ask less of myself would have been to disrespect the very real victims and their families.

My outline for Gold And Fishes was detailed and complex. It began with a page-by-page timeline drawn from daily news reports. Each page represented a day’s news coverage, handwritten in bullet points with references to each source. Then, at the bottom of each page, I outlined my fictional account of aid worker Ayla Harris’s struggle to find her missing brother-in-law while assisting with hospital duties and body recovery in Banda Aceh.

Gold And Fishes was a labour of love. The research involved in writing the novel spanned 6 months. Each day I spent from 1-3 hours perusing world-wide on-line journals and newspapers, constructing story details within a global catastrophe of monumental magnitude.

This was preliminary work, before I had written a single word.

For The First Excellence I used a combination approach to outlining — drawing on both of my previous methods. Originally titled Fa-ling’s Map, the story arc was formed organically in my mind long before I began to write. It first came to me while we were in China in 2003 and fermented for years until I set out to write it in 2008.

By the time I’d finished in 2009, The First Excellence was more than the sum of its intended parts. What started out as a tribute to our adopted daughter became a complex tale of murder, kidnapping, political intrigue and suspense.

However, none of this growth would have been possible without an outline. I loved my original organic story idea, but it could not carry me, a crime writer, to the final page. So I set out to draw an arc and a chapter outline, loosely mapped and open to many deviations, most of which caught me by surprise when my characters presented them to me.

I wrote an outline, but didn’t follow it with any great rigor. Still, it offered a sense of story development upon which I could hang my research. Without it, the novel would have collapsed.

What now? My current ‘work in progress’ is the Fa-ling sequel to The First Excellence. It involves a high degree of complexity and multiple story lines. In order to ensure all pieces will come together, I’ve created a story-board. Across the top of the page I’ve listed the various story lines. Under each header I’ve jotted the developments that are to occur within each line.

The scenes were initially jotted onto sticky notes, so I could easily change the sequence. This allowed me to place ‘action’ scenes at regular intervals and ensure events followed a believable chronology.

Without a story-board to lead me through the labyrinth of plot twists, there would be no hope of crafting this into a novel.

Once the board was complete, I converted it into a chapter outline. Throughout the writing process, I am deviating from the outline and have even dropped one story line because it didn’t fit with the flow.

In my experience, the writing process can be compared to cooking a gourmet meal. The outline is much like preparing the individual ingredients in advance. Doing so reduces the cooking time and effort that will be needed. Used correctly, the preliminary work can greatly enhance the finished product.

Does preparing an outline hinder the organic flow of the story? In my opinion, a strong outline should be considered part of the creative process. Rather than hinder the flow, it can strengthen it and lend consistency to the overall work.

Is an outline always necessary?

No. In less complex stories, an outline might be redundant, as it was for me with my first novel.

As the complexity of a story increases, so does the need for a well-crafted outline.

Without an outline, many stories will not make it to the finish line.

Thanks, Donna!

So, what do you think? Do you outline? Sort of outline? Pants it? Complicate it? Jump in and share your tips, and one of you will win a copy of Dash & Lily's Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan.

Happy plotting!

Martina & Cam


  1. Great advice Donna! I usually have a point form outline that I work from, but it has been known to change as I get further into the story.

  2. Great advice Donna. I outlined my first manuscript as I went. But my new one, I'm trying outlining on index cards. I'll see if it helps me complete my project quicker and not go way overboard on word count.

    That's awesome you adopted a child BTW. I'm guessing she's from China. We adopted from China in 1998.

  3. I always try to do some kind of an outline before I write as I like to have an idea of where I'm going. Whether or not I stick to it is another thing altogether!

    Sometimes, my outlines are as simple as a bulleted list of important events in the story. Sometimes, they have so much detail, I dub them my first draft. Sometimes, they start out as one and morph into the other!

