Rachel Thompson

Jennifer Cornet on Writing by the Seat of Your Pants: Outline or No? @J_Cornet #WriteTip

How to Write by the Seat of Your Pants: Outline or No?

Most importantly, before I say anything else on the topic, there is to “correct” answer to whether or not you need to outline to create a successful story. Do what works for you. With that being said, you should totally write an outline. Let me fill you in on why. 

Chances are when you thought of your story you came up with a basic concept and a couple of characters. That’s great, but those elements alone don’t make a complete story. Outlining can help you as the author work through your concept and flesh it out before ever writing a complete sentence. There are a few styles of outlining that can help you accomplish this and since I work best in metaphors, I’m going to draw comparison to driving. Think of Point A as your blank sheet of paper and Point B as a completed first draft. 

The first method of using an outline to travel from A to B is by only marking the major point: beginning, major events, and the ending. If I’m driving from Washington, DC to Los Angeles, California I’m going to pass through Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and finally arrive in California. This method doesn’t tell me how I’m moving through each item, only that I’ll hit that mark. By marking only the major events you give yourself ample room for creative freedom while not flying completely off the handle, losing the point of your book, and ending up in Canada somewhere. 

Another approach is what I’ll call the “Google Maps” version. This method still takes you from DC to LA through all those places listed above, but it tells you how you are getting there with turn by turn directions. An outline that follows this method will include the smaller scenes in between the major events. This method might be more appropriate for those writers with a complex plot. If you have a number of story lines that overlap, jotting down the story in more detail will help you work through how all the roads weave together to meet at the end. 

The final method is the “Family vacation binder.” If I were to hop into an RV with my parents for a cross country trip, you better believe it would be more planned out than a series of directions. The “family vacation binder” would include places to sight see, roadside attractions, bed and breakfast reviews from online, restaurant suggestions, and a detailed itinerary for entire the trip. This level of outlining is the most detailed. It would have scene descriptions, character reactions/motivations, important symbols or notes to be included. It could also involve multiple outlines that tie in to one another. As crazy as it sounds, this in depth form of outlining can be wildly useful. If you are writing something that is incredibly complex, you will eliminate a lot of rework by laying it all out in the beginning. It is much easier to add plot points or shift things around when they are in an outline than when they are embedded in your first draft. 

In the end, all three outlining methods will get you where you want to go. It’s up to the writer to choose the method. And if you start writing and realize you would rather go to Canada than LA, you can always throw out the map and go where the road takes you. It’s your story after all. 


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Genre - Urban Fantasy
Rating – PG - 13
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