Outlining: The Best and Hardest Planning Tool

4 Oct

by Savannah J. Foley


Before you read this article, you should know the definition of an Outline. It’s very similar to a synopsis, but with more structure. A Synopsis is a shortened version of your story, about two pages, that describes all the important plot points and characters. An Outline shares your plot chapter by chapter, and looks like this:


Mary Sue and her boyfriend John Smith are driving home from a party when they get in a car accident. Mary Sue wakes up in the hospital, with no one around and blood lining the walls. As she makes her way back out into the world, she is attacked by a dirty man who won’t stop walking towards her, even when she hits him with a plank of wood. As Mary peers over a hill and witnesses an ambling, undead crowd, she realizes that she is one of the sole survivors of a zombie apocalypse.


Blah blah blah…


For me, the outlining process started out complicated and ended simple. ANTEBELLUM had been on submissions for a year, and I had edited the next book in the series and sent it to my agent for review, just in case any editors wanted to see it. She wrote back with pages of problems, not necessarily about the manuscript itself, but the entire concept.

Previously, we’d received rejection letters from houses that loved the story, but had to regretfully pass because they couldn’t figure out how to market it. ANTEBELLUM had a hazy audience and genre, stuck between YA and Adult, Fantasy and Dystopian. My agent recommended an outrageous and gutsy idea: Combine all three books in the series into a single, 120k word YA.

When I saw that, I grew excited and afraid. Excited, because I knew it was the right thing to do. Afraid, because it meant giving up my beloved trilogy, several sub-plots and characters, and performing a complete and intensive rewrite. I decided to do it.

But instead of just leaping in and mucking about, I decided to try this ‘outlining’ thing I’d heard so much about. Outlining seemed like a great tool for people like me who enjoy lists and charts. I wanted to be able to physically see my character and plot arcs, and have each chapter planned out before I began writing.

How hard could it be? I wondered. I’ve been living with this series for 6 years. I KNOW this world, and the characters. Outlining would take about a week, if I was only half-paying attention to it. Two months later, I had learned a valuable lesson: Outlining is both incredibly difficult, and incredibly worth it.

I wish I’d researched the process more before I began, because perhaps then I wouldn’t have spent so much time avoiding it and feeling guilty because I was completely stuck. So here’s my story, and my advice to you for the next time you need to outline:

Outlining is not a solitary process.

I completely forgot that I had some wonderful CPs, and tried to go about this outlining business alone. I had to create a completely new plot line, and I was trying to do it while staring at my computer screen in the evening and resisting the urge to just surf the net and forget all my problems.

Finally I complained about my lack of progress to one of my CPs Kat Zhang, and before I knew it we were discussing plot options and developing awesome and dramatic new ideas for events down the road. From then on, when I was stuck, I sought out somebody to chat with, and worked it over until I knew where to go from there. There’s something about the act of talking about it with someone that really makes your brain put out.

Outlining is not a one-activity process.

Even when I had an idea for what a chapter should accomplish (thanks to my brainstorming sessions with friends), I was having a really hard time describing it in such a way that the flow of the scene came across. I wanted my outline to be descriptive of all the major points in the chapter, like the example above, and not a one-sentence ‘Mary Sue realizes she’s now living in the zombie apocalypse.’

But, again, I had that problem where I’d stare at my computer and think, ‘how in the world can I figure out what’s happening in this scene without actually writing it?’ And remember, I had promised that I wouldn’t actually start writing until the outline was finished. Well, apparently that was a bad idea, because as soon as I started writing really, really rough drafts of scenes, I was able to orient myself to the chapter. When actually writing it, I could figure out the flow of conversation, how people would move about the room, and what everyone’s face would look like.

I didn’t write complete chapters, just snippets of speeches and actions. It helped me figure out the flow way better than trying to summarize it from the sterile perspective of an outline.

A completed outline is not set in stone.

I finished the outline and sent it to my agent. A few days later she wrote back to tell me I had done a great job with it, and to go ahead and get writing! Yes!

Then, I realized my first chapter was going to take 9,000 words to tell instead of a more-acceptable 3,000. So I had to split the first chapter into three chapters. But that was okay, because later I found some chapters I had outline were way less than 3,000 words, so I combined them with surrounding chapters. More recently, I realized that it would make more sense in the flow of the story if two outlined chapters were reversed in the order they were to happen.

So it’s not like I had to stick to the outline, or else. A drafted outline is a tool to guide you through the story, not a concrete plan. There are many ways to reach the same destination, after all. An outline just gives you a map.

Right now I’m 25,000 words and 7 chapters (out of 30) into the rewrite. I hope to be done by January 1 so I can go back out on submissions with a new, genre-defined manuscript. And I seriously doubt I could have done it without my outline.


Savannah J. Foley is the author of the Antebellum (originally known as Woman’s World) series on Fictionpress. She has written five novels, owns her own freelance writing company, and is signed with the Bradford Literary Agency. Antebellum is currently out on submissions. Her website is www.savannahjfoley.com, but she updates more frequently on her livejournal.


