Today’s post is in honor of all the NaNo writers out there, and all variations thereof, who may or may not be writing from some kind of outline. To all of you: Go, go, go!

Outlines. Think back to school–junior high, high school, even college. You had a paper to write, an analysis of a book you’d been assigned. You were organized, you’d learned the method, so you started with an outline. You know: Thesis, Topic Sentences, Supporting Details, Conclusion.


It’s a useful technique. I kept at it when I became a technical writer, and I use it today for my nonfiction. It’s a great map to write from, and it gives me a starting point to go back to, if I get distracted or off track, to re-organize things a bit, get my new focus down on paper. And, yes, it’s got that basic form: Chapter 1, Heading 1, Heading 2, etc, etc.

Not so my fiction. Probably because there are too many layers to fiction. If I try to fit them all into headings and subheadings—my brain will implode. Messy. So how do I outline?

I start with Martha Alderson’s Scene Tracker. The Scene Tracker has several columns of information that you fill out for every scene. I add columns of my own, things I tend to forget about unless they’re right in front of me. And I’m sure I fill every column out with a LOT more text than Martha expects. I don’t trust myself to remember big ideas from a word or two, so I end up using a teensy font and get these very skinny, very TALL columns to squint at later. But the system keeps me organized, which keeps me calm and (relatively) sane.

I also always have gaps. I find it too hard to “outline” my story all the way through, without getting down to doing some writing. The outlining process stirs ideas that go beyond details and facts–scenes, character moments, tensions–and I need to start writing.

Before I write any real scenes, though, I usually take things one step further. I open a file for those scenes–starting with the beginning of the story. In that file, I write the basic action that I visualize in the scene–what the hero does, who and what they run into that makes their life difficult, and where, by the last page, they need to be heading. I get down the goal of every major player in the scene, and I try to come up with a plan to put those goals in conflict. I also throw in a lot of fairly random thinking about theme, tension, setting, and various connections I’m starting to see.

When I’ve done this scene planning as long as I can stand it, I start writing.

Do I stay with the “outline” I’ve plugged into my Scene Tracker? Do I stick to the goals and actions I gave my hero in the scene basics?

Sometimes, yes; sometimes, no. I said that I use my nonfiction outline as a guide, as the original drawing board that I often go “back to.” Why should my fiction plan be any different? Would I love to know everything ahead, have the story perfectly drawn out in my head and on paper, so I could just write and write and write? I’ll admit it: Yes, I would.

I just don’t think its possible. And I don’t think it’s a good goal for the writer to shoot for. Every time I lose myself off the outline, I come up with something new and exciting, something that either turns the story in a new, better direction or something that adds a layer, a depth, that simply didn’t exist before.

Here are a few more blogs and articles I found about the variations of outlining:

What about you? What’s your definition of outline these days?