1. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    How important/effective are outlines for novels?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Mallory, Jun 28, 2010.

    If you want to start writing a novel and have a general idea of the plot, MC, and some details, is it really important to make an outline and get more of the story worked out before you start to write? Or is it good to just write the 1st chapter (or few pages) and see what you think of as you write?

    I realize that it's a "whatever works best for you" type question, but I'm wondering what types of experiences people have had with using an outline compared to not using one.
     
  2. izanobu
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    izanobu Senior Member

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    Well, it really is a whatever works for you thing.

    For me, I use outlines. They aren't terribly detailed, I go by chapter generally, and a chapter might say something like "Dee steals car, car runs out of gas, Dee has no money". I use my outline as a guide, and revise it as I go and the story develops and changes. I think knowing the ending I'm going for is important so I can build to it correctly, and I like to make character sketches and basic setting notes as well, mostly to keep things consistent.
     
  3. Ron Aberdeen
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    Ron Aberdeen Banned

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    I write screenplays for a living and writing an outline is probably the most effective way of ensuring I get where I want to go with the story.

    When I write an assigned script for a producer or director rather than a spec script to satisfy my own agenda, I couldn’t succeed without an outline. I have to know the premise, the theme and the direction before starting out.

    When I first started, I would write from the hip.

    I found doing that led to scripts than rambled almost incoherently and always didn’t deliver what I had hoped for.

    The way I see it is writing a story, and I am sure it is the same for a novel as for a script, requires planning.

    After all you are starting a journey, both for you and the characters you create.

    Would you start any journey without knowing your destination and the means of how you would make your journey?
     
  4. HeinleinFan
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    HeinleinFan Banned

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    You seem to want a general summary of how various writers work. There's actually quite a bit on this topic out on the 'net, so having a summary here might be useful to other people too.

    Successful writers have done the following:

    1. Detailed outline. Niven & Pournelle, the authors of several bestsellers, would basically write a huge outline with information on each scene, which characters want what, anything important the characters see or learn, and anything else that mattered. They were collaborating, so they had to have an outline in order to keep the plot from wandering.

    2. Scene-sequel outline. If a scene is "a character tries to accomplish FOO, something gets in the way, character has to deal and may very well fail or succeed with complications", then a sequel is "having just failed (or succeeded or whatever), the character reacts, reassesses, and chooses a new plan of action." You can outline whole books this way -- Jim Butcher did, for the early Dresden books. Scene, sequel, next scene, sequel, third scene, and so on until the end.

    3. Handful of vital scenes. This can be as simple as knowing what the climax of the book will be -- a battle, a showdown between two masters, an escape, a death, a grave injury, a heroic deed. It can mean that you know the end, and you know a few points in the middle, and you trust yourself to connect those points in a reasonable fashion even without detailed notes.

    4. List of characters, their goals, and "break points" where the goals suddenly switch. This is harder, because it isn't strictly timeline based; it is entirely possible for Character A to learn that Character B killed A's father a year or more after B did the deed. Example: Man in Black wants to kidnap the princess, and Inigo wants to outrun him with the others. There are several break points in quick succession, as Inigo is ordered to kill the MiB, the MiB learns that Inigo is really a very sympathetic character, and Inigo is defeated. In a brief time period, Inigo's goals change from RUN to DEFEAT to FLEE THE SCENE; the MiB's goals change from GET PRINCESS to KILL to JUST KNOCK HIM OUT to GET PRINCESS. You can easily write two or three or more characters this way -- give each a chapter or a section in turn, and follow them as they interact and try to defeat or outmaneuver each other or their enemies.

    5. Skimpy outline. Just a list of events. "Chp 7. Tanice's P.O.V. Tanice flees explosion. Unusually well-armed Pelos goes with her to the Hadnes Shrine. Ambush - loses Pelos, but encounters helpful Godsworn and themonae." This lets you summarize a book in a few pages, while leaving plenty of space for your creative side to fill in. It also demands that the author know her characters well, or you'll end up looking at your notes later and wonder "Wait, why would he do that?"

    6. No outline, just character sketches. You know your characters and possibly your world; you pick one, pick a minor conflict, and just launch into chapter one.

    7. No outline, just a starting scene, title, image, or word. Then keep writing, a sentence at a time, until finished.

    Writers have successfully written using all of these methods. Some writers experiment with several forms (D.W. Smith has used 7 as well as detailed outlines, Stephen King has used 1, 6, and 7. I have had some success with 1, 3, 5, 6 and 7, although I haven't been published in a pro magazine yet so take that as you will.)
     
  5. w176
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    w176 Contributing Member Contributor

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    HeimleinFan wrote an awesome response. I'm just try to make a Dummies version for it.