  4. I always outline! It is just how my brain operates. I sit down and come up with the basics--inciting incident, 3 major plot turns, dark moment, climax, and resolution and then fill it, trying to come up with 40-60 plot points total, filling in the spaces. I put as much information here as I can think of, character arc and scene goals, etc, so that my outline becomes 20-30 pages. Then I open this document each day and work from the next scene listed. I hardly ever deviate from that outline, but it does take almost a month sometimes to create it to begin with :-)

  5. It's great to read about the process of other writers.

    I've always been more of a pantser when it comes to starting a new novel. I've tried starting with an outline, but I rarely follow it. (This is probably why I have a great deal of untangling to do after my first draft is finished.)

  6. I think it depends on the book. Well-I never really outlined, and then I took an online class by Holly Lisle, to revive a failed book. We had to write a detailed scene by scene summary. It taught me a lot about how to construct a scene, but in the end, I felt like a lot of the juice that motivated me to want to write the book was lost--wrung out. I put that book aside for a while. This time, I'm going to do a loose outline, with room to breathe, so at least I know there's a workable structure. If I need to get more detailed, I will--but for me, it's important to leave lots of breathing room.

  7. Great tips! I always have to write out a detailed outline before starting and then tweak it as I go along. I've started using Scrivener and have found that to be a HUGE help for outlining & storyboarding!

  8. I can really see why you outlined that second novel! Whew, complex. :)

    I dislike writing detailed outlines, but I am NOT a pantser. I roughly outline, and also have a character name/description document and a calendar so I can keep track of what happened on which days. I like having the flexibility of finding those "happy surprises" as I write, and adding in details and tangents as I go--things I never could've thought up while outlining. :)

  9. Excellent post. I tried to be a Pantser just for fun in NaNoWriMo and failed miserable. I am a Plotter. My outline is my road map. It changes and evolves as the story grows, so I don't think its a hindrance to "organic flow" at all. But, without that outline, I can't refer to the key points in the story. If I get lost, I'd have to sift through pages to find my way. The outline spares me that time.

  10. this was great advice that came at a great time! I am just getting back into the writing scene and am struggling to develop my story fully, so I know I'll be doing this to get further! thanks!

  11. I'm a seat of the pants writer. I can't think ahead to what's going to happen next. My characters tell me if they want to jump into battle, want to kill each other. And sometimes I listen.
    I'm a pantser, and I'm perfectly fine that way.
    In my family, we don't make gourmet meals. We throw things into the pot and hope it comes out good, and then we never make it again because we can't remember the exact recipe. (That wasn't really a metaphor, just the truth.)
    Maybe I won't make it to the finish line, maybe I will, but it's been fun while it lasted.

    PS: Sticky notes rule!

  12. I need me some outlines! I have to keep it straight and working

  13. My thanks to Martina and Cam for running my guest post today, and thanks to each of you as well for your comments!

    Natalie, I wonder how sismilar our Chinese adoption experiences were? We have friends who adopted in the late 90's and again with us in 2003, and they couldn't believe how much China had changed, especially Beijing. I suspect even now Alex and I might not recognize it.

    The First Excellence covers our experience in adopting. That's the backdrop for the international thriller.

    Whatever your plotting method, whether you outline or "pants", my best wishes for success to one and all!

  14. I love that you say there are no rules. I have always felt that way, too. I consider myself a panster, for the most part, but I think with each project comes a different process. Great post, Donna! Thank you for the awesome tips.

  15. I'm an outliner. For my WIP, I listed each scene and included bullet points to briefly describe what happens in the scene and why it's important. Since this is my first time writing a novel, outlining has allowed me to have a good handle on the various story lines.

  16. I've encountered this question a lot and, for me, the answer is neither. I'm a binge-writer. For me, neither do I purposely outline nor do I sit and fly by the seat of my pants, either. I allow the story to build up in my head, at it's own pace, building and reworking threads until it reaches a moment where I cannot contain it and then I spill it onto the page in a great rush. I may not write for months, but I'm still creating, even if I don't follow either of the traditional methods, exactly. In a way, I suppose it's really a combination of both processes.

  17. I prefer to outline first (though I'm a snowflaker by design), but I also allow for panstering (to a certain extent) as I write the first draft.

    I outline like Ghenet, but I also include the emotional changes that take place in each scene.

  18. Thanks again to Children's Publishing hosts Martina and Cam for running my piece on the outline. And thanks to everyone for visiting and commenting! Best regards and happy writing. Donna


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