Writing Craft: The Outline

Outlines: some writers love them. But many simply assume it’s what you’re supposed to do, even when the act of outlining tends to drive your project into the ditch. I was one of the latter: I used outlining to organize notes through college. I work in a technical field and I still find them very useful for engineering documents and presentations. Here the ability to start with the big picture and drill down into the necessary level of detail is very useful.

So naturally when it came to fiction, I started with an outline. Many people do; it’s conventional wisdom to outline your story. So off I went blocking up my story into sections, typically chapters at the top level, busily adding scenes beneath it and notes on what to cover below that, sometimes breaking a scene into its own components and sub-notes, and very often, not completing the outline because I was lost in a sea of scenes and details.

An outline in story order where it builds to the climax and notes are segregated.

Okay, maybe the problem was diving too deep at first. Maybe I should block it out at the high level then add the scenes. Still didn’t really work for me. Maybe it’s the engineer in me but it’s too easy for me to go from high level down to deep detail. Before I knew it I had a pile of detail that obscured the story and was hard to manage.

My first moment of clarity was realizing that I like to write to waypoints. Or in my bridge metaphor from Plot Structure: Three-Acts or Pier & Bridge, writing to piers. I tend to use a 3 pier or 3 act structure so first for me is identifying what those piers are: the two main intermediate points followed by the climax. Next for each pier, I identify what builds to that pier; the sequence of events that gets me from start to pier 1, then pier 1 to 2, etc.

Now, all of this could still be outlined. You can start with a 3 section outline, one for each act. Then once the acts are defined, add in the chapters as the next level down, then the scenes and so on. And this can work and is certainly something I’ve tried. But here the outline tends to trip me up again: it’s really in the wrong order. Yes, it is useful to conceptualize from big picture to details (and I like that for a hard-facts technical discussion) but for a story, it’s the reverse for me. Back to my bridge analogy: I drive to my pier, I build up to it. I don’t start with the pier and drive backwards from it to get to the start.

Meaning, the outline does things in the reverse order. I want the sequence of scenes that builds the chapter with the chapter cliffhanger/payoff at the end. Similarly, I want my sequence of chapters with the Act climax at the end. I don’t start with the climax, I end with it.

There’s one more problem I have with outlines: they tend to mix elements. A particular line in the outline might be a story element (act, chapter, scene depending on the level of hierarchy) or it might be a note about something I’d like to establish in that chapter or scene. The two aren’t the same thing. Moreover, while the story elements need to be sequenced, notes do not. It may not matter much if I reveal the Commander is Galeron’s father in the first or second scene. I just want to make sure by the time the chapter is over, that’s established. Now my outline is cluttered and muddled: a mix of notes and story elements, hard to keep in their proper place, hard to see at a glance, hard to move and manage elements.

So for me, I’ve dispensed with outlines almost entirely. My stories now start with a synopsis. These also have their challenges but at least as a narrative it shares the same form as my story and it can unfold in story order, not the reverse order of an outline. Synopsis and stories flow the same way. Outlines flow in a sequence of reverse eddies. Now the synopsis doesn’t leave as much room for notes other than saying things of the sort “Galeron meets his father the Commander” but it is a lot closer to the end product and the synopsis format, at least for me, helps keep me from going into too much detail. And if a note can’t be inserted in the narrative of a synopsis, is it really so important?

Where do I use outlines? They are one of the lesser writer’s tools for me, useful for ‘spot’ problems. If I have a complicated scene or chapter to write, just before I write it, I may outline it. Here, it is so focused and so near term that the fact that story elements may mix with notes or the whole thing has a backwards structure isn’t very obscuring because usually we are just talking a few lines, 20 at most. That’s easy enough to comprehend a glance and pick out the necessary detail or big picture.

If I were to outline a full story, I would like to do it in reverse order with story elements separate from notes. Something like in the picture where the light blue boxes are the story elements, in this case scenes at the a-d level ending with a chapter climax at the number level. And hanging at the bottom of each chapter level is a short set of notes for the chapter in dark blue. Now the story elements follow my building story tension. They don’t work backwards against it.

This may only make sense to the geeks among you, but I think of this as the “reverse polish notation outline.” In RPN calculators, the operands come first followed by what you do with them. So instead of (1+2)*(3+4), it’s: 1, 2, +, 3, 4, +,*: the equation is built up in sequence, just like your story which is structured as a series of building scenes and parallel sub-plots. Of course, no tool supports an RPN outline but it would be interesting to try. In the meantime, don’t feel bound to outline. It may not be the right tool for you.