    There is a scale from Outliner in one and an Discovery writer in the other. Usually your somewhere in between. You might even be on different places on the scale for different type of works, or even different works.

    To know what works for you, need to study and try out a few different methods, at least in your head. To know if, when and how you want to apply them. If you are playing table top rpgs, and gamemastering this can be an dynamic and challenging way to do that while planning homemade or using prewritten adventures. If you already doing this you probably know how much you like to outline stories.

    I'm usually on the Discovery writer end of the scale.
     
  6. Show
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    Written outlines for me tend to be a total waste of time. I do mental outlines. Unless my head crashes(in which case I probably couldn't write anyway), I feel that works best.

    I tend to be a very spontaneous writer. My first novel had it's intended climax pushed to the halfway mark and made part 2 a whole new dynamic. Most of my novels had some intense plot developments or character additions that weren't planned. So for me, outlines just do not work, least not written outlines. They wouldn't be doing anything for me. Now, that doesn't mean you can't make them work, or that you don't at least need a mental plan of where you are going, but the written outline, despite how many praise it, is not necessary, IMO.
     
  7. TWErvin2
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    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

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    What has worked for me is a basic outline: Where the action starts, what has to happen (major events along the way) to reach the end. I sketch in some details where needed for the events and any special information that I might forget over the course of writing the novel (for short stories, as those take less time, this step isn't as vital for me).

    The outline isn't written in stone and allows flexibility to change, sequence of events, removal of events, addition of events, and possibly altering the ending (although altering the ending hasn't happened to me, yet.)

    Having some sort of planning ahead of time has the effect of keeping a writer on track, moving forward toward the end of the piece without going off on tangents, writing the story into a corner, and/or requiring a lot of revision after the first draft (that otherwise wouldn't be necessary).

    In my experience, a little time in planning up front pays off in writing time and revision time later on. It's worked well for me. But as has been stated, it is an individual choice. Examine what will best move your work forward toward submission and publication, if that's your goal.

    Terry
     
  8. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    I am exactly the same, especially with long works.
     
  9. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    Thanks for all the advice everyone!

    For those who say outlines are important:
    I know who my MC is going to be (personality/occupation-wise), and I know what I want the general atmosphere of my setting to be like (it's a dystopian fic and I have a good amount of detail as to what makes it such). I have a vague idea of where I want things to go as the story progresses, but I have no clue what my big "scenes" would be or the specific route I'd take to get to my destination. Nor do I know my climax, specific goal switches etc.

    In such a situation, is it important (in your opinion) to outline these things out before you start to write?

    I'm written lots of short stories before, but every time I've tried to write something longer I've either gotten sidetracked and given up, or written myself into a corner, after the first 30-something pages. I really want to finish this one, but if I start to write without having all my information (for later in the story) planned out, am I going to be more likely to hit a wall?

    Again, I realize as many of you pointed out that it's something that varies from writer to writer. But nearly everyone who's posted has talked about outlining issues such as climax/major scenes/etc. If you don't know that yet (for a novel) is that a bad thing?
     
  10. Ron Aberdeen
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    Ron Aberdeen Banned

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    In my opinion, yes.

    From what you stated in appears all you have is a basic concept of a character and a little idea about the environment he lives in.

    That’s a bit like saying his name is Bond, he likes fast cars and fast women and works in espionage for a woman who mother’s him.

    His latest job is to find who stole Big Ben, where it is and bring it back to London in time for tea.
     
  11. TWErvin2
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    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

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    It depends on your ultimate goal, but it sounds/reads as if you've tried and failed previously without a plan. So, it depends on if you feel you will gain anything from likely failing to complete a novel again. That would define 'a bad thing.'

    Terry
     
  12. Shinn
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    Shinn Banned

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    I think they are really important for outlining your novel Mallory. And in my case, I outline everything else except the climax, so I can toy with ideas.
     
  13. Mantha Hendrix
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    Mantha Hendrix Contributing Member

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    I find that I come up with other hair-brained plots, while in the process of writing. Sometimes I forget some of the finer details because of this. So I write it down. I also use it to demo test the plot on people... Just go with what you instinctively think is right, there's no right or wrong. Many people say there is, but they're just being arrogant. "My way of writing is better than yours." etc.

    There's a beauty to both.
     
