Outlining a story vs. free writing a story—it’s an ongoing, raging debate. People on either side are fiercely protective of their positions. Free writers (or pantsers, if you will) feel outlines are too restrictive and prevents authors from discovering plot or character gold. Outliners (or planners) think free writing is just asking to get stuck in development hell where you have to rewrite everything because you wrote your character into a corner with no way out. So should you outline your story?
While pantsers do make good points, in my opinion, it’s best to outline your work if you want to unlock its true potential. Here is an explanation of outline advantages and some tips on how to develop one.
Why Outlining Makes Sense
Pantsers say that free writing lets them discover the story they’re trying to tell. While that may be true, free writing can steal something precious from you that you can never recover: time.
You can absolutely come up with gems during a free writing session. However, what happens when the plot hits a dead end? You have to rewrite whole sections of the project or maybe scrap the project altogether. Spending hours generating an 80,000-word manuscript only to have to chuck chunks of it doesn’t sound like a good time to me.
If you outline your story, on the other hand, you work out problems before you start racking up the word count. You’ll get a better idea of the types of characters and incidents you’ll need to move the story forward. So you’ll spend less time brainstorming and more time writing when you finally open that blank Word document.
The Level of Detail Depends on You
Pantsers may dislike outlines because they feel like they must work out every detail before they can start writing. Or maybe they think they’re locked into following an outline once it’s completed. This is not true at all. Your outline can be as simple or detailed as you want it to be. Though, arguably, the more detailed an outline is, the easier your job will be when you write.
Also, you’re not obligated to follow your outline to the bitter end. An outline provides direction, nothing more. Think of an outline as a GPS that helps you recalculate your route each time you take a detour. Feel free to make changes as necessary.
Tips for Developing Your Outline
Choosing to outline your story is a lot like painting a picture. With painting, you create a sketch and then continually add detail with paint until you have a completed masterpiece. You want to approach building an outline in the same way.
Step 1: Jot Down Ideas for the Story
You may have only a premise (e.g. woman crash lands on alien planet), a character (e.g. young boy develops telekinesis), or a setting (e.g. the International Space Station). Even so, write these down. Outlining is the perfect way to develop ideas into a workable piece.
Step 2: Decide What Type of Story You Want to Write
The genre of story dictates the types of scenes you must include and the story’s flow. For example, a romance story needs to hit several well-worn notes (e.g. the meeting, turning point, and moment of crisis) if you want the genre to ring true with your audience. Science fiction will have a different set of story beats, as will horror stories. You can mix genres, but the primary genre directs your story’s main plot.
Step 3: Think About the Ending
Many writers get stuck while figuring out what happens in the story’s middle. To overcome this, think about how you want the story to end. You can then backtrack to figure out what happens in the middle. If you’re writing a mystery, for instance, decide who the murderer is and then determine how the protagonist uncovers the truth. Then you can go back and plant the scenes and clues that lead your character to the big reveal.
Step 4: Flesh Out Your Characters
As you outline your story, think about your characters. Stories are character driven, meaning they follow the character’s arc of change. Your plot and scenes flow better when you really understand your protagonist. Here are a few questions you can ask to learn more about your characters:
- Who is the main protagonist?
- Who are the major and minor antagonists?
- How does the conflict play out in various scenes?
- What is the character’s problem and how does he or she attempt to resolve it?
- Why is the problem important in the first place and how can you express the answer?
- How do minor characters impact the story?
- What is the character like at the beginning of the story versus the end?
It may be helpful to write out character sketches to give you a sense of who the characters are in your story.
Once you know the answers to these questions, your story direction becomes clearer. For instance, maybe your protagonist loves sugary foods but must give up sugar because of health reasons. Unfortunately, he has a highly stressful job and uses sugar as a coping mechanism. If the story follows the character’s struggles to make the necessary diet changes, then your outline should include plenty of scenes of the character attempting to give up sugar, failing, and then finally succeeding.
Step 5: Take It Scene by Scene
Lastly, to increase your outline’s level of detail, determine what happens in each chapter and even each scene. Although this planning seems to take a lot of time, it ultimately makes writing the story easier. You won’t need to constantly stop to figure out what happens in the story. You’ll already know and, thus, can simply write it out. In the long run, the outline saves you time.
Choosing to outline your story can be intimidating at first, especially if you’ve never developed one before. Don’t let that discourage you, though. As you learn to find unexpected material, in the end, an outline can save you so much time and stress. Like anything, it will get easier with each outline you create. Happy writing!