Your story seems to be falling apart, right before your eyes. The characters are shallow, the plot is going nowhere and has tons of holes, and your setting doesn’t work.
“Why is this happening?” You may think. “What could I have done to prevent this?”
Well, did you outline your novel?
Inevitably, for some writers, the answer to that question will be “no.” But today, I’m going to show you why an outline can be used to help your story stay alive, even if you write by the seat of your pants.
What Exactly Is An Outline Though?
What is an outline? Well, it can quite honestly be different things for different people.
But I would define an outline as a plan for the drafting (or writing) stage of your novel.
There are several different methods of outlining, a few of which I will discuss more in-depth in a companion article to come.
So what do I mean by an outline? Am I talking about a scene list? Scene lists are where you list off every single scene in your book. This can be done with scene cards as YouTuber Abbie Emmons does. This can also just be a simple bullet point list. But a scene list alone is not what I would say an outline is.
What about story structure or The Three Act Method? This is where you write out each point in the three-point story structure. This can give you an amazing idea of the structure of your story and it can help you plan out the plot of your story.
But even this alone is not an outline to its fullest potential.
Is an outline just pure brainstorming? You just brainstorm what happens in your story, and what your characters will be like?
Again, this is not what an outline could be to its fullest potential.
I believe an outline can be combination of all three of these things in many different ways.
Redefining the Outline
An outline is your story structure, your scene list, and brainstorming all at once (with a few nuances and exceptions).
This can be manifested in several different ways. There’s the Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson, the Agenda Method as told by John Fox, and many more ways of outlining.
In an outline, you must do brainstorming, you must work out your plot through your story structure. You also have to have an idea of what your characters will look and act like, what they will struggle with, and what they desire.
Depending on how nitty-gritty you want to get (again, this varies depending on the writer) you can do in-depth scene lists. Planning out the structure of your story is a scene list, but not one that is super in-depth.
But all of these things form into a beautiful outline that helps you get an idea of where your story is going.
In an outline of what I’m speaking, maybe you’d first brainstorm your plot, conflict, and characters. Maybe you would do this with a friend so you would have a sounding board to bounce ideas off of.
Then, maybe you’d flesh out your plot to where it covers all the points in the three act structure. You’d list what happens in your plot for each point.
After that, you may say, “I need to develop my characters more,” so you work on fleshing out your characters and their arcs, and plan how they will grow and change throughout the story.
Along with this, you can start to develop your themes that will be weaved throughout the story, outlining what themes you would like to show, and how they will be shown through your characters.
Finally, if you decided you would like a more in-depth scene list to know where you are going, that can be done. Whether it’s more structured (e.g. with scene cards) or in bullet points, a scene list can be very beneficial during the drafting stage.
How is this different from other outlining methods? Most methods focus on plot, and occasionally on characters.
But by outlining your plot, your characters, your theme, and your scenes, you will have a well rounded outline that prepares you for the drafting stage of your novel. You will have a better idea of what exactly will happen in your novel before it even happens.
“Oh, I Don’t Usually Outline.”
But why outline? What’s the point of going through all that work? Depending on the writer, outlines can take months and months.
But when you talk to a lot of new writers or pantsers, and you ask about an outline, they will tell you, “Oh, I don’t usually outline.”
I remember I was talking to one writer friend I have, and she asked how far along in my story I was. I said, “Right now I’m working on outlining my story.”
She smiled and said, “Oh, I never really do an outline.” Right before she said that though, she mentioned how she was having a hard time with writer’s block and being motivated.
And that brings us to reason number one why you should try to outline your novel before you draft it.
1. Outlining Your Novel Gives You Motivation and Stops Writer’s Block
When you outline your novel, and you have a good idea of where you are going before you draft, you will no longer struggle with writer’s block and motivation while drafting.
Why? Because you already know where you are going before you even start writing your first draft.
Having an outline gives you the plans you need so when you draft, you know what to write.
It also gives you motivation to write because you have no excuse not to.
You cannot say, “I have writer’s block,” or “I don’t know what to do next,” because an outline solves those problems.
2. In an Outline You Get Rid Of Plot Holes and Gain a Better Story Premise
One reason stories often fall apart is primarily that the premise or the idea of the story was flawed in the first place.
When we form the very main idea of the premise, we often do not create an outline to flesh it out, and therefore, we miss all kinds of plot holes that originated in the idea of the story.
Plot holes, or problems with the story and plot as a whole, are easier to spot ahead of time. They are easier to catch before you take the time to write thousands of words in a draft.
An outline makes you stop, think, and look at your story so you can address the flaws within your story.
I remember writing this novella that was about 35,000 words long in total. But about 22, 000 words in, I realized the plot had a ton of problems! All of those problems could have been avoided if I had taken the time to write an outline before, and not just rush in and pants off the story.
In my story, not only was the plot disconnected, my characters fell flat.
