Outlining: How I hate thee

There’s a division among fiction writers: those who outline their projects and those who wing it.

The outliners say they could never organize their plots, sub-plots or character arcs without drawing out the architecture of their story, separate from the narrative.

The non-outliners say their process is more spontaneous, and necessarily so. They need to let the story happen to them, and they consider outlining a tedious chore that results in an uninspiring, paint-by-numbers project.

(I suspect that non-outliners often overstate their freedom from outlining. To be a successful writer, you need—at least—to submit a plot synopsis at some point in the publishing process. And unless you are a certified genius, which few of us are, I don’t think it’s possible to keep all the many details of a 60-100K word story laid out logically in your head).

I consider myself a reluctant outliner. I absolutely abhor it, and I only fall back on outlining when I start losing track of my story, usually around 20-30K words. Even then, I’m resistant to outlining further than I’ve written, a sort of outline-as-you-go technique. I don’t recommend this approach. While it satisfies my need to write unfettered, with a childlike sense of possibility, I’ve blindly hit walls on many occasions because I’m not committed to the way ahead.

There are many outline resources.  Here’s a familiar romance outline:

Boy meets boy

Boy loses boy

Boy gets boy back again


Hero has a problem

Hero tries to fix the problem (usually through three tries)

Hero overcomes the problem

These broad sections of the story coincide with the dramatic structure: Act I, Act II and Act III. Or you can do Act I – V if you want to include falling action and denouement.

The first plot diagram was created by German playwright and novelist Gustav Freytag and has become known as Freytag’s Pyramid.  Here it is in its simplest form (swiped from Wikipedia).

Its a helpful way to visualize the dynamic of rising tension, or stakes.  As novel writing how-to author Jack Bickham puts it: the further along your story goes, the worse shape your hero should be in (paraphrased). A good example is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The hero Uncle Tom, a mid-19th century American slave, gets passed from owner to owner, one worse than the next, and ends up in the hands of super-villain Simon Legree.

For epic fantasy, the standard structural guide is Joseph Campbell’s monomyth or The Hero’s Journey, which is a much more detailed outline.   I found this interesting chart about it at Wikipedia.

There are entire courses on mastering the construction of this kind of story.

So, what do I do with all of these resources? Study them for awhile and hope that some of the information synchs up in my head subconsciously so I hopefully will never have to study them again. I once tried a technique suggested by Beckham: use an index card for each scene of your story indicating:

Story question



I was supposed to tack each card up on a bulletin board in sequential order. Then I got bored with it, and the cards got buried on my desk.

The next morning, my cat had jumped up on the desk, batted everything around and scattered the index cards all over the floor. At least she thought the exercise was a fun idea.

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First draft finished!

Ahead of schedule, I finished the first draft of my novel last night.  It stands at 287 pages, 75K words.  I’m excited to have reached the end, but there’s a sense of sadness that comes with the completion of this writing phase.  No more jotting down fresh ideas for the story on the train, in between meetings at work, or via e-mails to myself.  Permission to write whatever I want has been officially withdrawn.  It’s on to the editing phase where hours (days sometimes) worth of work will be mercilessly annihilated with the stroke of a delete button; weakly-executed through-lines will test my faith; and there’ll be no quick fixes for areas of contrived plotting, character inconsistencies and cringe-worthy passages.

Yes, I’m being a bit of a drama queen about this.  But I’ve been through editing a novel manuscript before (THE REGISTRATION) and it was pretty horrific.  So maybe it’s like rounds of chemotherapy, getting easier each time.  Maybe it’s all in the right attitude.  I will be approaching my edits differently, taking the advice of writing guru Jack Bickham.  I’m setting the manuscript aside for a couple of weeks.  The idea is to let the brain cells regenerate and new ideas emerge.

In the meantime, I’ll be turning back to some of my short fiction projects.  I recently posted IN A WINE PHASE on gayauthors.org, a fantastic on-line writer’s community.  I’m continuing to look for a home for MIKE’S POND.  Maybe I’ll even churn out a new story during this break.

Oh – and why the pic of Robert Verdi?  I love his new show!!

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