To Outline or Not: That is the Question

No two writers are the same, nor any two stories. When I was a young writer, this question was asked a lot and people usually stood firmly on one side or the other. The pro side was you knew where you were going and were more likely to finish your project. The con side was it could make your story stale or predictable. An outline is nothing more than a tool to help you plot. In my case, I always use an outline. I can’t imagine writing without it, so I will speak only to that side of the question.

I must know where I’m going when I write. Not only do I have an outline, I have a theme. I usually start with a three act structure of beginning, middle, and end. I talked about this in the last blog. I try to sum up what I want to say in one sentence that includes all these acts. For example: Raised by her evil stepmother, after her father’s death, Cinderella longs for escape, which is given to her by a fairy godmother, who delivers her to the arms of Prince Charming. In this case, Cinderella has probably not learned much because the action is all done to her. Even in this simplest form, the writer can see some of the flaws of the story and correct them from the start.

From this point, I divide the parts up into chapters. Some writers will start putting in plot points or story reversals. What prevents Cinderella from achieving her goals? Most stories have two major plot reversals. What other characters are needed to round out the plot? Any subplots? In the case of a mystery, there is usually a protagonist, a victim or two, and a villain or two. The protagonist may have a helper or sidekick. There maybe many suspects. Similar plot designs are needed for other types of stories. I think of most stories as mysteries having a driving question the reader wants to answer that propels the reader from page to page through the story. Cinderella is more of romance, boy meets girls, what will stand in their way plot. Will Cinderella overcome the circumstances of her birth to live free?

Once I start writing, I will outline a few chapters ahead in greater detail, deciding for each one what the point of view will be. How many scenes are needed? How do they advance the plot? What role will each character play? Then I start playing with backstory for each character. Who are they? What do they want within the story? This informs their character and struggle in the storyline. Their motive. I must know the end, where I am going, so that I don’t wonder aimlessly without meaning.

The hero has not only to fulfill the quest of the journey, to solve the mystery, but also to bring it to a satisfying conclusion, depending on the type of story. This can be tricky in writing a historical because maybe in real life the story didn’t have a satisfying or fulfilling ending. Maybe they just died. Choosing when to end the story can help with some of this. One of the movies currently nominated for an Oscar is about how to live with a fatal illness. Another is about letting loneliness and loss of friendship drive you crazy. Even if the ending is to be an unhappy one, it must leave the reader feeling the story was worth the time of reading. There has to be a payoff.

Photo by Thirdman on

Published by dpreisig

Dawn was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, and moved to Fort Wayne at the age of nine. As an adult, she lived off and on in Denver, Colorado. She went to college at Purdue Indiana University and works fulltime as a Nurse Practioner. She has two grown sons and two grandsons. She loves history, travel, writing, gardening, painting, any kind of creative arts.

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