3. An Outline Helps You Grow Your Characters Ahead of Time
This brings us to our third point. An outline can help your characters be better developed before they even enter into your story.
An outline is more than just brainstorming, scene lists, and a story structure template like I mentioned above.
It also includes the careful development of your characters. It involves taking the time to figure out what your character arcs are for your characters, what they desire, and what lie they’re believing.
In an outline, you can also start to brainstorm (there’s that aspect of the outline being used!) what your character’s personalities will be.
By outlining your characters ahead of time, they will be able to better engage your readers in your draft.
Not only that, but you can also have a better idea of what the themes will be throughout your story because of your characters being outlined.
4. An Outline Helps You to Have a Better Idea of Your Themes Ahead of Time.
By outlining your plot and your characters ahead of time, you have a better idea of what your themes will be throughout your story.
If we take the time to outline our characters and their struggles, we begin to see what themes will flow from our story.
Not only that, but you can outline your themes as well. This can’t be done too rigidly, however, because themes do tend to flow naturally as you write your first draft.
But you can get a general idea of what your themes will look like throughout your story. How exactly can you do this, however? Unfortunately I cannot go through exactly how to outline theme in this article—theme is very complex—but the Christian website, StoryEmbers.org, has excellent articles on theme!
This article by Story Embers goes through using theme to outline your novel. I definitely recommend it if you’d like to outline your themes better.
But again, by outlining your novel before drafting, you won’t have to worry about your themes, because when you create a rich, deep outline, your theme will be included in that, even if you don’t rigidly outline your theme.
The Case For Outlining
As shown by these few four points, outlining has many benefits. While most writers don’t outline, it has many benefits. For some writers, when they don’t outline, their novel may fall apart during the drafting stage, resulting in the death of the story, or extensive editing.
Outlining is a good step to take for the good of your brain, and your story.
But what about the pantsers? What about the free spirits?
Believe it or not, I am very much pantser-minded. When I started my first story with an outline, my brain started to fry. I started a small snippet series just to pants something off, so my sanity wouldn’t be lost.
After outlining, however, my story became so much more clear. And I was so much more excited to write it!
Pantsers, I understand how your mind works. It’s almost constricting to create an outline. But I say to you, try it. After outlining my first full length novel, it was freeing during the drafting stage. I knew that plot holes were mostly taken care of, and that editing afterwards (not my most favorite stage) would be made easier.
I didn’t have to worry about my story falling apart because I had a plan. This plan was actionable, I could do it and feel like my story was secure. I was more motivated and didn’t get writer’s block as easily.
And now, I think I’m a combination of a pantser and a plotter. Sort of a, plantser if you will.
But, I realize, it’s still challenging for pantsers to get started and keep outlining. Thankfully, there are many resources to help with outlining, and to make the outlining process easier.
Three Resources To Help Pantsers Outline
1. Other Writers
Well first, let me just say, other writers are lifesavers for so many reasons. They encourage you through the hard parts of writing, but in this case, a fellow writer helped me through the process of outlining.
She walked me through it, step-by-step, and looked over my outline each time I tweaked it.
Now, while I draft my novel, I know exactly where I’m going. I know how my characters should respond, so their arcs even out, and I know what themes are flowing through the story.
Find plotters to help you, it will save your life, and you may just make many new friends in the process!
For you dear pantsers, there are also many worksheets.
K.M. Weiland has an amazing workbook for outlining that goes along with the book she has written about outlining your novel. She also gives a review of a writing planner called the WriteMind Planner on her blog.
There are many worksheets on the internet as well.
These can help you organize your outline on paper, and to get the big idea of your story. They can guide you step by step through this process.
Think of worksheets like a writing prompt that will help you get past writer’s block. . . except during the outlining stage.
But when you print off worksheets, make sure that you organize well, because having a lot of different worksheets (and pieces of paper so you had more space to write!) can easily get disorganized and overwhelming.
But yet another resource available for panters is writing and outlining computer software.
Again, outlining expert K.M. Weiland has an Outlining Your Novel Software.
There’s Scrivener—which is not necessarily just for outlining, but for writing too—Plottr, and Dabble as well.
Software combines the awesomeness of worksheets and word editors into one. Like worksheets, software can guide you step by step through each part of the outlining process.
Software can help you organize your work much better as well. Instead of having lots of worksheets sporadically placed throughout your room or desk, a software enables you to organize your outline and draft easily.
Not to mention, with a search bar you can find what you need with a click of a button.
Of course, these methods aren’t for everyone, but all of these are there to help us pantsers get through the outlining stage of our story.
Your Next Steps
I pray that this article will motivate you to create an outline (even you pantsers!) so that your story will be well-crafted. I hope that this article proves a point, but not only that, helps you to craft a better story.
Pantsers, if you’re still having trouble, fear not! Below I have a trouble-shooting guide for you, that will help your outline along (and there may be a few helpful tips for plotters as well!)
With an outline, your next novel will be better than ever before, so go and write, writer!