I’m going to share a secret: When I first started college, I would write my papers first and then create the outline that went with the paper I’d written. This was especially taxing whenever the outline was due several weeks before the paper. It was necessary, however, because I’d been writing on my own enough to develop a process—and outlining was not part of my process.
My process changed when I started writing nonfiction. I’m not sure exactly why, but the idea of sitting down to write a full-length nonfiction book without an outline scared the hell out of me. Perhaps it’s because I’d read so many successful authors touting the conventions of outlining, and how those conventions varied significantly from the outlining espoused in academic programs. Perhaps it’s because I’d read my dreadful excuse for a first novel after I’d gotten enough distance from it to see how truly dreadful it turned out while still having the vision of how it was supposed to be playing in my head. So, I took up outlining.
Since I first started planning the nonfiction book, I’ve become a fan of outlining for fiction and nonfiction, at least for full-length works. The key, for me, was the idea of the breakout outline. In other words, I learned to write outlines that worked for my brain instead of creating outlines that followed conventions.
I start with an undeveloped idea. Maybe it’s just a few thoughts. Maybe I have a gist of a full-length work. I take a blank piece of paper—preferably without lines—and write what I have in my head down on the paper in a way that makes sense to me. For me, this tends to result in a sort of map, to use the word loosely, that flows from idea to idea, leaving a lot of gaps in between.
Over time, I develop this skeleton into something that resembles, at least on the surface, a more traditional outline. Once I have the idea up to this scope, I take index cards and break it down into little chunks of ideas—scenes, chapters, or whatever suits my work and my process. I organize these in chronological or story-telling or logical order—again, whatever works for me and for the piece.
It helps me if I overlay these idea chunks over a format of some kind, again loosely defined. This format, for lack of a better word, is a bit more in-depth than “beginning, middle, end,” but isn’t formulaic in nature. It’s simply a gauge that helps me determine how complicated a story should be by a certain point.
In time, these index cards will become firm story points that I then write in detail, in narrative form. This doesn’t mean they’re not changeable, but it does mean that I’ll know what else needs to change if I get to a point where I need to change something. Luckily, the process of development, which can takes months, does a lot of the “changing” before I ever sit down to write the narrative. I can see the weaknesses and fix them or compensate for them while the story is still a stack of index cards.
This works for me, because I’m a “big picture” person. I don’t see images in my head, but I can envision an entire story in my mind—if I do the right work to build the “picture” in my head. For example, I’ve just passed the midpoint of a novel I’m currently planning out on index cards. I realized that if I ended the story as I thought I would then there wouldn’t be enough “story” to fill up the other half of the book. I also realized that instead of making my midpoint not a midpoint I needed to make the other half far more complicated to satisfy the first half. There was a whole element of the story that I’d “foreshadowed” and then allowed to drop out of existence. By bringing it back, I can make the story much more complicated, much more satisfying, and seriously challenge my heroes. In other words, it’s a big win. Knowing this ahead of time makes it much easier for me than discovering this after writing a couple hundred pages or so.