An outline is a summary of the story you are going to write. It can be brief, with just the main plot points and important characters listed, or very detailed. Some people use outlines and some do not, and I think the important thing is to do what works best for you. That said, some of us don’t know what works best until we try several methods for ourselves.
In this post, I want to use the analogy I mentioned last week, comparing walking in my yard to writing a novel, in order to help explain the pros and cons of outlining.
The first picture shows my novel idea hiding in the undergrowth at the edge of my yard. It’s a beautiful but undeveloped story, surrounded by a tangle of raspberry buses, sassafras trees, scrub oaks, and plain old weeds.
To see it clearly I need to get closer, but every time I make a move, the story scuttles away. I’d like for it to head down the road, giving me an easy route to follow, but my story has its own ideas.
I have a choice of racing blindly through the woods in the general direction I last saw it moving, or creeping up on the story a few steps at a time. The first method (no outline) is more exciting, and will lead me down paths I don’t anticipate. I may end up with a great first draft, but I’ll probably need to do some major revisions to get the scenes to tie together smoothly. There’ll be some dead ends to clear up or get rid of, unforeseen obstacles to overcome, and some characters may get lost along the way since I haven’t taken time to think out their purpose in the story. The final result may be worth it, but I won’t know until I reach the end, wherever that may be.
By taking my time and thinking ahead (outlining), I feel sure I can guide the story towards an open spot I know is further inside the woods. I can get to know the characters better, and add in scenes that clarify what’s going on as I journey towards the climax I anticipate. I can leave clues (foreshadowing) to guide others along the route I’m following, leading to a satisfying resolution of the plot.
By loosely following my plan, I can keep the story from straying too far from where I think it should go. If I stumble onto a different, more interesting path along the way, I can always change my mind about where the story should end up and how I want to get there. But at least I always have a general idea of where I’m headed.
An outline should simply be a guide to help us reach our ultimate destination.
Do you prepare an outline before you start writing your stories, or simply follow wherever they lead? What type of outline do you think is most useful–basic, detailed, a timeline, storyboard, notecards, or what?