Friday, July 19, 2013

Are Outlines Necessary?

Several times in the last few days the discussion of whether or not an outline should be used when writing fiction is even necessary, has come up. I say a resounding Yes.

When I first wrote my original rough draft of Fable I didn't write an outline, but I knew the basic story. After working on it for 4 years, several times the story changed here and there, and we discovered an outline became very useful. 

An outline for fiction usually is different than the one you did in school. It certainly isn't a typical one, but one that can be handy when you need to make sure of not only consistencies, but other issues, such as character building.

There are quite a few categories you can put on your outline and you can wait to write it after your rough draft, if you want. I'll list different ones for you to see what it can help with.

1. Pacing
2. Timeline
3. Character aspects
4. Consistencies - such as type and color of car used 
5. Story-line
6. POV characters per chapter
7. Important scenes
8. Magical qualities
9. Descriptions
10.Character development

That's ten I came up with, and I'm sure you could come up with more, or whatever it is you would need it for. We use a graph for ours and list on the left the day, moon, chapter number, and action. On the top we list the names of the characters. Each box we fill in the rest of the information, but however it works for you to keep track, do it that way. There is no right way when it comes to writing fiction. 

Since we are writing a series, we really need our outlines to stay consistent. Even with the outline, after Fable was published, I found two when reading back through the book and we had to fix them. 

So, what you learned in school is helpful, and can be used for different types of jobs, not just writing. Do you use an outline when you write? How is yours set up?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject. I've heard people say you don't need one for fiction writing, but that's not what I have found. In fact, Lizzie used to tell me to use one, and I didn't listen at the time. I should have, but I learned my lesson and now apply.

I hope everyone has a great weekend! Just FYI, I haven't had the chance to work on another character interview, but I will have one soon. Thanks for everyone's support and I'll see you next week!

Love, Lisa


  1. I completely missed this in my feed, which is a pity, since I do have a great deal to share on the subject (highly opinionated bugger that I am). So, although a few days late, here it is.

    Now of course, there's no One True Way to write. If there were, we'd all be rich and enjoying the same level of success (which in itself could be problematic). Outlines apply to some people and not others. It depends on the type of writer you are as to whether or not you need an outline. It also depends on the project, as I have discovered on a few occasions.

    I've done both. Every project is different, but I'm beginning to see a problem for me with doing outlines.

    Now, I've heard on this topic from a number of writers. Dean Wesley Smith, for example, doesn't outline. He'll keep notes on anything he feels needs to be retained for future chapters, but beyond that will just write. That is a method I will be trying sometime in the near future, as I grow frustrated by outlining (though I'll get to that in a moment, or possibly on another reply as this one is likely to overflow the maximum length of Blogger's comments).

    The first novel I ever wrote to completion, back in September of 2010, written over 45 days, was written entirely by the seat of my pants without even taking notes. No outline, no notes, and it is to the best of my knowledge entirely consistent (though as I go through it again before publication in October, I may discover that not to be the case; who knows?).

    I consider that book to be my best work to this day. Everything else I have written I've outlined. And there's a funny story behind that, too.

    When I began my (super)hero series, Shadows, back in 2011, I had a good idea of what I was going to do with the first episode. I was basing Shadows on a collection of characters I've created over the years role-playing on various Marvel and DC-themed venues.

    The present lead character, Bryan McAllister, was a creation of mine from 2002, my last year in high school. It was the first appearance of creative writing in the school curriculum since its absence in grade 9 (which, as someone who very much enjoyed creative writing, was terribly disappointing). I had been having a great deal of trouble with the assignment until I came up with this idea that became a short story called "Shadows."

    So I knew that I wanted to incorporate a great deal of that original short story, but having recognized a great deal of issues with the original material, I took the characters, the main premise, and redrafted the entire thing. I also incorporated some notes I had written the years since in the many attempts I had made to create something substantial from that short story. A lot of it, I decided, was not the sort of story I wanted to tell, so I tossed most of it.

