If ever there was a word to terrify me as a writer, it’s structure. If you know me at all personally, you know that I’m not exactly the poster child for organization and planning. It’s never been something I’ve been particularly adept at and I’ve never seen much use for it personally. So you can imagine how much of a struggle it was for me as a new writer to get bombarded with advice on structure, organization, planning, and everything in between. The number one fear-inducing, planning related concept? Outlining.
While it’s absolutely vital for a writer to learn all they can from other experienced writers, you can sometimes run the risk of being inundated with a certain viewpoint. It seemed everywhere I went there was all this talk of outlining. How to outline your story, how detailed that outline should be, how long it could take just to make that outline. I read stories of authors who created detailed outlines that were mind-boggling to me. Some even had spreadsheets that broke their story down all the way to scene by scene. While it was impressive to look at, there was nothing about that strategy that resonated with me and that in itself was discouraging.
If I’m being entirely truthfully, I spent years thinking I must just be a wannabe writer because I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of making an outline. As I saw it, outlining like all those authors I had researched was a critical step in creating a book. So if I couldn’t handle outlining, I wasn’t going to ever get anywhere. I even had book ideas that fell by the wayside because I tried to make a detailed outline and instead lost the story entirely. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I learned something important: you don’t have to have a traditional outline to write a book.
An outline in the traditional sense (breaking the structure down point by point) is an amazing tool, but for writers who need to think that way. For some of us though, the idea of being that analytical makes no sense. It took a long time, but I finally found a way to distance myself from traditional outlining while still finding ways to make sure I had all my ducks in a row. Now I have a few different methods I use to (shudder) structure my work while still maintaining my creativity.
Method One: The List
In the case of Captain Acorn, the outline for my book was nothing more than a page in a notebook with nine points, one for each chapter. They were nothing more than a headline of what was going to happen in that chapter. For instance, one said, “Acorn goes to Bunny Island”. That was it! That was all I needed to make the chapter happen.
Since the style of this particular children’s book was much more episodic, it allowed me to treat each chapter like an isolated event or short story. I’d just number the chapters so I knew what order I wanted and then set to work. Sometimes as I worked on the book, I’d look back at my list and realize I wanted the chapters in a different order. So I’d take up a few new notebook pages rearranging the chapters until I liked the flow of the overall book.
The key to my list method was not to get too attached to a certain order. As cheesy as it may sound, I had to let the book tell me how it wanted to flow. I know myself well enough as a writer now to know that if I tried to outline Captain Acorn any more than this I would have created more problems for myself than I solved.
This approach isn’t just limited to shorter, episodic children’s books like Captain Acorn. I’ve used this method for even bigger projects (think 60,000 words and counting) and still felt totally capable as a writer. In that instance, I mark out each section on a separate document to essentially bookmark the book’s structure. The list looks almost identical to the scribbled notebook versions of Captain Acorn, it’s just much larger. It’s enough structure to keep me on track, but not so much that I feel that’s all I’m working on.
Method Two: The Plot Page
For other books I’m working on that, for whatever reason don’t cooperate with the list system, I have a different system. You know how when there’s a movie you don’t want to pay money to see but you still want to know what happens so you go on Wikipedia and read the plot summary? I make a page like that for some books so I can see the entire arc of the story and know where I’m going.
Typing up a plot page is a good outline substitute for me because it forces me to tell myself the story in full and often times I find questions in the plot that need to be answered. There have been times where I’ve been happily typing away and then had a “Wait a minute…” moment where I realize something in the story doesn’t agree, contradicts another part, or just flat out doesn’t work. So I pout for a minute and then fix the problem. Badabing badaboom.
Sometimes if I want to take a magnifying glass to my plot page, I’ll print it up and physically attack it with a red pen. I’ll make little notes about character motivation, critical points of the story, and anything else I feel I need to make notes on. The visual of red pen markings is also pretty dang satisfying. Just saying.
This approach is also very useful if I’ve been struck by a book idea but am currently working on another project. If I’m not careful, I can totally squirrel from project to project. So outlining the book idea in a plot page helps me say: “Ok, that idea is saved. I can come back to it later.”
Method Three: The Wild Card
Every now and then I’ll try a new tactic to keep ideas fresh and see if something new works. It’s so important in any creative pursuit to keep trying new things. You never know what you might discover! So I’ll still make my list or plot page, but sometimes if I get an idea, I’ll try that as well just to see if I find something new that works even better than anything I’ve used so far.
Traditional outlining falls in this category for me, but I’ve never found a result I liked. I’ve also tried sketching out a grid in notebooks to see where all the different points of the story lined up from the view of different characters. I abandoned this method because I felt like I was literally trapping my plot in boxes. Not a good feeling for me.
Other wild card methods have stuck a little better. Just a couple months ago, I essentially storyboarded a whole book in post-it notes on my wall. I had a post-it note for each chapter all in a row. Then, in columns underneath those, I added more post-its for all the events that need to happen in that chapter. It was a bit of work, but it was really interesting to try. The result of putting my entire book on the wall like this was I could see the rising and falling action of the story like a bar graph and get a visual understanding of how it flowed. If you try this method, though, just make sure the people you share a home with are ok with you taking over a large wall space like a conspiracy theorist.
Ultimately, the biggest key to outlining a book is finding what works for your creative process. If you feel traditional outlining is the way to go for you, totally disregard everything I’ve had to say! If you’re like me and need to be a more free flow writer, try some of my methods or keep experimenting until you find your groove. The best outlining method is always the one that gets you writing the book. Write on!
Let’s find some joy,