Writers’ Craft 3: Outlining

Technical issues

I was going to make this entire Writers’ Craft series as vlogs. However, I have a problem with my ISP, in that they have not upgraded the lines in our wee village, and so uploading to YouTube is problematic. The first two videos required an overnight upload, with nothing else eating up broadband. The third one has been a bust, I’m afraid. I’ve tried four times now. The first three attempts resulted in 3% upload after 24 hours. The last attempt stalled at 26%. And I’m out of patience. So, I’m back to the written word, which I suppose is appropriate given I’m supposed to be imparting wisdom on the creation of the written word. Life is full or ironies, say what?

Creating an Outline, or why bother?

I know of a good many writers, be they novice or experienced, who ask that question: Why bother outlining? In my experience, outlining is an essential tool if you’re going to write.

  1. Outlining saves time, because the need for extensive revision will be reduced. You’ll know where you’re going with the story, and why, rather than employing the ‘panster’ method of just writing without any idea at all where you’re going with the story.
  2. Outlining adds cohesion to plot progression, because you’ve thought out your story ahead of time.
  3. Outlining helps you to solidify character development.
  4. Outlining allows you to develop literary devices throughout your story by way of foreshadowing, pacing, and when to introduce a character or plot element.
  5. Outlining helps to identify any further research you’re going to require.
How to create your outline

I use Word or Excel, depending on the complexity of my plot. Normally I use Word, and lay things out by chapter or section, and often pre- or append character sketches as well as world and environmental details. However, when I wrote The Rose Guardian, the story was a bit more complex, employing three different voices in three different timelines, and because of that I used Excel so I could easily scan and organize, as well as keep the continuity of the overall storyline. That also allowed me to clearly define character sketches which allowed me to use those influences in other sections.

I remember well interviewing Marian Fowler, a great Canadian biographer (Blenheim, Below the Peacock Fan, In a Gilded Cage) who was a stickler for accurate research. She used 3×5 cards to outline her biographies and research, and then pinned the cards to a board, or laid them out on a table in her office. I did often wonder what she did if a strong breeze blew through the window. But it was a system which stood her in good stead for many decades.

Other writers I know have written points out by hand on sheets of paper, and then organized those sheets in binders of folders. Others yet have used sticky notes on a wall near their computer. Some have even gone to the trouble of creating visual sketches, working out an actual storyboard.

Just find a system that works for you and use it. You’ll be grateful you did when it comes time to do your revision.

An Outline is a guide, not a monument

It’s important to remember, as you write, your outline is a guide, not a rigid format to which you must adhere. Things occur to you as you’re writing, new ideas, change in plot, change in character, and that’s the way it should be. Just make note of that in your outline and adjust accordingly. I think of an outline as a recipe, if I may be allowed to use a cooking analogy. It often occurs I don’t have all the ingredients for the recipe, which means I liberally substitute. So, I may have started out to make a lasagna, but found I had neither tomatoes nor ground meat, but I did have cream, an abundance of cheese, greens and mushrooms. I still made a lasagna. It was just flavoured differently.

Same with writing and an outline. But it’s important to have at least that basic structure of an outline in place, otherwise you may end up making salad instead of lasagna.

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