By Maria Arnt | A 3-minute Read
It’s every author’s dream: one morning, you wake up, well-rested and clear-headed, and you have the most wonderful idea for a book, and the motivation to sit down and start writing it right away. You know exactly how the entire thing is going to go, and you’re confident that you can remember it all in the short time it will take you to type out the rough draft!
For those of us who live in the waking world (with the assistance of much caffeine) reality is more complicated. Inspiration comes in fits and starts, and the Muse takes long holidays before dumping a year’s worth of material on you at 3AM on a Tuesday. This can lead to erratic writing schedules, forgotten plotlines, and documents labeled “fight scene” that you can’t even remember which installment of your series it was supposed to happen in.
So what’s a writer to do? (Other than periodically run themselves into a rut trying to keep ahead of their own memory failure). The answer is simple: Outline.
Many writers are hesitant to outline, though, especially if they have a spontaneous writing process. For them, there can be a feeling of entrapment and commitment that comes along with putting the bare ideas on paper. What if you change your mind? What if you don’t know how it ends yet? What if you know how it ends and begins, but you haven’t the faintest idea what happens in between?
The good news is, if you take a flexible approach to outlining, it can be even more helpful in those situations. The trick is to realize that your outline is not the structure on which you build your story. It’s just a good way to keep your thoughts in order while you’re doing it. To use a handy metaphor: It’s not the steel beam structure of the skyscraper you’re constructing, it’s the scaffolding you use to put that up.
Scaffolding is lightweight and changeable. If you need to a different area, you can easily dismantle it and reassemble it in a different way. Your outline should be the same: as brief as possible to convey the information, and flexible enough that you can change it easily. Here’s how to build that scaffolding for yourself.
Use Tools Like a Human
Well, actually crows and chimpanzees use tools too, but you know what I mean. There are a variety of organizational tools you can use to help you create an outline. As lovely as the classic pen & paper are for inspiration, this is one case where you shouldn’t use them. The most basic tool I would recommend is a regular old word document – where you can move things around and stick things in between without having to re-write the whole thing.
Beyond that, you have programs specifically designed for writers like Scrivener, or general organizational tools like AirTable (they have a template for novels already made up for you). Do some research, find something you can use easily without having to learn too much. You’ll especially want something that makes it easy to move things around.
Get As Much Down as You Can
It’s okay if you don’t know every single scene you’re going to write. Put what you know down and don’t worry about the rest until it’s time for you to write it. It’s okay.
This helps create one of the most useful aspects of an outline: the ability to write non-sequentially. As much as we’d like to imagine writing the book from Chapter 1 and keeping on in order until we type “the end,” it rarely goes that way. Even if you progress in chronological fashion, you’ll often need to go back and add to or change things you already wrote, as your vision for the book changes.
With your outline laid out, you can write at any point in the story, label the scene accordingly, and move on to the next you’re inspired to write. Really good organizational tools will let you move the scene itself, which is handy. Just be careful not to fall into the trap of writing all your “favorite” scenes first, and then get stuck filling in the gaps in between them.
Change Your Outline. Frequently.
Don’t let it stagnate and become a prison that your story is trapped inside. The best way to avoid this is to have some way of updating your outline. Mark scenes when you complete them, and then take a look at the rest of the outline. Have you come up with something else you need to add? Do you see anything that needs to be changed?
Keeping your outline a living, changing thing will help your story stay vibrant as your mind comes up with ever-better ideas to tell it. Meanwhile, it ensures that you don’t forget any previous bursts of inspiration that you’re not ready to write down yet (or you just haven’t had time!). It’s the best of both worlds, and it saves your brain a lot of work holding on to that information.