First of all, let me make one thing clear: I hate outlining. When I outline, I have a very hard time getting my creative juices flowing. I want to be knocking out pages, writing dialogue, creating colorful descriptions. It’s like cleaning my house before a party when I really want to be drinking wine and laughing with my friends.
Is outlining even necessary? I have a writer friend who doesn’t believe in it. He has a theme in mind, a main character, and a few other elements. Then he just starts writing and sees where it leads. That method seems to work for him. His books are good.
But it doesn’t work for me. While the writing initially feels good, I inevitably run into brick walls where I feel lost without a map. I have no idea which way to go.
So it’s back to the outline for me.
After outlining many screenplays and three books, I’ve come up with a few tips I’d like to share. Hopefully, they’ll help you write a better outline, and in turn, a better book.
- Drill down into your story. Start with the big picture. Where does the story start? Where will it end? What are the three or four major turning points? Write those first before you get into the details.
- Stay focused on your theme. It should resonate in ever chapter and every scene. If it doesn’t, consider cutting or changing that section.
- Break your outline down on paper, on your computer screen, or even on PostIt Notes. I usually break mine down by chapters and scenes. These change over the course of writing. The outline helps me to keep track.
- Make sure each section connects with the one before it and after it. Sometimes I write a favorite scene, but when I look at the outline, I realize it interrupts the flow of the story. I either have to cut it or move it elsewhere.
- As you write each section, give it some “juice.” Especially when you’re on your second or third draft of your book, add a little dialogue and spruce up the descriptions in your outline. It will help connect you with the magic of your story.
- Read over your outline many times. Look for the holes in it. Look for strained connections from one scene to the next. Do important characters disappear for lengthy periods? Does the story get bogged down? This is where number 5 will help.
- Have other people read it too.
- Whenever you feel stuck in your book, go back and write a new outline.
- When you’re finished with your first draft, read it and write yet another outline from it.
- When you’ve finished the second and third draft, outline again.
- And again, and again. Your book should, must, will evolve as you discover the characters and the story. If you keep re-outlining, you’ll have a better sense of the story arc.
Outlines are the annoying friend you can’t live without. Treat them with kindness and respect and they’ll pay you back many times over.