Learning to love the outline

April 7, 2010

I wish I longed for adventure. I look at my closest friends—many of whom have lived in far flung places—and think “I should do that; I could do that.” I never do. I’m a picky eater, I hate public washrooms, I’m scared of flying, and I can’t even master French (even though I grew up surrounded by it). In short, I am not wired to stuff a handful of clothes into a backpack and venture to places which may not have toilet seat covers and where my ability to purchase a constant supply of hand sanitizer may be compromised.

That’s just not the way I roll.

So it’s probably odd that I clung to the notion that I was a pantser* for so long.

(*In this case, pantser refers to a writer who wings it as they go along, not to any of the slightly scary definitions on Urban Dictionary.)

In the past, I always had an idea of where I thought a story should go, but the plot points were often vague signposts on the road-map from beginning to end (actually, less a road-map and more like directions hastily scribbled on a paper napkin). It wasn’t until an agent said, “I’d like to see what would happen if you outlined,” that I actually tried my hand at it.

And you know what? I’m sort of digging it.

Now I haven’t gone full tilt (I have one awesome friend who has an entire binder of notes and timelines—yes, you know who you are), but I do have seven or eight pages written up that detail the politics and culture of the place and time I’m writing about. And I have a massive table (in a Word Doc) which details each chapter (see below). I fill out the table a few chapters ahead (and I already have the major events down) and I keep notes for future chapters at the bottom. My new rule: I am not allowed to start a chapter until I have some idea of its purpose.

For each chapter, I fill out the following:

Chapter Number:Pretty self explanatory 😉
POV: I have two POV characters so noting the switches here really helps.
Chapter Start: A few words describing the opening (these are pretty vague and subject to change)
What is POV character trying to do? If your chapter is comprised of multiple scenes, this may have more than one answer. Sometimes you won’t be able to answer this question and that’s okay—but always ask yourself why you can’t answer it. Is there a good reason or are you writing a passive character who could benefit from more motivation?
What goes wrong? If nothing went wrong, there’d be no story.
What do they do about it? That whole “active character” thing.
Why does this matter? If it doesn’t matter, do you really need this chapter?
Chapter End: Same as chapter starts.

The questions between “Chapter Starts” and “Chapter Ends” are really the heart of it. They actually come from a FANTASTIC post by Janice Hardy (author of “The Shifter”, one of the most exciting fantasy debuts in years) on scenes and revising (click here to read Janice Hardy’s post).

Is it working? Honestly, it’s too early to tell. I’m about 100 pages in and it’s definitely making the writing go faster and I think editing will be less painful than it’s been in the past. My only worry is that some things might sound stilted or forced. That’s why I’ve given myself full permission to deviate from the outline I’ve created; some things just look better in an outline than they do in the actual chapter.

A famous author once said that plotting was for dullards. And that’s okay. I’ve had years to get used to the fact that I’m a little bit dull and to stockpile antibacterial soap.


Photo-illustration by violscraper.



  1. I am always in awe of outliners. I did work partially off a synopsis for my latest and while it did help a bit, planning in advance is soooo nearly impossible for me!

    • To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have done it if someone hadn’t suggested it. I had this huge mental block when it came to the idea. Of course, given that my outline isn’t finished, I may be speaking too soon…

      • No one says you have to finish the outline before you start 🙂 Sometimes just having an idea of the next five or six chapters, and a general direction for the later part of the book is enough. You can always flesh out as you go. (and thanks for the mention and kind words!)

  2. I love outlining and couldn’t imagine writing a novel any other way. If only the rest of my life was that organized. 😉

    • I’m super organized at work but just horrible when it comes to real life. There’s a contradiction there.

  3. The last work I outlined caused me to figure everything out, including the ending. I grew bored because I knew what was going to happen, and it still sits at 12K. I really love that story but have no desire to finish it. I think I’ll steer clear of outlines, although I like things in order. Your chapter outline looks fantastic!!

    • Ah see I seldom start a story until I know the ending — even when I don’t outline. I think this latest project might actually be the only one where I started a few chapters before I had the ending worked out.

  4. Wow that’s intense! I need to try outlining myself!

    • It’s weirdly fun.

  5. whoops, that was Krista, lol


    i mean i showed you the BUNNY for Pete’s sake!
    the BUNNY!!!!!

    ok, no seriously. awesome post. i have no idea how you manage to do such amazing things in the form of an outline.

    (but next time: the UN-OFFER.)


  7. Kathleen – I am too just realizing I need to outline prior to writing. My first novel came out easily b/c I outlined. My second is at a dead end! Thank you for that easy outline diagram!

  8. I so tried to use your table for my WIP. I opened the doc. Titled it. Saved it. Starred at it. Sat her for a while wondering what to write. Gave up and closed it. My mind goes completely blank when I try to outline. It’s like running. I’ll do it if something’s chasing me – or in this case, if someone makes me. I bow to your table of organized awesomeness.

    • I honestly don’t think you need to outline. You’re very very good with doing plot as you go. FML is so tight, I’d swear you had everything planned.

  9. OMG, Great post! I am soooooo going to try to tame the wild outline beast before I dive further into my WIPs. Well, that’s what I keep telling myself, anyway. We’ll see if it actually happens once I finish these %$&Y%$ revisions! Thanks for sharing, Kath!

    • Let me know how you make out with it! I’m finding it a little harder to outline the second act but I’m hoping that’s just the week from hell.

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