Outline Effectively

Check MarkI read two novels recently, one right after the other. Both were apparently outlined, but only one read seamlessly all the way through. Why?

Because the first author seemed to outline only the events to take place in the book. I could almost picture the author putting red checkmarks beside each completed event.

Unless a story is seamless, I can usually tell which novel was outlined beforehand and which was written intuitively, and I can tell the difference between one that was outlined intensely and one that was sketched out. Of course, if the story is seamless, it could be either way. The tell-tale sign–even in my own intuitively written novels–is how intricate the story is. The more deeply woven, the more likely the author outlined intensively. Want an example of an intensively outlined novel? Read William Landay’s Defending JacobI would find it hard to believe that an intuitive writer could create this to the depth Mr. Landay achieved through outlining.

I bow to K.M. Weiland as being the expert on structure and outline. Most of you who know me know her, and those of you who have known us both for quite some time know that we have entirely different methods of writing. And you probably also know we’re both award-winning authors, so this isn’t a big discussion of which is better, outline or intuitive.

What I mean to do, and what Katie does effectively in her Outlining Your Novel, is to remind you that you’re not just creating an outline, you’re creating a story world. You’re creating life on the pages of your book.

Creating life means that each event is based upon the conglomeration of all the events that went on before it, and it will affect/reflect in all the events that will occur after it. It will also create and alter your characters–not just the main character, but everyone who interacts with that character. Though not all of your outline will land in your story, nothing in the outline is isolated from it. If it is, it shouldn’t be there.

Everything affects everything, whether immediately or eventually. Everything is interwoven. Your characters react and make their decisions based on events that happened before this particular moment in time. How they react, what their decisions are, will affect — and maybe determine — what happens next. This is true all the way from backstory to beyond “the end.” Remember, if you’ve been successful in your character development, they still live in your readers’ minds beyond the covers of the book.

So, when you determine the first action that occurs in your book, follow through. How will this action affect your main characters in this scene and the next? Which character will be most affected? Whose POV would provide the most dramatic depiction of the action and its effect? How will the reaction affect the other characters? What is the logical progression of emotion throughout this scene and throughout the story arc? What is it in this action that will determine the actions and reactions throughout the story?

This goes back to Isaac Newton’s Law of Physics “every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” I don’t intend to delve into the “equal and opposite” part, but every action does have a reaction — or it should — of a strength equal to the action itself. Outliners who simply check off events are missing the ripple effect. Intuitive writers who ignore the ripples probably need to consider outlining.

Strive for more depth and intricacy in your stories by exploring all the aspects of each event in your outline.




About Linda W. Yezak

Author/Freelance Editor/Speaker (writing and editing topics).
This entry was posted in write tips, Writing, Writing Tips and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Outline Effectively

  1. Ane Mulligan says:

    Linda, I think some authors seem to know those ins and outs of plot and structure instinctively. That’s why they can be pantsters. Others, know it but their minds work differently, so they need the outline.

    One author I love is Barbara Davis, who writes in the general market. She writes an outline that hits 180 or more pages. Dare I say her “outline” is a very basic first draft, getting the “plot” down on paper. She won’t have as much editing as the pantsters because the ins and outs of the story are there.

    Then she “writes” the story, or she adds dialogue, IM, etc. and she’s ready to turn it in after one more go through for typos.


    • That’s an example of what I mentioned at the beginning of the post–it’s difficult for me to tell whether novels that are “seamless” were written by an outline or intuitively. You and I both write intuitively.

      This post came about through some novels I’ve read recently–both client and published–that appeared as if all the writer did was tick off the events from their list as they wrote them. It’s fine when these come to me as an editor. It amazes me when one like it is published.


  2. Yes, yes, yes. Just yes. :p


  3. Sigh, guilty of the check off list in my first book. Thank goodness a kind soul 😉 called me out on it, and I had the opportunity to go back in and change it (basically rewriting the book). Lesson learned, one I’ll never forget: don’t put in stuff just because you think it sounds good. As you have stated, over and over, it MUST have a purpose, moving the story forward.

    Thank you, Linda, for giving us such good instruction and examples. We are very grateful.


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