    I began by re-creating a scene from one of my original re-write attempts. It was, I decided, an eerie scene with which to set the tone for the series. And so I went on and started writing from there. But I outlined each chapter I planned for the book.

    What happened, you might ask?

    Things changed. They got complicated. When I reached the half-way point, I had already incorporated several scenes that weren't in the outline. They just happened. There was no accounting for them. Thankfully, they didn't cause too much trouble. But they would eventually throw a spanner into the works.

    (continued in Part 2)

  2. Sometime about half-way through writing that first episode of Shadows, my friend Ryan Viergutz dared me to publish something online that year. So, I considered finishing Shadows and publishing it. But I eventually decided against it. It wasn't ready and I didn't know if I could knock it into shape or not. So I grabbed something I had started that February (I think it was) and ran with it. I had stopped writing "Crashed" because I wasn't entirely certain what I was doing with it. But that cleared up rather quickly, and I soon had not only all of Crashed outlined, but the two parts following it. Those three books made up "The Legion Rises," which will be available in an omnibus edition next week, I believe.

    But as I discovered with Shadows, tiny changes are a butterfly effect. When it came time to write the second part of The Legion Rises the following year, two small changes resulted in massive expansions to the third part (which is why in the omnibus I have split it into two parts to retain a sort of balance; it made no sense to me to have the third part of a story equal the length of the first two put together). And all of that from outlining!

    But I digress.

    After I had finished with Crashed, a went on to finish Shadows. One of the issues I had taken with The Legion Rises was that I tried to do too many things at once. There were too many characters. And so I took a critical eye to Shadows and noticed one character really had no reason to be. She was in two whole chapters and there was no great consequence of having this character exist. So I made a few minor alterations, bringing one of the other peripheral characters to take that one's place. This changed the outline.

    According to my records, I was working on episode #2 before I had finished with the first one, which is strange for me since I normally write things chronologically. I don't tend to write things out of order. It's never worked for me in the past. But there you have it. I had an outline for it and everything.

    Shadows #1 turned out more or less as the outline had specified, plus a few small alterations and additions. Nothing major. Shadows #2, on the other hand. Well, let's put it this way. I have an outline for it, but only about 3 or 4 of the chapters in the book match the outline. The rest are widely varied from the originally-planned material. Why? Because the story just developed in a different direction. The way the characters wanted it to. (And there's a point I will be beginning with, but I'm having too much fun talking about this to get to it just yet.)

    The first two episodes of Shadows were written over the course of several months. Not much writing going on, to be frank. 54 days of writing for the first one, spread between June of 2011 and March of 2012. The second episode took 36 days of writing, spread between December of 2011 (there was a scene clear in my head that had to be written before I finished #1) and July of 2012. The third episode was interesting. It worked fairly well and matched its final outline almost exactly (there was one chapter I left out). I started it in September of 2012 and finished it in December. 24 days of writing.

    But then came the trouble.

  3. I began working on the fourth episode of the series back in March. I've written so many words for it that it ought to be finished by now. But I have had difficulty reconciling the outline. You see, I'm fairly specific when I outline. I have dates and times and moods and weather. You name it, the specifics are there somewhere. Whys and whyfors.

    Without giving details away, it is the case that event B must follow one week after event A, which occurred at the end of Episode #3. And Bryan McAllister is made aware of something startling almost immediately after event A, but he (for nefarious purposes on my part) must not act on it until event B occurs. But as a character, he would not delay in acting. He's supposed to be a hero, and heroes act.

    So the first change I decided was that maybe event B happens right from the off in chapter 1 and it's already been a week. So I wrote the first few chapters, about 10,000 of the 25,000 words that typically make up one of these episodic novellas, under that assumption. It didn't work. It made no sense for the information to have been kept from him for a whole week. It just didn't.

