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Out with the Outline?

January 9, 2017

I wrote my autobiography, “Lost Child, Broken Man” without a scrap of outline—not an amazing feat, ladies and gentlemen—since I literally knew all of the details to that story before I wrote it down! It still took a lot of revisions and some rearrangements before I was satisfied that I’d done more than just convey my life’s events. I wanted to tell my story in the most creative way possible: to be successful with theme and have that theme lead to a moral and closure for the reader. I wanted the reader to be able to identify emotions and their correlation to events without becoming confused or overwhelmed. Something that wasn’t always easy for me to do myself, especially before the writing of it. Writing it, however, was very cathartic for me.

I never outlined my short stories either. It was a lot easier for me to keep theme and moral and character in my head and just write revisions. I’m about 30 pages now into a novel (“Broken SongwritingHomes”) which I’ve tried to write at least 3 times in the past 7 years, and at this point, it’s evolved so much you wouldn’t recognize the first or even the last draft with this one. Much has changed, but the main idea is still there. The only real constant is the main character, a 7 year old boy named Michael. A lot of other characters have changed in relationship to the boy but still still have many of the same personality traits and play similar roles as their now discarded counterparts.

The last few months this story has been brewing in the back of my mind, and I felt it was time to start writing it again. This time I did not want to do it without an outline, since the last manuscripts quickly lost any sense of direction, and the story is now much more complex (more characters, more happening).

My mistake this time was trying to be too detailed with the outline of each chapter. This actually made it a little harder to write because it left me with no creative license, no surprises, no sudden epiphanies. I didn’t get to meet any strangers and invite them into my story. So, once more, I started over, and this time broke the story into 3 parts and summarized each one, then went back and wrote a few sentences about the first few chapters. It’s working out a lot better now.

So, out with the outline?? No, but I’ve discovered that the key is not to look at the outline as an “instruction manual” but as a bare skeleton. You, as the writer, are giving those bones flesh and bringing the story to life!

It may seem obvious, but when you write an outline, you should allow yourself some room to work outside of it. It’s fun to meet a character you weren’t expecting to be there or work your way out of a sudden predicament. Also, I find it easier to outline in chunks as opposed to trying to break down every single chapter straight from the beginning. Outlining is important, because it helps you to be organized, and it may keep you from writing an extra draft, of which, for me, there should be three minimum, but that’s another story. Until then, good luck and have fun!writer



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  1. Lots of good points here, well presented. Nicely said, grandson.


  2. Thanks for this. Late last year I joined a free online novel writing course through Novoed an endeavour by Yale University I think it is. Character, plot, structure etc were covered. I found it useful. I think I have the talent but not sure I have the staying power for a full length novel. Yet I’ve surprised myself before with what I can do when I put my mind and effort to it. The latter the more important for such a big project. I think I have trouble owning the talent, not making it mine because that feels that I’m taking something, but realising that it is inherent in the first place. The tips you provided is being stored in a file I keep on the computer.


    • It is a lot of hard work, I can assure you of that, and requires much effort. That online course sounds cool. Wish I could take it. I’m glad you found my tips useful. There are other articles I’ve written stored on this blog that be also be useful for you and others.


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