Using an Outline to Plan Your Story

by Meredith Cole

Plan ahead, that’s my motto. I like lists. I like maps. I like to use a recipe. And I like to have a plan before I begin anything.

But I’m not inflexible. If a plan doesn’t work, if there’s something interesting by the side of the road, I’m fully in favor of taking a detour. I add spices that are not listed in the recipe or substitute ingredients when I don’t have something on hand. I get a great new idea while I’m writing, or realize a character would be better if they were twenty years older or a man or something, then I change my story. But I like to start with a master plan to deviate from.

I wasn’t always an outliner. I was a seat-of-the-pantser for years and years. And I found that I never actually finished anything. At some point in almost every story I realized that I had no idea what came next and I gave up. I have lots of terrible unfinished stories in boxes somewhere. Or in a landfill. And believe me, there’s no need to dig any of them up.

So I began to make myself daydream for a little while and scribble down some ideas about my story before I was allowed to begin. I consider it part of the creative process. I try out different ideas and try to imagine different scenarios and outcomes. I scribble down the end, if I know it. I try to flesh out the middle, too. And if I feel like I’ve got enough for a novel, I begin.

The more books I write, though, the more flexible I’ve noticed that I’ve become about having what I would consider an outline. I get a kernel of an idea and write a few pages, testing out the voice. Then I let the story percolate. A few days later, I get some more ideas about where the story could go and I write those new ideas down. I definitely trust myself not to get stuck in dark alleys quite as often as I used to, with or without a map.

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