  14. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    Thanks again for advice. :)

    I actually have generated a lot of advanced-in-the-story ideas for my story/novel that I was struggling with before. I'm at the point where I would actually be able to start an outline, and then start to write. :D That's just for the plot anyway, not for each specific character. But characters are much easier for me to build and thoroughly develop while spontaneously writing, it's plot details that are harder and that's what causes me to write into brick walls.

    thanks :)
     
  15. theSkaBoss
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    I don't like to plan my writing, per se. That is, I don't write stuff down or decide things. I suppose what I like to do is take a character, a setting, and some conflict somewhere, and just start writing. Through this, I'll figure out what to do with the character, what to do to the character, and, most importantly, I'll figure out what the point of the story is.

    To give a very watered down example from my story, I knew I wanted it to be in a world where everyone is born with a magic book that tells them how to do certain things or gives them advice. I simply started writing it, and within a few pages, I knew who the main character was. Another page taught me what had to happen to him, so I restarted the book since I now knew my basic plot. Several pages more, and I knew of three antagonists, each unique, that would not only stand in the way of the MC's goal, but would even cause the MC to even have a goal in the first place.

    Once I've got plot, characters, setting, and basic storyline in mind, the story really kind of grows organically. I always have to go back and make major edits because the story grows beyond its initial parameters, but I don't mind. It's like growing a tree first, then pruning it once it's grown a bit.
     
  16. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    That always works for me with short stories. :) Characters are easy for me, and with a short horror story I'll have a very simple plot (i.e. some people are in a cabin and something from the woods is trying to break in) that's easy to develop, enrich with details etc as I write. The problem I was having now is that for longer stories/novels, plots are more complicated with subplots, climaxes and character motivation change points, etc. I know that these are also present in short stories, but they're much simpler and easier to figure out where to place. Basically, the plot isn't something that happens to people in a single situation, instead it's multiple situations that build to something and much harder to put together.

    Your magic book story idea sounds so cool. Is it a short story or a novel? Do you plan to publish it? :)
     
  17. theSkaBoss
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    theSkaBoss Member

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    It's a novel, and as soon as I finish it, I intend to not die until it's published. :) It's probably the most important story idea I've ever had, so I want people to read it.
     
  18. CaKsTeR
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    CaKsTeR Member

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    The problem I find with writing outlines is that if I go too in depth into them, the thrill of writing is lost when I move to the actual novel. When you know exactly what is going to happen in every chapter from the moment you start writing, it's just not as exciting.

    I guess that makes me a sort of spontaneous writer, although I couldn't say if my pieces suffer because of it. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.
     
  19. Aeschylus
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    Aeschylus Contributing Member

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    It's important to know what you're going to write and what's going to happen; you need a solid structure and background. Some people can just wing it, but then it often gets muddled. However, you shouldn't make too strict an outline--you still need to leave room for new ideas and creativity, and if you've micromanaged the story before you write it, it won't be able to grow.
     
  20. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    I think I'm the same way, A. The reason why novels are harder for me to finish than short stories is because a short story only really deals with one situation, and with a novel you have to piece together many situations. I think as long as I have a general timeline sort of "situation guide" (aka here the villain gains momentum, here the characters figure out it's X instead of Y because of reason Z, here the character goes on Mission A, etc) then I can figure out exactly how each situation happens as I write. It's just that it's hard when you're looking at all the blank white space left under your writing and you have no idea whatsoever what to fill it with lol. :)
     
  21. TWErvin2
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    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

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    CaKsTeR,
    I guess my question would then be, what happens when you have to read and revise and edit a novel, multiple times, to get it ready for submission? What happens when you have to work with an editor, which means going through the same novel-length story again, and then make revisions and proof those, and then the galley proofs?

    If the notion of having an outline takes the excitement out of the writing process, what happens after the first draft?

    I understand the different methods for different folks, but I am also curious as to what happens for those working to get a novel ready to submit that struggle to remain excited/interested/motivated when an outline dulls the intital novel writing process.

    Terry
     
  22. NowhereMan
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    NowhereMan Member

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    Do you write outlines for your stories?

    explain
     
  23. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    Yes.

    I don't spend too much time on it before I start writing. I just make sure that in my head, I have a general idea of how the storyline will play out, as well as a developed MC and main villain(s).

    My outlining consists of "scene checklists," or a list of what will happen in each chapter.

    Supporting characters develop themselves naturally as I write. For me, characters are easy and the storyline details is the challenging part, so my outlining reflects this.
     
  24. NowhereMan
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    NowhereMan Member

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    ah, i see. thank you
     
  25. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    Yeah no problem.

    I also keep my outlining stuff in the same document as my actual writing. Write the scene under the place mapped out for it, if that makes sense, then delete the related pre-writing notes once you're written that part.

    It helps me avoid the Great Blank Word Doc Dilemma when I'm beginning stuff. (Or even beginning a new chapter in a novel I've been working on for a while.)
     

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