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  • Writer's picturesianynleigh

How I Outline

I am a reformed Pantser. During my early years when I still had a lot to learn about story craft, I would write by the seat of my pants, never knowing where my story was going.

This usually meant it was going nowhere. A few years back, I decided to give outlining a try, and it has immensely helped me in giving structure and purpose to my stories. For anyone else who may find themselves just learning about outlining or considering whether pantsing is working for them, I decided to write this quick guide on how I outline in the hopes it may prove useful.

Let me start off by saying you do not have to outline if you don't want to. Many authors are fantastic writers without ever putting their ideas to paper before banging out their first draft. I simply use an outline because it helps me to stay on track and finish my manuscript. If you don't need one, or prefer only minimal planning, that's fine. There is not a singular right way to be creative or to write awesome stories.

If, however, you find yourself having difficulty keeping your characters on task, to invent interesting things for your characters to face, or have a habit of forgetting your great ideas before you write them into a scene, you may want to experiment with outlining. It may help you finalize the sequence of events, and remind you of where your story needs to go next.

Outlining not only helps me stay on track and avoid plot bunnies, but it also helps me chart character growth and interactions. I can easily spot areas where I can put in more character development or bonding moments, and ensure there is an appropriate amount of rising and falling action.

Nothing about your outline is carved in stone. Keep it flexible, with as much or as little information as you require to act as your guide. If a scene seems to fit better in another chapter, move it. If one chapter feels like it needs to be longer or shorter, make it so. There are no rules, there are no restrictions.

Now, down to business.

How do I outline? I begin by dividing my outline into a base number of chapters. Personally, I aim to have 75,000 words per book, and I know from experience that I average 5,000 per chapter. This gives me a 15 chapter starting point. This is just a rough count. It may change as my story progresses, leaving my final project with 12 or 23 chapters. Having a base number to begin with just helps me be mindful of pacing and word count goals.

Each of these chapters is then split into three key scenes of action or character interaction that needs to happen for the story to go where I want it to. Some of these may be short, some may end up taking up a whole chapter, lengthening my section count. Again, being flexible is all part of the process.

If your story doesn't need three scenes to get where it's going, if you prefer very short chapters or long chapters, do what's right for you. The outline is just a path, and you can take it wherever you want. Put in as much or as little information as you need to remind yourself what the purpose of that scene is. It can be something as simple as "MC meets secondary character", to whole chunks of dialogue and context. If a thought pops in your head (a line of dialogue, a secret backstory, an awesome action scene, or anything pertaining to your tale), write it down. You can work it into the appropriate place later. The important thing is that you don't lose a great idea because you didn't write it down immediately.

After my scenes are all filled out, I go back over the outline as a whole, marking pacing, character growth, subplots, and rising and falling action. I shuffle around as much as needed until I'm satisfied I've sketched out a complete and interesting story. Then, it's time to get writing.

Don't let the prospect of an outline make you feel holed in or trapped. The outline is just a guide, easily changeable. Think of it as the skeleton on which you build the flesh of your story. Some parts may be fleshier than others, but they still have a definite connection and direction.

I hope you found this helpful. Here are some links to other articles and blogs on the subject:

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