36 Responses to “Outlining: The Best and Hardest Planning Tool”

  1. Kerrie October 4, 2010 at 1:55 AM #

    Outlining has always been my weakest link – I’ve always been a ‘muck about’ kind of person. Which is strange, because I put limitless amounts of effort outlining the CONCEPT of a story. Just not the story itself.

    Which is bad. And probably a reason why it takes me so long to develop a feel for chapters, and start to write them. (Sometimes MONTHS if I’m at a ‘what should happen’ or ‘setting up further along scenes’ stage…)

    Maybe I’ll finally force myself to give it a try again. I like the blurbing outline; I’ve always done them as point form, and it makes me CRAZY!

    Haha, enjoyed this. : )

    • Savannah J. Foley October 4, 2010 at 8:16 AM #

      Thanks! I love to ‘muck about’ but at this point in the game I felt it was too late for that… I didn’t need to take my time to get to know the world, because I already knew it.

      Good luck with your outline!

  2. Sammi K Walker October 4, 2010 at 1:55 AM #

    Outlining is bittersweet for me. On the one hand, bitter because the act of actually doing it always seems to drag on (probably b/c I outline before starting, so it’s completely from scratch). On the other hand, sweet, because once it’s done, my WIP has SO much more clarity to it, and this makes it much easier to write/imagine. 🙂

    • Savannah J. Foley October 4, 2010 at 8:16 AM #

      I think that’s the perfect way to describe it… it sucks going through it, but the results are great.

  3. October 4, 2010 at 1:59 AM #

    Thousands of words AND a blog post.

    I appreciate the detail you put into this. Outlining can be intimidating for several reasons, such as: the sensation that it has to be perfect esp. if the story is still a bit hazy in certain places, and the worry that once it’s been outlined, interest in the story will be lost. I’ve struggled with both.

    It’s timely: NaNoWriMo is coming up. Arming oneself with an outline can lessen the stress of that month, and make it easier to accomplish a variety of NaNo-related goals. Like – having something that’s coherent and can be revised and rewritten into something good. If we can’t be good writers, we might as well be excellent rewriters, no?

    Good luck with rewriting. A great start to 2011 should everything work out as planned!

    • Savannah J. Foley October 4, 2010 at 8:18 AM #

      Haha, yes, 4.6k last night, woo! I had written the article earlier in the day…

      That’s a really interesting comment you made about losing interest in the story once the outline’s complete… if anything, the outline made me MORE excited to get started writing, because I couldn’t wait to get to those really dramatic points in the story. It hit my first one last night and was so excited I couldn’t fall asleep until 1AM.

  4. sdennard October 4, 2010 at 6:34 AM #

    Wow. Great post, Savannah. I’ve never really thought about outlining and the complexities in the process. I do it on index cards before a write (1 card per scene), but I often veer off from the cards. 😛

    And holy crow! The thought of condensing 3 books is more than just a little intimidating, but I’m impressed with how you approached it. Thanks for sharing your hard-earned wisdom and best luck with it!!!

    • Savannah J. Foley October 4, 2010 at 8:19 AM #

      Thanks! I really wanted to use post-it notes, like I’d seen around the web, but I didn’t even know where to start, so I just stuck to Word.

      Condensing was the hardest ‘kill your darlings’ thing I’ve ever done, but I still have the older versions of the story, so it’s not like I’m losing them completely.

  5. Jess October 4, 2010 at 7:56 AM #

    I love planning a story and doing all the pre-work, but to do THAT sort of outline kills my stories dead. I do a scenelist through notecards with the one-line idea. If I tried to do anything deeper I may as well just write it… I love my scenelists though, and can’t imagine getting to The End without one.

    For this rewrite I have my old scenelist completely rearranged and I’m going by feel as far as the new stuff, though. Ironic.

    • Savannah J. Foley October 4, 2010 at 8:20 AM #

      I love the idea of notecards and postit notes, but it just didn’t work for me. I wanted the detail too I guess, lol.

  6. Rowenna October 4, 2010 at 8:29 AM #

    I outlined for the first time for my last project–definitely agreed on the “not set in stone” bit! I found, too, that playing with timing and placement of some elements was waaaay easier with something in outline format than it was to move chapters around. So if I decided the flashback sequence wasn’t fitting where I put it originally, for instance, I popped into the outline to play with where it could fit better.

    Great post! And great work on the rewrite–super-impressed with the condensing and reimagining!

    • Savannah J. Foley October 4, 2010 at 11:18 AM #

      Aww, thanks! I had heard so many inspirational stories about how extensive cuts made the novel better and more marketable (like the efforts from our very own Mandy Hubbard), so that gave me the courage to do it.

  7. authorguy October 4, 2010 at 10:27 AM #

    I do a lot of what you describe here, although I don’t go to the trouble of writing anything down! My son and I often discuss stories ideas when we’re driving somewhere, and I’ve gotten several good ideas from him. I also do a bit of outlining/plotting in my head a s I drive, putting ideas together.

