Don’t Call It an Outline

By Kathrese McKee | Craft

Back when I first played around with the idea of writing a book, I opened up a spiral and started writing a story I thought my kids would enjoy. Every spare moment—at games and doctor visits and during lunch—I would invent problems for my characters to solve and things for them to say.

Eventually, a plot formed. The first novel grew into two. Then three. I had an entire shelf of spirals and three-ring binders, all written in longhand. By then, I knew I could write a book because I had already written one, if that makes sense.

Along the way, I read every craft book I could find, and I learned about things like story structure, characterization, and point of view. Finally, I decided to get serious and write a book for publication. I didn’t want to get halfway through a novel and falter, so I took a few days to plot it out.

Your Writing Journey: Don’t Call It an Outline.

I think many “pantsers,” those writers who write by the seat of their pants, resist plotting because they fear it will stifle their creativity.

Au contraire, mon ami. (That’s about the extent of my French.) No, no, no. (That’s Spanish and French for no, no, no.) Plotting your story in advance frees you to be more creative.

“Plotters,” don’t think you have all the answers, though. You may actually be stifling your creativity if you plot every moment before you start writing.

Let’s split the difference and discuss a compromise method, but don’t call it an outline.

Outlines give me hives.

Truly, outlines give me hives. I have flashbacks to high school history and language arts classes where the teachers expected the class to pull outlined notes out of the air as they lectured. And they graded your notes on how well you could outline. Yuck!

Plotting isn’t about creating an outline.

I know you’ve heard experts tell you that you ought to outline your book. You’ve read how-to-write books that instruct you to plot out your story. But I’m here to tell you that an “outline” for fiction isn’t what you think it is.

Dismiss that picture of the indented structure that you learned in school: Roman numerals, capitalized letters, Arabic numerals, and lowercase letters.

Dobby is a free elf!

Yes, Dobby, you are free. Free to create notes in any form you choose. Sorry, non-fiction writers, even if you start out in free form, more than likely you will need to martial your thoughts into a proper outline before it’s all over.

But back to Dobby, the free elf fiction author who can write notes any way he pleases—doodles, diagrams, mind maps, or copious notes. Dobby can use notebooks, scrolls, butcher paper, note cards, Scrivener, or Evernote as long as Dobby captures his ideas before they get away.

Story structure is the secret sauce to plotting.

There you go again, imagining the worst. Forget that image of Roman numerals and indented points.

Story structure is the secret sauce to plotting. Think seven columns, five columns, or only three. Remember in elementary school when they taught you beginning, middle, and end? Do that.

Remember in middle school when you learned about exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement? (Sorry about the French.) Maybe your teacher called it resolution. In other words, think of your story in big blocks of time, and then subdivide those blocks according to the goals for each block.

Call it a map, a timeline, or a synopsis, but don’t call it an outline.

If nothing else, figure out what your showdown might look like and work forward and backward from there. Ask yourself questions like:

  • What happens after that?
  • How did that happen?
  • Why did it happen?
  • And what happened before that?
  • Before that? Before that?
  • How did this story begin?

Try thinking about the darkest moment before the dawn, when all seems lost for your main character.

My stories benefit most when I pay attention to the hero’s journey and/or seven-part story structure. Uh-oh. That sounds too much like creating an outline. Don’t call it an outline, remember?

Tell yourself the story in shorthand.

Do they actually teach shorthand anymore? Back in the day, you could take shorthand in high school, but that was even before my time. The beauty of using shorthand was that you could take notes in a way that didn’t require every letter of every word, but later, you could decipher it without forgetting important details.

Shorthand is not much in demand in the business world today, but the concept is still viable for writers today.

Tell yourself the story you want to write using a shorthand approach. Use present tense. If you don’t know the names, use code names like A and B, etc. Give yourself the green light to get as crazy as you like.

If you think of a snippet of conversation or a witty line, jot it down.

Can you see a piece of the action in your mind’s eye? Put it in the place it fits best: beginning, middle, or end. Rising action, climax, or resolution.

Follow my example by trying to write a synopsis first.

Recently, I wanted to write a prequel to my series, but I didn’t want to waste a lot of time going down dead end streets to create a good story. So I wrote a synopsis for my story. Synopsis is a scary word that means summary. Okay, summary sounds scary, too, but all I did was tell myself the story I was going to write at a high level.

Here is part of the synopsis I wrote before I started work on Pirate’s Wager, my prequel novelette to Mardan’s Mark:

“Samazor (thirteen) is brought aboard. His clothes, though faded and dirty, bespeak a more privileged life. Scar comes aboard, too, as the new first mate. The first night in charge, Scar banishes Aldan and Linus to the hold because they are “too little to be of use” and foreign to boot. Scar figures he can turn Samazor into a deck hand because he’s a big, strong boy, so he puts Samazor with the crew. People to mention: Fratz, Biscuits, the older black hand who plays the flute, Rozar, and Scar.”

Granted, this is more detailed than it had to be because I already knew the characters from the full-length novel.

I could have written it like this:

“Samazor becomes a slave on a pirate ship.
The same day, a new first mate, A, is hired.
A is a terrible bigot and a very cruel man. He hates foreigners. There are two other slaves, C and D.”

Or I could have started in the middle: “Because of something Samazor does, the cruel first mate decides to punish C, and C is in danger of dying.”

From the middle, it is a matter of going forward and backward on the timeline until you reach the end and the beginning.

It isn’t an outline; it’s a map.

When you write your “story beats,” as some people call them, they serve as a map to take you from beginning to end.

Notice that you don’t know everything that’s going to happen. That should make pantsers happy because we have left the door open for sudden inspiration, those golden, transcendent moments authors long for. That should please even the most devoted plotters.

Now you have a map to use during those days when writing is more labor than love. When you’re feeling a little bit lost, let your map get you back on track.

Go ahead; be messy.

Learn about story structure. Write the beats. Create a synopsis, if you like, or draw a diagram. But don’t call it an outline. If you are in the middle of a story, take a few hours to map out where you want it to go. If you haven’t begun, experiment with this exercise. If you have finished your book, map it in reverse; this procedure will help you test it for plot holes.

How do you map out your stories? What methods work best for you?


About the Author

Award-winning author, Kathrese McKee, writes Young Adult Fantasy and helps others bring their fiction to life through editing and mentoring.