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The Hack’s Guide to Writing an Outline

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Warning: Hacks for Hacks tips may have harmful side effects on your writing career, and should not be used by minors, adults, writers, poets, scribes, scriveners, journalists, or anybody.

Science fiction Grand Master Joe Haldeman once told me, “If you’re having trouble writing a book, try writing about the book.” By “told me,” I mean he said this out loud in a convention panel discussion that I happened to have wandered into, and by “writing about the book” he meant outlining, probably (I wandered in halfway through). Given that I can get stuck on four to five books at a time, I’m the ideal person to extrapolate on the advice Haldeman might very well have given. So let’s talk about outlines!

What an Outline Is, Isn’t, and Kinda Resembles

Let’s start with defining an outline. For the purposes of this column, an outline is any document external to your book that acts as a guide to the process of completing it. It is not the Roman-numeral-laden inverted staircase you made in your high school English class (unless you find that structure helpful). Literally any format that makes sense to you is fine, whether that’s a one-page narrative description of characters and events, a bulleted list of plot points, or a bar napkin you found in your coat pocket that says, “Like Die Hard but with dragons.” Anything is an outline if you’re okay filling in gaps with explosions.

Some people think of an outline as an instruction manual for writing your book. I like to think of an outline as the literary equivalent of the people in your life who enable your writing career while you take them for granted and give them very little in return.

Know Your Ending

Do you pack the fam into the car for a vacation if you don’t know the destination? In this metaphor, the roadmap is your outline, and your vacation destination of Orlando, Florida, is the ending for your novel, which is in Jacksonville, Florida.

Follow Your Characters

chalk outline of a body, with outlines of bullet casings nearby
photo by Rex Dingler

The best stories are about people. Think about what drives your protagonist, and let their choices guide you from there–outlining is just storytelling at a macro level. Your characters will make choices you wouldn’t necessarily make, such as ordering the Oreo McFlurry instead of the M&M variety. If you’re doing it right, your characters will surprise you, taking risks you would never have the courage to take yourself. You’ll see them thrive as their bold choices help them fulfill your own wasted potential, reaping the rewards of a life lived without fear or apology. And then it’s time to punish those smug ingrates, because who the HELL do they think they are? Pathologically undermining our better selves is what writing fiction is all about.

Be Flexible

This is the point in the column where the “By the seat of your pants” school of writers will chime in and say that an outline is a recipe for dull, formulaic fiction, and that outlining doesn’t leave room for the organic creative process. They are, of course, completely wrong. (And HERE is where they’ll chime in to say that I’ve misrepresented or oversimplified their point. They are, of course, totally right.) Hey, I get it, you don’t want to tie yourself down to a particular story direction. As writers, we all can relate the the desire to abandon our cares and responsibilities and zip off in a random direction without looking back. That’s why the most important part of your outline is the part where you remember that it’s okay to change it, overhaul it, or completely ignore it sometimes, and that it’ll still be there when we come crawling back, ashamed of the bizarre heist scene we’ve written with all the flamingoes. Like those loved ones I mentioned earlier, outlines are very forgiving, and they will always take you back—though they will never forget.

Take the Long View

If you think of the outlining process as an emotionally abusive relationship, slogging through the events of your book’s life until its inevitable end, then you can make the writing process as productive and fun as a couple’s counseling session.

How do you like to outline your book? Share your tips in the comments!

About Bill Ferris

After college, Bill Ferris left Nebraska for Florida to become a rich and famous rock star. Failing that, he picked up the pen to become a rich and famous novelist. He now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and looks forward to a life of poverty and ridicule.


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.