    And as soon as I start to write it all starts to veer off on its own course, and drag me along with it!

    Marc Vun Kannon

    • Savannah J. Foley October 4, 2010 at 11:19 AM #

      I wish I had a CP I could drive around with… I watched the documentary on making Finding Nemo, and when the team had a plot problem, they would drive around until they figured it out. I always admired that method.

      • authorguy October 4, 2010 at 11:30 AM #

        It’s a good one. I guess it’s because the motion of the world outside the car stimulates the flow of ideas.

      • Kat Zhang October 4, 2010 at 12:45 PM #

        Haha, you could always…drive here and put me on the phone while you do! Then you’ll 1) have a great brainstorming session while you drive 2) by the time we figure everything out, you’ll be here in person, and we can celebrate!

        Just something to think about ;P

        • Savannah J. Foley October 4, 2010 at 3:52 PM #

          Nah, I’m not a good phone brainstormer, I prefer in person. Maybe we could drive around Nashville and get ice cream or something sticky and delicious. But not this weekend. This weekend we convene at a convention!

  8. ti_may_y@hotmail.com October 4, 2010 at 3:43 PM #

    Yup every author shoudl outline. Except those lucky writers who are discovery writers. They’re incredibly lucky. They should be hailed as gods or attacked on site. Since I like george rr martin I like the god version:P
    But it’s a nice way to get rid of competition.

    • svonnah October 4, 2010 at 10:00 PM #

      I think that being a discovery writer is a luxury I can’t afford right now, though I dearly wish I could go back to those days 🙂

      • authorguy October 4, 2010 at 10:03 PM #

        What’s a discovery writer?

        • svonnah October 4, 2010 at 10:05 PM #

          The type of writer that doesn’t really plan; they just get in there and see where the story takes them. I have heard it equated to driving a car: You can only see as far as the headlights, but, then again, you can make the whole journey that way.

          The problem with being a ‘discovery’ or ‘intuitive’ writer is, obviously, sometimes you take wrong turns, or your story lags for 200 pages before rapidly approaching an explosive, 10-page ending. I think discovery writers tend to be less experienced, and the more experienced a writer gets the more they lean towards the planning side, but I’m sure it’s not that way for everyone.

          • Marc Vun Kannon October 5, 2010 at 7:56 AM #

            Like me, in other words. That’s what we call pantsers, and I’m a pantser squared. Not only do I make it up as I go along, I make up making it up as I go along. Never do the same thing twice, is my motto.
            Although I have found myself doing a bit more plotting lately, it’s usually just for the next few pages. I haven’t yet had an entire book plotted before I wrote it. I can plot a short story, since a few pages is most or all of the pages.

          • tymcon October 6, 2010 at 1:12 PM #

            I don’t really agree with that. George rr martin is (I think) the best fantasy writer and he’s a discovery writer. Although because of that his new book is delayed for at least five years.
            Neither is really better than the others. In the discovery method you may be able to be more freeflow but you’ll need a hell of alot of editing at the end.
            But outlining does the work before the novel is made. It still needs to be edited but not nearly as much.

  9. Marina October 4, 2010 at 5:52 PM #

    Wow, this is some great advice. I keep thinking of making an outline for my story since it’s gotten so big that I can’t contain it all in my head anymore. Maybe this is the boost I needed.

    • svonnah October 4, 2010 at 10:00 PM #

      I hope it works for you!

  10. jenn fitzgerald October 5, 2010 at 4:27 PM #

    Great post in support of outlining, Sav! And I’m sure you can finish the rough draft by January! I’m working on an outline and I’ve found it really does help to include snippets of conversation or scenes in when figuring out how everything fits together.

  11. Julie Eshbaugh October 6, 2010 at 10:46 AM #

    Wow, Savannah, what an AWESOME post! I outline and use it for the first draft, but I rarely return to it during revisions. Your post has taught me that continuing with my outline can help me make sure that rewritten scenes stay on course. You are an INSPIRATION!!! *runs to dig up outline*

  12. Cassie October 6, 2010 at 8:27 PM #

    Oh. My. God. Thank you so much for writing this! This was just the article I needed to read to get my ass in gear! I’m about to open up the WIP that has been sitting around my graveyard for the past 4 years – it too is a trilogy. I’m thinking about writing an outline that will combine all three, to see if it’ll work or not. Maybe that’s the fix to its 4 year hiatus!

  13. Colin October 7, 2010 at 8:49 AM #


    Is this a battle between ants?

    • Savannah J. Foley October 7, 2010 at 8:50 AM #

      Hmm, perhaps I misspelled it. It was meant to be Antebellum, which is Latin for ‘before the war’.

  14. Julie October 8, 2010 at 7:55 PM #

    Thank you so much for writing this. It was a revalation. I never ‘got’ outlining before.

    Hopefully this article will be responsible, in part, for my first novel: coming soon!


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