How To Make An Outline For Writing Fiction

Image: A table with post-it notes spread out on it, with headings and topic sentences to show organization of a piece of writing.

Aspiring writers often ask me if I use an outline when I write. The answer is yes and no. I outline, but I don’t do so in the traditional way by generating an outline and then referring to it as I craft the piece. For the creation of the rough draft of a manuscript, I rely on a natural flow of words over which I have little control, so I am unable to outline ahead of time.

Not that I wouldn’t like to do so! Knowing what I am to write before I begin would be a huge advantage. Instead, I create the first draft as a rough-and-tumble mess without concerning myself with structure or meaning. A byproduct of this process is a lot of writing that does not merit further refinement. In my closet are boxes of journals filled with writings that will never see the light of day.

When I identify a group of words that deserves further attention, I work on it to determine whether it contains a story that is worth telling. Once I decide that it does, I continue to edit and trim it until the internal structure manifests itself. After I’ve eliminated the most egregious chaff and the rough draft is completed, I begin my outline.

The outline itself has no set structure—the only rule is that it must be useful. Sometimes I employ headings, subheadings, and comments, and at other times I simply list things I consider important. I note significant words, and I record the number of occurences as well as the locations to ensure that the same ones do not appear too many times or too close to one another.

I also follow threads (objects, actions, thoughts, metaphors) that run throughout the piece. If something appears several times in the manuscript, I track where it shows up, who knows about it, and its raison d’être. Such knowledge allows me to eliminate rabbit trails and arrange chapters, paragraphs, and sentences more effectively.

In addition, I keep tabs on my characters’ relationships—when they talk, to whom they speak, and how long each dialogue passage lasts. The “find” function (Control+f on a PC; Command+f on a Mac) helps with this immensely. I do a lot of searching and counting when I edit my writing.

The problems I encounter in the manuscript determine the outline’s structure. Each novel or short story presents unique challenges, and the outline must be flexible enough to deal with them. As an instrument for improving the quality of the work, it has no intrinsic value, so I don’t worry about the outline’s format for its own sake.

The tool evolves as I edit the piece. When the rough draft of the manuscript is completed, I make the first draft of the outline. Then as I rewrite and edit the work, I toggle back and forth between the outline and the manuscript, making changes to both.

The outline grows during my first few passes through the manuscript and then shrinks as I dispose of issues. In the end, when I’ve dealt with every open question in the piece, it nearly disappears. I usually end up with nothing more than a skeleton that helps me see what’s going on without having to scroll through the story.

I accomplish the final polishing of the manuscript without reference to the outline. By that time, its job is done.

Periodically saving drafts of your outline is a good idea. During rewriting and editing, you should use only the most recent version, but backup drafts come in handy, if you inadvertently eliminate something from the outline before correcting it in the manuscript.

Throughout the rewriting and editing process, the outline should exist for your use and never limit you. Write your story, and if it turns out to have a commercially viable structure, great. If not, don’t attempt to make it something it isn’t. Writing, outlining, and editing in this way renders wonderful stories, and some of them will have compositions that are marketable. The others are part of your body of artwork, and even if they’re not salable, they will bring you enormous satisfaction.

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