Mini Outlines—a Great Compromise

 blog33 I participate in a promotional group for mystery writers.  We have a great time, promote our books, and share ideas.  We talk about our books and answer questions about writing for readers.

One of the questions we frequently find ourselves answering is: “Do you outline?”  It’s probably the most divisive question for the group.

I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s just that our rather large group is divided in half by those who are adamant about outlining, and those who couldn’t outline if you put a gun to their heads.

I’ve written both ways.  And I see the pitfalls in both. If you outline, you can feel bound to a structured plan. If you go off on a tangent, you have to fit your diversion or subplot in somewhere. If you don’t outline, you’re writing a book in a sort of loosey-goosey manner and may not know what direction you’re going in. 

So here’s my solution.  It’s not for everybody.  But if you find yourself divided between the clean, organized lines of an outline and the freedom of writing as you go, maybe it will work for you.

A mini outline:  There are different ways you can give this a whirl.

A plan for a scene. This is perfect for the non-planners in the group. You’re not bound to a huge game-plan, but you have written with purpose. You could write notes at the top of that page almost like script or screenplay notes: setting, scene (what characters are present and what they’re doing), time of day, mood.

A plan for that chapter.  For instance, in the mystery I’m writing now, I have specific goals for each chapter. It’s not good to have pages that don’t further the plot, so I jot at the top of the chapter what clues or red herrings I’m including, or what suspects my sleuth is questioning.

A plan for several chapters.  Sometimes I like to write three chapters, then edit or add subplots to those chapters before moving on to the next few. If I jot down a plan for what I need to get accomplished in those chapters (I need to throw suspicions on one character, have another seem very sympathetic, need to include an important clue while diverting attention away from it, etc.

This method is a way I reconcile my need for organization with my need to brainstorm freely.  How do you outline?  Or do you do it at all?

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16 thoughts on “Mini Outlines—a Great Compromise

  1. I combine different outlining “styles.” Before I begin, I try to outline the whole story, as best I can.

    I do it scene-by-scene, but often the entry will consist of something like, “Col Mustard and Miss White in library. Mustard has lead pipe in jacket.” Sometimes I’ll include a bit of dialog, or a setting description, just enough detail to get me going.

    Then, as I get closer to that scene in the actual writing, I’ll flesh it out some.

    When I get to the actual scene, I’ll take a few minutes and outline each character’s objectives (as well as my own) so I don’t leave out anything important.

    I find that this way keeps me on track, yet allows me room to freelance. Also, if I think of something that needs to happen in chapter 32 while I’m writing chapter 6, I can go to my spreadsheet and add a note so I won’t forget it.


  2. Great topic. I actually do both. My memoir started with a story board, which I consider an expanded outline. It listed Chapter titles and bullet points of what would be in that chapter. It was extremely helpful in drafting the memoir. Then when I was in the revision process, things got added in or deleted as the narrative evolved.

    Karen Walker

  3. I don’t outline. I try to know where, in a general sense, the scene or chapter is headed. Then, I let the characters take over.

    I think it was Faulkner who said something like, “I walk around behind my characters and write down what they do.” While I’ll never, ever be mistaken for that great man, I do kinda use that technique.


  4. Good topic and post. Also good of you to ask the question at the end. I’m a mini-outliner myself. Ideas for scenes or segments of stories I’ll often jot down and sketch out when the inspiration hits me – especially if it’s something i want to include later in the story that I’m not there yet in the manuscript.

    I’m not a big fan of entire story outlines however. I find that limiting and restraining. I just sketch a vague direction to go in, with a small (to start with) cast of characters and an idea of the conflict and resolution elements in mind, as well as what message I’m trying to impart through the story. My genre is spiritual/inspirational.

    Marvin D Wilson

  5. When I was in school I always hated outlines, I felt like it was an exercise in busy work with no real value. When I started writing my first novel, however, I found the need to use…something.

    I started with a very loose version of an outline then went back and started filling in details – less of an outline, more like sketches of scenes that I envisioned happening at various stages of the story so it became more like an overgrown, very detailed synopsis, lol. I do it all on the word processor so it is easy to cut and paste and move around to get the feel for how the story will flow. Of course, most of my writing I do on the laptop, but I do tend to carry a notebook because you never know when that sudden inspiration of that difficult scene you have been working on will hit and you have to capture the scene quickly :D

    NA Sharpe

  6. Interesting post.

    I outlined my travel memoir because I had to for the book proposal. But I found it helped me tremendously. Now I’m following it as I write.

    Here’s my question back at you: How in the world could a mystery writer NOT outline? Does the author not know how she’ll reconcile the murder at the end?

    Thanks for sharing!

  7. This is a great discussion topic. Sometimes I outline myself into a corner and other times a few notes are enough.

    In a way it’s like writing a lesson plan. You can plan to the last tiny detail, then walk into the classroom and find instead that wonderful teachable moment. You toss the plan and go with the inspiration.

    I liked this post.

  8. Hi Alexis! Thanks for commenting.

    To answer your question, I’ve got it set up so that every single one of my suspects has motive, opportunity, and means to commit the murder. Sometimes I’ve switched the killer at the last minute, even. It just means that all the clues for the person I’d formerly pegged as the murderer become red herrings instead. Sort of like “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”…but with an actual ending (eventually, anyway! :) ) Thanks for asking…

  9. I shudder at the word “outline,” yet I do it to some extent. My publisher requires a synopsis of each book before I get underway (and a synopsis certainly is a “roadmap” of the story). On my most recent book, a dear friend insisted I take the last third (which I was thrashing about with) and write two/three sentences for each of the remaining chapters. I found that helped me get to the end: Those few little sentences for each chapter “pulled” and “pushed” me to the conclusion, if that makes any sense.

  10. Excellent post. I’ve never been able to outline ahead of time – it’s never that clear where the story is going. But I do a retroactive outline once I’m past the first draft, so as to check for inconsistencies, keep track of what happens when, and know what I need to revise.

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