Writng Discoveries: Making an Outline

Most times, when I get a new story idea, I just kind of dive into it. I take some notes to get myself a starting place, but most times I go into a new fiction piece without much of an idea of what’s going to happen. I went off this path a bit when I wrote one middle-grade manuscript, an experiment where I based it off the Hero’s Journey, making sure my character hit all the basic markers. That got me a mostly full draft (I still don’t know the climax, but that’s a different problem for a different post).

But just recently I wrote out the entire outline for a short story, making it very detailed with what would happen, and what the characters would think. That took a little under a week. Then I wrote it — that also took a week. It’s still in a very rough draft form, but I was amazed how smoothly the story came out when I had a map to refer to. I found I didn’t have moments where I was stuck, pounding my head against the table trying to figure out what happened next. When I thought I hit a wall, I’d look at my outline and realize I’d already solved the problem I thought I was having. It was a relief.

I’ve tried the outline idea for another novel-length piece I’m working on. My impatience to get started made it so I didn’t get it quite so detailed before diving in, but there’s still a bare skeleton there. And still, I’m finding that when I’m lost, I look at it, and see that I already figured out the basic direction to turn my character. It’s not like I can’t go off the path I’ve written for myself — I’ve already gone into the outline document and added things I want to have happen, or altered a plot point based on something I see. And obviously the revisions will involve so many rewrites and plot reworkings. But for getting the first draft finished, an outline is a tool that’s more important than I even knew.

Do you write outlines before working on your story? Or do you dive in? If you’ve tried both, what do you prefer?

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