Writing Tip of the Week: Follow That Outline!

A story outline can keep you focused and prepared for what’s to come in your story and how it ends.

Writing a story outline is a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing since you know where the story is going and don’t have to worry or panic that you don’t see how it will end. On the other hand, an outline can feel like it’s stifling your creativity. You want to deviate, change course, or even cut a whole section that worked in your head and in the outline but fleshed out is lifeless and dull.

What to do, what to do.

For NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) last year, I drafted an outline to use as a roadmap to keep me focused and on track while I was working on my story. It wasn’t perfect, but it gave me enough information and story points to keep me writing each day and staying focused on the story I was writing.

But, as I said in the opening, there were places where I could feel the air getting sucked out of the story. There were moments when the conflict or even story-based information vanished during the drafting process. I could even see while writing weaknesses in the story that I hadn’t initially seen in just the outline.

So, let’s look at ways to work through these problems to avoid bigger headaches in the later stages of your writing project.

OPTION #1: Lock in Your Outline BEFORE You Start

Make things easy on yourself, and outline exactly how you want the story to go. Revise, refine, read and re-read. Make sure the outline is bulletproof and everything you want to say and do with your story and characters is embedded in the outline.

By starting off on solid footing, you now have the confidence to jump in and get that draft done faster than you would if you were making things up as you go along.

OPTION #2: Stick to the Outline You Have Even if It’s Not Working

This is the easiest solution. Maybe in subsequent drafts, you can cut or refine any rough patches that appear, but you have the story planned out from start to finish and want to get it done.

Living with the outline you have already completed will ensure you get to the story’s end. It also will help you feel a sense of accomplishment for tackling that cumbersome first draft.

OPTION #3: The Page One Re-Write

Scrap the whole outline and start over. There may have been a few things you liked and plan to keep, but the rest is out, and you’re starting fresh.  

This is an effective solution if it’s clear your story has more problems than rewrites and edits can fix. This will be a time-consuming process, so take your time with this outline and ensure the story works before you enter the drafting phase.

OPTION #4: Change as You Go

Another idea is to make changes to the story as you write your draft, using the outline as more of a reference than a hard-and-fast rulebook.

However, if you do this, make sure you’re checking for consistency. If you start making significant changes later in the outline, go back and see if what you previously wrote fits in with what you’re writing now. This could be anything from changing a character’s appearance, location descriptions, or story points. Yes, these can be fixed later, but making sure they are fixed while still top-of-mind is less stressful later.

Final Thoughts

These are only a few suggestions for working off a story outline. If you notice yourself deviating way too much from the outline, take the time to figure out where the story is headed and how you want to end it.  

Ideally, Option #1 is the best course of action. It may take longer to complete, but that will make the actual drafting process go smoother and faster in the long run.

While it is fun to let the Muse take over and decide the fate of your story and your characters, you may also want to get the story done in a timely manner. An outline can help you achieve your goal and move on to the next project. 

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!