Outline: What’s Your Definition?

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?


  1. Great post… Plot is so key, and doesn’t have to be vague at all, like you say… the breakdown of a scnene and building of tention is really well covered in Jack Bickham’s “Scene & Structure”, too!


  2. Shevonne says:


    I mind map my story before I develop a linear outline.

    Great post!


  3. beckylevine says:

    Gottawrite Girl–

    I’ve read parts of that book–it’s a good one. So how much/what kind of outlining do you do?


  4. beckylevine says:


    So what’s your mind map like?

    Thanks for stopping by.


  5. Cindylouwho says:

    Becky, I have tryed the First Draft in 30 Days, by Karen S. Wiesner.
    At first it worked great, I was really flowing, but then I found that the process of outlining became a chore and I felt like my well of creativity was drying up from doing all the ‘mechanical’ stuff first.
    I do use character sketches though and scene settings worksheets because they help me keep the facts straight.
    For me, so far, what works best is just sitting down and visualizing the scene that I see in my head and writing it down on paper. The whole story evolves and I have been pleasantly surprised by what my characters say and do!



  6. Cindylouwho says:

    Oh, darn! I see that spelling mistake – tryed – should be – tried!
    Sorry, those drive me crazy when I see them after I hit ‘submit’.


  7. Sherrie says:

    I sit here outlining right now, on my note cards, pencil in hand. Once I get a lot of the basics down, I head to the computer and start fleshing out the scenes, learning more about my character as I go. I like to have an outline to start from, but it tends to change as I get to know my characters better.


  8. beckylevine says:


    I don’t find myself drying up from plotting, but I start getting “itchy” to turn it into “real” writing! I like the idea of visualizing the scene–I do that, too, just putting down a few action points so I don’t forget to keep things moving, which seems to happen too often when I start writing.


  9. beckylevine says:


    Do you use a card per scene? Or per “idea”?


  10. Sherrie says:

    Primarily per scene. Some scenes end up on two cards because they come to me with a lot of detail. Others are just an glimmer that will be fleshed out later.


  11. Andra M. says:

    I see outlining as building the skeleton of the story. There’s little to no detail, not much dialogue, but the action sequences are high.

    Once it’s done I use it as a guide, but invariably the end result is a far cry from the outline.

    It always keeps me focused and on track, though.


  12. beckylevine says:


    I like the card per scene idea (although I know what you mean about running over!)


  13. beckylevine says:

    So, Andra–do you outline by actually writing bare-bones scenes?


  14. What a thrill to see my name and read the Scene Tracker reference! Thank you, Becky!
    I’ve always used you as an example when writers ask whether to use the ST before writing. Since I don’t — I prefer the Plot Planner to start and ST during — it’s nice to know others do.
    Great new site!


  15. beckylevine says:

    Martha, That’s why your stuff is so good–the Planner works for visual people like you and the Tracker for NOT-so-visual ones like me!


  16. free2cr8 says:

    Very informative post Becky, thanks! I’ve just finished my outline over the weekend. I’ve had this story circling in my mind for a while now (years really) and when I sat down things sort of flowed. I just have a bare bones outline at the moment. But, it felt nice to actually get something done, to see the whole picture first is very helpful for me.



  17. beckylevine says:


    So what do your bare bones usually consist of? Plot and character details? Setting? Actual passages that you hope will go into the story?

    And seeing the whole picture makes me, at least, feel like I can start writing–even knowing that picture will probably change.


  18. Andra M. says:

    “. . . do you outline by actually writing bare-bones scenes?”

    For the most part.

    Ha! I just found the original outline to my first novel.

    Here’s a portion of it to give you a glimpse on how I write outlines:

    Begin with assassination of religious leader.

    On her way home she reads the Bible and journal she took from him, and made a copy of the disc hidden within the book.

    Realizing she can no longer be an assassin, she tells Michah when she gets home. She tells Michah of the change, and why.

    Michah’s loyalty to Dr Shalder is complete and will not go with her.

    She sees the Doctor to tell him, but he refuses to let her go. He has too much invested in her, and is necessary to his plans. Plus she knows too much about his research and motivations.

    She turns to Baesch Morgh instead to help her escape. Baesch decides to go with her, but she tells him to leave separately. She gives him a copy of the disc and Dr. Wintel’s journal, and tells him to contact the people listed on it to warn them about Dr Shalder and the Center.

    Dr Shalder knows their location, and they need to find another place to hide.

    They agree to meet at a certain location in a few months to come up with a strategy to defeat the doctor and end his experiments.

    She barely manages to get the ship out of Federation territory, and sends a distress signal.

    Much of the book has changed since then – even a few names, but it’s fun to go back and see how it all began.


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