I Used to Hate Outlining

Back in school, I hated when English teachers wanted me to outline an essay before I wrote it. My method of writing—for fiction, essays or whatever—was to write and revise and move stuff around and re-write until I was done—a process called “organic” writing.
So I’d write my essay, then create the outline.
Though I scored good marks, I ended up with poor writing habits that have taken me 20 years to realize even with evidence staring me in the face:

  • Dozens of short stories that took many, many revisions to fix plot issues and figure out what they were about
  • About the same number of abandoned stories and story fragments
  • A 250,000 word novel that wanders across too many character and too many subplots
  • Four dynamite novel openings that die out because I didn’t know where they were going

Ten years after the last novel attempt, I decided it was time to try again, but I needed to avoid the mistakes of the past and embrace outlining to make sure I did not waste months or years on endless drafts and revisions.

And it worked.

In this two-part post, I’ll cover the importance of outlining and a method I have found that helped me organize a story before I began the first draft.

First Outline

Don’t Think About It
The first thing to do when outlining your novel is to write down everything you have in mind—scenes, beats, characters, settings. Even if you don’t know where an idea would fit, don’t censor yourself—your creative mind can be a lot cleverer than your rationale mind is willing to admit. For example:

  • You have this image of a brutal fight on a subway, but aren’t sure who’s fighting or why. That’s fine. Add it in. If you can’t figure it out, remove it later.
  • A lot of set up is needed before your villain can take action, but you can’t just have him walk-on halfway through the story. So, you need a scene or two with the villain “on stage” even if you don’t know what he’s doing. To do this, simply add “Villain Scene One” and “Villain Scene Two” in the outline. Later, when you’ve figured out what the villain might be doing before hatching his plot, add those details.
  • “Laurie” is a late-30’s divorcee and gifted detective. She’s torn between using her gifts to investigate crimes (driven by the unsolved murder of her mother), and wanting to start a family since she feels the window to have children is closing. She’s smart, funny, a little insecure and swears too much. But you don’t know what role she plays. No problem—sprinkle in scene titles “Laurie Arrives at Crime Scene” and “Laurie Talks to Ex-Husband” and see if they connect to anything else. If it turns out the story has no role for Laurie, keep her around for another story.

And, now that these three ideas are written down, you might have Laurie be the one who tracks down and fights the villain on the subway in the opening chapter. All three problems solved!


Where and how you capture this information is very important. For your first outline, use a grid with scenes as rows and columns titled:

  • Brief scene title
  • Character
    • Who is the point of view character
    • Their mood and how it will be shown
    • Where they are in their arc
  • Plot
    • What happens
    • Chekov’s gun – Being set or going off
    • Foreshadowing or pay off
  • Setting:
    • Time since previous scene
    • Time of day
    • Location and sense details
  • Notes

For example:

Scene POV & Mood Plot Time Passed Time Location CG & ForeSh Notes
Ian briefs Chris Ian – Angry
Short, clipped speech; does not let Chris talk
Ian and Chris meet to talk about the case
Ian is still pissed from last scene.
They talk about the case and Chris storms out, saying Ian is off the case, which drives him further into anger.
Ian storms out to get a drink.
Few minutes after previous scene Mid- Afternoon Police department. Phone ringing
People running around
Loud, busy.
In conversation, Ian mentions a former partner who had more guts than Chris. This is Laurie. Begin to show Ian drinks too much.
Laurie discovers case Laurie Someone tells Laurie about the case Case CANNOT have hit the papers yet.
So who tells?
Informant? A friend still on the force? Asha?
Shouldn’t be Ian, who has not talked to her in years.
Killer Plots Killer
Very, very precise
No emotion
Killer rehearses next attack.
Goes through the motions over and over, each time making adjustments.
Also thinking about why the mayor should die.
Unknown Unknown Mention the warehose?
Or leave is unknown?
Beginning to show killer might not be human.
But, CANNOT give away time travel element yet.
Need to show killer is very smart and patient, but also so finely in tune with his body that reader might think he’s not human.
Ian and Laurie talk Laurie? Ian? Laurie and Ian meet after a few years apart. Shows the quick, smart banter they have. Sets up attraction between the two. Not sure when this takes place.

Breaking items into character, plot and setting lets you trace a column to see how each of these story elements progresses and relates. For example:

  • Character & Setting
    YOU FIND: Every scene with Asha is at her office.
    ASK YOURSELF: Does Asha have a home/social life, or is she a workaholic? Or, do you need to find a way to vary the settings where we encounter Asha?
  • Character & Plot / Timeline
    YOU FIND: Chris gets shot and nearly dies causing his fiancée to want him to quit the police force, but it’s only a day later that Chris is running after the villain.
    ASK YOURSELF: Can more time pass, can someone else chase the villain, or can a less serious injury make the fiancée want Chris to quit?
  • Character Arc
    YOU FIND: Chris does not grow, change or learn from the challenges he faces, making him a one-dimensional character.
    ASK YOURSELF: How would he change after getting shot and how would that change affect the plot? Would he hesitate now in drug raids, which is what allows the villain to escape a few scenes later?
  • Plot Logic
    YOU FIND: The villain follows Chris to his house, but they why would the villain get confused during the car chase in the climax?
    ASK YOURSELF: Does the villain follow Chris to the office? Then what makes Chris go to the office?

Revise & Organize
As you explore and develop your story, you’ll discover missing connections and motivations. You’ll find answers to questions you’ve asked yourself already exist in the story. Those blank grid cells will get filled in while you’ll realize others have no place in this story.
You’ll also re-arrange scene to improve pacing, not keep a character off screen for too long, change the timeframe of the story and combine scenes (for example, you discover a scene to develop your character and another scene to set up some plot elements can happen at the same time).
You may revise your outline many, many times. That’s to be expected and not the sign that your story isn’t working. Besides, it’s a lot easier to revise an outline than a 100,000 word manuscript.

What Happens Next?

I will post a follow up piece to outling to show what your initial, multi-column outline should morph into as you get closer to beginning to write your first draft.