I think every fiction writer faces the question: “Do I want to outline, or not?” at some point in their career, and revisit it from time to time. As to the particular style of outlining, they probably revisit the problem from time to time.
I’ve known some writers who write detailed chapter by chapter outlines that are not only long, but include actual snippets of description and dialog. Others write vague lists of major plot points and then free-write their way from plot point to plot point. Still others will come up with a basic story concept, spend time writing character sketches, and then put their characters into their basic story and see where those characters take it through free-writing. There are methods based on a three-act structure, or other multi-point systems, or circular cycles of rising and falling action leading to new cycles of rising and falling action. A simple google search will produce dozens of different outlining systems.
None of these systems are right or wrong. It’s a matter of experimentation to find what works best for you.
For most of my short stories I come up with a basic concept and then free-write until I’m finished. I’m generally happy with the results. On the other hand, when I tried to free-write a children’s fantasy novel, the resulting manuscript was so messy and inconsistent that I’ve had to revise it about five times, and I’m still not happy.
I’ve set that manuscript aside for the time-being, and for my two new works in progress I produced outlines of all the key plot points. I’m currently using the 7-point plot system taught by author Dan Wells in this series of videos, or summarized in this episode of the podcast Writing Excuses. Give it a listen – it might be the system for you. And if not, there are dozen of other systems out there, just waiting for you to try them.
So far I’m very happy with this outlining system. It provides a clear path for each of my major characters, as well as an overarching story to tie all those characters together. But it’s not a chapter-by-chapter or scene-by-scene outline. There is still plenty of room for me to make changes here and there and to free-write my way to better world-building and character development as I work all my outlined plot points together.
What outlining styles (or lack of outlining styles) have worked best for you? Share them in the comments to help other readers find the right fit for their writing method.