Friday, June 5, 2015

Why Outlines Aren't Evil

Last week, I mentioned a post where you’d get to see a picture of my outline. Well, that’s this week’s post:

There, now you’ve seen it. Isn’t it pretty? All the little colors and things.

I’ve not come to really talk about that outline. Yet.
Instead, I’m here to express why I think (and why I think you should think) outlines are good things. Brilliant things. FANTASTIC things, even.

Close your eyes and think back to when you first had to write papers for school. No, not the single paragraph ones, the ones where you had at least three, with maybe an opening and closing paragraph.
Yup, I can see you shuddering from here.
Myself, I took this course called IEW (Institute for Excellence in Writing) in middle school/elementary years. Hated it with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. In fact, it made me loathe anything related to writing. Period.

Besides the painful checklist making sure you had all the right ‘decorations’, the course made you do these ‘step outlines’, which is basically outlining every single sentence. For years after we finally stopped using this curriculum, I couldn’t stand writing, and I wouldn’t be found within ten feet of an outline.

So when you flinched at seeing the title of my post, I empathize with you. I understand. Outlines are scary, scary things.

However, I have discovered they are very useful and widely applicable. I want to focus now on why they’re useful in writing:

First, outlines save time. The outline in the picture above took me roughly three days (maybe two hours a day?) to finish. That’s three days’ worth of writing time that will eventually save me hours and hours. When I start writing that novel (which I should be starting pretty soon), I won’t have to stare at my computer screen wondering what comes next. I already know, and it’s plastered to the wall above my bed to keep me from forgetting.

Second, outlines can be fun. Look at that picture again. It’s a bunch of colorful sticky notes stuck to a pegboard that (previously) held a bunch of weapons1. It’s fun to look at, and makes people who see my room interested in my writing. That’s a plus, in and of itself.

Lastly, outlines help you see the big picture. You have this great idea you want to write and polish and share with the world, but what happens when you don’t know how to get it there? The most common area of a novel in which people sputter to a halt and stop writing is the very middle. It’s commonly accepted as the hardest part to write, and some authors will write the beginning and end first, because they’re the easiest. All the good stuff happens in those parts. An outline, however, will keep that middle part strong, because you know what you want to happen in those dreaded middle chapters.

Creating an outline isn’t hard. In fact, here’s a simple list of tips for making an easy outline:

1. Make it colorful. An outline in black in on white paper (I suggest a hardcopy version rather than a computerized one, because it’s easier to seen everything at once, but it works either way… also easier to shuffle around) will kill you in a heartbeat. So instead of monotones, pick bright colors, like sticky notes or those weird notebooks with colored paper in them.

2. Make it comprehensive. You know all those colors I said you should have? Don’t pick them at random. Be a little OCD (it’s okay, guys, OCD is good for some things, I promise), and designate each color to a specific thing. For instance, I organized my outline by character. Because this project is huge (it’s got six main characters), I assigned each character a color, and used that color whenever the character showed up in a chapter. Then, I used those little skinny ones to indicate when a chapter ended (and wrote the chapter number on it). Maybe you need something like that, or maybe you need bright orange ones for moments when a character dies, and dark red ones for when the villain has his moment of glory, and light blue ones for parts where the mentor shares sage advice.
Whatever you do, make sure it makes sense to you. Oh, and make yourself a little key to stick nearby, in case you forget2.

3. Make two. 
Whoa, now, that’s a lot of work! TWO OUTLINES? That’s ridiculous. 

Well, not really.

Start with what I call a “summary” outline. A simple structure that summarizes what happens when in what order. Sticky notes with one-three sentences saying something like “Taynan is betrayed by the resistance group and deported to Ghine. Ending on ship.” That’s not very clear, but it sums up what I want to happen in this scene (spoiler alert, that’s an actual note in that outline).

Then, maybe even as you’re starting to write, make another outline I call a “step” outline. Take a chapter (chapter one is a good one to start with), and copy your summary outline’s sentences for it. I like using mini notebooks for these sorts of outlines. Then, below these summary sentences, use bullet points to create a list of actions that will get the characters from beginning to end. This still doesn’t have to be super detailed, and you don’t have to outline every sentence. Here’s a sample:
Chapter 19:
“Bea in captivity”
-tries to escape during storm
-makes it out of camp, almost washed out to sea by gale
-saved by bandit, taken back to the camp

It’s just that easy. Thanks to this simple step outline, I have a very clear idea of what’s happening when, and how I get there.

And that’s it. All I got for you.
I could launch into a motivational speech, but I forgot where I put the one for today. Sorry.

What about you? Do you like to outline? How? Leave a comment and share! (no really, I’d love to chat about outlines with you because… outlines)

1yes, I have a pegboard for weapons that’s now holding an outline… but it’s still got a weapon on there, all the same.

2if you’re lucky, no one will notice the key, and will be confused. Then your younger sister will finally piece together how your outline works, only to give you a dumbfounded look when you point out the key. True story.

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