Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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Thoughts on Writing

#29: Outlines

by Seanan McGuire

Since every outline needs a bit more than a single word, here's today's expanded topic:

Outline as much as you need to. I have books where I've written incredibly detailed outlines, including locations and characters involved in every scene. I have books where I pretty much just plunged in blind and started hacking around with my machete, praying that nothing in my new-found jungle was going to give me Ebola. Even those books eventually got "event chains" written on Post-It notes and stuck to my computer, because I needed to keep track of who was where. Neither style is superior to the other.

Outlines are scary, I think because most people's experience with them is limited to academic papers and the idea that there's some secret "ideal outline" that will turn the simplest of ideas into a New York Times best-selling novel. If that ideal is out there, shouldn't it be pursued? Yes. And also no, because the truth behind the ideal is that the ideal is different not only from person to person, but from project to project.

Now that we've established that outlines exist to confuse us, are you ready? Good. Let's begin.

What's An Outline?

Let's assume, for just a moment, that we all just dropped in from the planet Jupiter, where they don't use outlines for anything ever. What, we might be asking, is an outline?

According to Wikipedia, an outline—or hierarchical outline, if we really want to get precise about things—is a list of related items arranged hierarchically to depict their relationships. So you outline the big things, and then divide the big things into smaller things, and so on, and so on, until you've detailed to the limit of your desires.

Here is a very basic outline for a very basic story:

"Dick and Jane go to the store."

Here is a slightly more detailed outline:

"Dick and Jane are out of milk."
"Dick won't eat oatmeal without milk."
"Dick and Jane go to the store."

Here is an outline that would actually make me start stabbing people:

"Dick and Jane are at home."
"Jane got in late last night, and didn't go to the store."
"Dick discovers that they are out of milk."
"Dick won't eat oatmeal without milk. Pathos. Pathos."
"Jane tells Dick not to be so picky."
"Domestic disturbance."
"Dick and Jane go to the store."

Note that the essential action has remained the same through all three—Dick and Jane are going to the store, and woe betide he who tries to stop them—but we've gotten more and more specific about their motivations. This is a form of outlining.

Actual outlines can take many forms. Most outlines will be linear (point a to point b), hierarchical (the big stuff comes first), or both (point a to point b, with nested items under each point). No one is grading your outline, at least not after you graduate from school (speaking of which, what is a class schedule but a rough outline for your day?). You are totally free to outline according to whatever methodology strikes you as making the most sense. Seriously, have fun. You're the one who's going to need to work from it.

Why Do People Outline?

People outline because they want to know where they're going.

People outline because they need to remember the sequence of events in order to be sure they aren't getting things confused.

People outline because otherwise they might forget things.

People outline because they want to be certain they have a map of the territory they're trying to describe.

People outline because it's easier to go in a new direction when you know what the old one was supposed to be.

Why Don't People Outline?

People don't outline because they want to be surprised by their own stories.

People don't outline because they're flying by the seat of their pants, and really want to keep following their momentum.

People don't outline because it makes them feel stifled.

People don't outline because they're always certain that they're doing it wrong.

People don't outline because they don't feel that it's necessary.

So Who's Right...?

All of the above. Look: every author is different, and so is every project. Sometimes, you'll be able to go two hundred pages on momentum alone, with nothing to guide your steps but the velocity at which you're moving. You may have a harder job in revisions than someone who outlined those same two hundred pages thoroughly; you may not. You may wind up with a more disjointed book; you may not. It's impossible to say. Other times, you won't be able to get through the first page without sitting down and making a thorough outline.

Lycanthropy and Other Personal Issues was written without an outline until I was about two-thirds of the way through, then outlined very sparingly, and finally revised with a basic flow-chart of "things you really should have thought about a little harder" in one hand. An Artificial Night was written to a chapter by chapter outline, and revised with nothing but a play list of 1980s pop music and a lot of caffeine. The InCryptid books are being written from two-page summaries that are less "outline" and more "young girl arrives in unfamiliar land, kills the first person she meets, and, with the help of three strangers, goes on to kill again." Are any of these books innately superior? Nope. Was any of them intrinsically more difficult to write than the others? Again, nope. They all had their own challenges, but there was no point where I wound up cursing my outline (or lack thereof) and blaming it for all my troubles.

Figure out what works for you, and do it. If your best work involves outlining in crayon on construction paper, do it. If your best work has no outlines at all, do that. And if you're getting confused and stuck, try something else. You have a lot of options.

The choice, as always, is yours.
© 2011 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded two albums, Stars Fall Home and Red Roses and Dead Things, and has published five novels. In 2010, she was awarded the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in the field of science fiction and fantasy.

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