    So I backpedalled and decided to delay Bryan instead. That worked better, but I was still dissatisfied. Things just didn't quite feel right to me, so I went back and decided again to start a week after the event (apparently having forgotten the problem I had already encountered and was trying to solve; one of the consequences of letting a month or two pass between major writing). So I made those changes and tried to move on and again hit a brick wall (when I get blocked, it's usually due to something like this; something about the story is preventing me from moving forward, and I get discouraged and stop writing for a bit).

    Only recently did I get back on a roll and fix the problem by reverting it to delaying Bryan for a week. And the way I did it, ironically, is the exact same way I worked out previously. I'm not sure why I felt it worked better this time, but I'm over half-way at this point and things are looking good for this to get through (plus a few modifications to the outline that I've decided work better for the story).

    Detailed outlines require all thought and worldbuilding and character development to be complete. There can't be any surprises because they will derail the outline. This has a few side effects, most notedly greatly extended writing time. Because so much effort that is often spent just writing is put into building the outline and then from the outline, the story is written essentially from rote. Frankly, it doesn't always produce great stories. It is, however, fairly important when dealing with mystery and suspense. It's always good to know all of those details. But, that's not always necessary.

    Sparse outlines work differently because they are comprised of generalizations. For this reason, they require the least development and are simply a loose guide to how the book will progress. It's unlikely you'll find yourself straying from this sort of outline.just fine for me. If I have a general idea of what I want to do in each major part of a book (e.g., beginning, middle, end), I have no problem sticking to the outline. But if I have each chapter laid out with 3-4 sentences, things get more difficult because part of me wants to make sure I follow the outline. The critical part. The creative part, the part of me that actually writes, wants to tell a good story, and it knows how to do that. I should just let it.

    (Continued in Part 4)

  4. Thus, I have decided that despite my original plans to continue to outline this series, it's just not going to happen. Everything I have ever written that I have written from scratch has been far more fun to write. And those who have had the opportunity to read several samples of my work usually pick the pantsed book over the outlined book as the better read.

    If it was fun to write and explore and discover while writing, then it will be fun for the readers, too. Outlining doesn't work for me. One of the reasons I chose to outline was to maintain consistency in length, but that's taken care of itself without the outlining. So I will take notes, instead. I always have a good idea of what I want to do with each episode, anyway. I will review those notes from time to time to keep the little housekeeping details in mind so I don't botch anything up, and just write. And I'll have a blast. If I'm having fun, well my readers should, too.

    And that, is the incredibly long-winded way of saying to do what works for you and to try different things if you have trouble. In my case, outlines haven't served me nearly as well as I would have liked. Thus it is time to try something else.

  5. Thanks for your post(s) Ryan, as always, you never cease to amaze me. You are truly a writer! Although it is true that outlines aren't for everyone, I think I didn't explain myself well enough. There are different types of outlines, and you don't have to stick with them, they are truly a guide for you. We wrote the outline for Fable after it was finished. We do write notes, (I have a big marker board in my office) and we list whatever points we want to make sure the book had everything we think it needs. The outline afterward was for our memories since we are writing a series. I have seen several articles where an author is caught in a mistake by a reader because they didn't remember something as simple as a car make or model, or even color.

    It has also helped with the pacing since I don't want to be overboard with action, but I want to make sure the book is not dragging. Each writer will do what works for them, but it helped us to keep consistent. Some people don't have a great memory like you. I tend to have a great memory, but my sister's is not quite as good since she has such a busy life.

    I'm not saying "you" specifically should have an outline, the post was primarily for those that should consider it and a suggestion of how to set it up. It might work for some, and maybe not for others.

    I know quite a few writers that need it for different reasons. Take my friend that I am helping to learn creative writing and critiques. She needs it to help her set up her book in the direction she want the book to go in. Some people just need to see the big picture and can move around scenes as it works for them. I think we need to encourage writers to use this tool when it's necessary.

    Thanks again for your post!