Vicki's Book News and Articles

Craft: Outlines

Written by Vicki Hinze

On December 28, 2010

Vicki Hinze © 2003-2011

My question concerns Outlines. A famous author (I think W. Somerset Maugham) said that many writers outlined their stories, and it showed in the results. Could you comment on that, please?

I’ve written novels flying by the seat of my pants–meaning, by sitting down and just writing whatever story came to mind–and by doing a lot of prewriting, which included writing a step-by-step outline of the entire novel before writing the first word of the novel itself. I’ll be happy to share my experience in writing both ways.

Let me start with the most important comment I’ll have to make: neither method of writing a novel is right or wrong. There is no right or wrong, only different. Whatever method works well for the individual writer is the perfect method for that writer to use–even if that means the writer adopts a method that is somewhere between these two methods. (An example would be that a writer would outline say, three chapters, write those, and then outline the next three, and write those, progressively moving through the entire novel.) In the end, regardless of methodology, the writer will end up with a completed novel.

Personally, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writing was more difficult for me. I wrote myself into brick walls. I ended up with character inconsistencies, or with characters who lacked the skills and abilities to perform essential novel events. I’d write two hundred pages and something would happen that required me to go back to page one-hundred and rewrite from that point to make events plausible or characters act within character. I found this type of writing frustrating because it required far more rewriting than writing to get a novel to publication quality.

Now, what do I mean by publication quality. In a publishable novel, all of the novel elements are tightly interwoven. All of the characters perform distinct and separate novel roles that aren’t generic or interchangeable with the roles of other novel characters. All of the characters have distinct voices, are credible people in their settings, their positions, in their actions and deeds, and in their individual character growth. The plot grows and progresses as a direct result of who these characters are internally, and by what they do (which is a reflection of who they are and what they believe in internally) externally. And all events happen in places these people in these situations are apt to be located.

Getting all of those elements woven in a credible manner, where what happens next is the natural outgrowth of all that has happened thus far to these specific characters, required tons and tons of rewriting. For me. Now other writers might not have that experience. For them, these writing essentials might come to them full-blown and in place. I’m not that fortunate. I have to work hard to do my best to make everything fit hand to glove. (I guess you could say, I have a messy mind.)

For those blessed with minds that automatically logically sort and contrast and compare, writing this way is a terrific thing. For me, with a messy, tangent-oriented mind, it was a shade shy of hell. But as I said, only the individual writer understands how his/her own mind works and what method works best for him or her.

Outlining before writing makes for a smoother and more seamless process for me. Bluntly put, I spend more time writing and less time rewriting. But it isn’t free, or a process that doesn’t require effort. I often spend two months working on a novel before writing the first word. That time is spent in outlining and in getting to know the characters. Interviewing them, crafting their backgrounds, their capabilities, their experiences. I do in-depth work on these characters, examining their physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects, so that when I’m done, they are no longer characters but three-dimensional people, rich with history, experiences that have shaped them, and life goals. They have loves and hates, convictions and flaws. Fears and strengths–all of which are tested in the novel.

Then comes the time to outline the story. To flesh out that initial idea and put it down on paper in a way that the story will unfold, from beginning to end. The copy I do for myself well might be fifty pages, or five pages. It truly depends on the story. The copy (in synopsis form) going to the editor will be around ten pages, but at this point, I’m working with a copy only I will ever see. I focus on character-building, goals, motivations, and conflicts, and on the logical sequencing of novel events. A leads to B leads to C and so on–start to finish, first scene to last.

Once the skeleton of the novel is established, then I go back, looking for flaws. Some of the things I look for are:

1. Logic gaps in the progression of events.
2. Main character’s motivations, or inconsistencies.
3. Main character’s growth.

These are the majors. Then, I’ll run a check on minor but genuinely important elements.

1. Are secondary characters motivated and credible?
2. Do too many of the scenes occur in the same place?
3. Are the settings consistent with places these people would typically be, or have I established rationale reasons for these people to be in these unlikely places?
4. Are the settings enhancing the scenes, creating the most advantageous tones for the events occurring?

Then I’ll run a check to make sure that each of the main characters’ motivations and goals are clear at all points during the novel. For example. A character starts out with a specific goal. But along the way, s/he learns something that alters that goal. Is the new goal clear? Is the logic or rationale leap from the old goal to the new one clear and evident so the reader too makes the logic/rationale leap?

And I check to make sure that the character flaw (that exhibits to the reader this character’s growth) naturally progresses through the novel.

The point is, that in doing all of this prewriting work in outlining the novel–before I’ve written the first word of the actual novel–I already know the characters, the plot, the setting, the tone and style, well. That translates to spending far more time writing and far less time rewriting. At least, for me.

I won’t minimize the work or time involved in outlining. I will tell you that it’s been my experience that when I write from a detailed outline, I produce a far more tightly woven novel, where if I changed one character, one motivation, one event, it would impact the whole book significantly.

If I were to gauge by experience, I would deduce “the results showing” when outlining that you mentioned referenced that significant impact.


You May Also Like…

It’s Contest Time!

It’s Contest Time!

  There’s a contest going on and it’s a fun one.  If you love mysteries and thrillers, it’s one you’re sure to...

read more
Vicki Hinze Newsletter Optin

Subscribe To My Monthly Newsletter

and get a free copy of Invidia.

Get the latest news, updates, subscriber contests, notice of special sales, and more.

You have successfully subscribed. Thanks so much for joining me. Get your free book at

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This