My aunt had this magnet on her fridge that said “No person is completely useless. They can at least serve as a bad example.”
I’m a bad example.
Which probably isn’t the best way to introduce a blog post about writing, which sort of makes my point, but I do want to get it out there that my way probably isn’t the best way (more on that later). In any case, this Wednesday’s topic is outlines. Outlines are one of those things you don’t bring up when you’re at swanky writerly functions (or in conversation. I should go to more swanky writerly functions to test this, though) because people have opinions about outlines, and you’ll end up with someones drink sprayed all over you with some form of “outlines? Outlines are for HACKS. If you can’t write without an outline, you’re not a writer” closely following it. Or exactly the opposite, that outlines are the end-all, be-all of effective writing (they are). I won’t be dogmatic (except for back there), because, quite frankly, it’s up to you how you do it. But I will tell you what I’ve seen and (GASP) what works for me.
As far as creating an outline, there are myriad options, and the best advice I have to give is find what works for you. Some people do it in a list, in a document. There are programs that have an outline function built in (the new Nook Press does). There are mind maps (which is a more organized form of the abomination you see to the right), and really anything else you can come up with. The point is not what’s right but what’s right for you. So play around, and if it doesn’t click, move on.
Keep in mind the purpose of your outline- to identify plot points, moments, and how the story ends, to help you write swiftly and stay focused on where the story is going. So something that teams well with how your mind works is essential.
Which brings us to my bad example. To the right you can see the outline to my (and fan) favorite short I have written to date, Worlds Away. There are some spoilers in there, if you haven’t read it. But it essentially ended up being a decision tree of where the story could go- you can see where I followed different paths for a while before finding a better fit. The thing I love about this method is that while I am writing, I never (rarely) have to stop and think ‘what about…’. I’ve already considered it, and am confident in the path that’s set for the story.
Like I said, maybe not the right way, but it’s right for me. So play around with outlines, find what is right for you.
UPDATE: Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 outline.