EMBRACING THE OUTLINE: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love the Spreadsheet

by John Pipkin
Spalding MFA faculty, Fiction

pipkinblogquoteThe outline is one of the most misunderstood parts of the creative process. For many writers, the very idea of outlining seems antithetical to creativity itself. However, this misperception overlooks the creative liberation that can come from outlining (and re-outlining) your project as it develops. I write novels that involve multiple characters with multiple interwoven storylines unfolding at different times and places because these are the kinds of stories that I like to read. But these narratives can easily fall to chaos, and so I rely heavily on outlining my work before, during, and after each draft. I outline everything that I write, long and short, complex and simple.  

Usually, I begin with a spreadsheet, in which each character, listed in the far left column, has their own row, divided into columns arranged by chapters, and I try to map out each character’s storyline from start to finish and then identify points at which these stories will intersect. I usually have at least two different versions of the same outline going at once, in the spreadsheet and also on color-coded index cards pinned to a bulletin board above my desk. The last thing I want to do is waste precious writing time trying to figure out where I am in the story, and the index cards are a visual and tactile way of getting an overview of the developing story at a glance. Each day I pull down a card to work on a scene or chapter, and make changes on the card as the scene or chapter develops.

Periodically I return to the spreadsheet to update it with the changes I’ve made on the index cards, and this process (hopefully) keeps the sprawling behemoth of a novel in some kind of order. And when I’ve finished each draft, I re-outline the whole thing based on what I’ve actually written, and in this way the outline provides an overview of how well the narrative coheres and where there may be inconsistencies or incongruities in need of attention.

For me, the outline is not some curmudgeonly taskmaster squeezing the life out my writing, but an underlying architecture that makes it possible for the writing to go wherever it wants or needs to go.

5 Tips for Effective Outlining
1. Your outline is itself only a draft.

You already know that writing is a process, and that the early drafts of any story or poem or play are not simply rough versions of the final draft, but rather that they are an approximation of—and a gesture toward—whatever story or idea you are trying to capture. It’s the same for your outline. Your outline is not something external to your writing process, but is part of the process itself. Of course you might not know how your story is going to end before you begin, but you already know it is going to have to end sometime—you know that you have to get your main character from point A to point E, and that along the way your character will need to go through the various trials and conflicts that will change them in large or small ways, for better for worse, at points B, C, and D. You can begin to rough out an outline in terms as simple as this, and sometimes writing the outline will not only help you order your thoughts, but will help you generate plot points to keep the story moving forward. An outline is not just structural but generative as well.

2. Think of the outline as a road map instead of a summary.

If you were to plan a long rambling cross-country driving trip from NYC to L.A., you would likely expect that the best parts of that trip will be the unplanned, spontaneous detours that you take along the way (the in-the-moment decisions to stop and see roadside attractions promising the world’s largest avocado, or the mummified remains of an extraterrestrial, or the mysterious hole in the earth where the laws of gravity have been reversed). You don’t know that these places exist before you get there, but you do know that there is good stuff to be stumbled upon down the road, and you need to get there first. So it is absolutely true that you can’t plan for these spontaneous detours on your epic road trip, but you still need to know how to get from NYC to L.A. or you’re never going to stumble upon these unplanned discoveries. In your writing, your outline is your road map, but it’s a map that makes detours possible.

3. The outline is organic.

The outline is not something static. It is not like the blueprints for a nuclear power plant that must be followed down to the smallest detail or else…. As your story develops, you will discover things that you hadn’t anticipated, and you will reject ideas that had once seemed brilliant (ah, but that really weren’t so very brilliant after all). And this is exactly where the outline can help you. As you make new discoveries and move in new directions in the development of your story, you should rework your outline so that you can see how the new material fits into your story, or how other parts of your story might need to change to accommodate the new brilliant ideas. This will also help you to avoid getting “lost in the weeds” because you will be able to check the outline to get a clear view of where your story is at any point in its development.

4. The best outline is what works best for you.

There are no “rules” for outlining. No one is going to grade you on how accurately your outline looks like an outline. The outline should help you capture the ideas you already have, discover ideas that you haven’t thought of yet, and keep the plotting, characters, and themes structured so that the individual components of your story cohere in a way that makes your story accessible to readers. You can use a spreadsheet or jot notes on index cards or create a flow-chart with dry-erase markers on a whiteboard or stick color-coded post-it notes to your computer screen or draw pictures of characters and scenes on a storyboard or whatever helps you organize your thoughts. Outlining is more about tricking yourself into feeling like you are in control of your story than it is about creating a recognizable schematic for someone else to evaluate. What works best is what works for you. So experiment.

5. An outline should be liberating, not restricting.
The Book of Urizen 1794, by William Blake

“Urizen Manacled” – This is NOT how your outline should make you feel. From The Book of Urizen 1794, by William Blake

I hear a lot of resistance from students (and other writers) who hear the word “outline” and immediately think of the restrictive five paragraph essay structures that they were forced to write in grade-school, (or perhaps they are beset by visions of powerful Blakean figures of intellectual creativity bound by chains…) In other words, the idea of outlining can seem to run counter to the creative process and the free association of ideas. How do you outline inspiration? How can you be spontaneous and creative if you have to follow, ugh, an outline? But this is not how I think of outlining. You can’t outline inspiration any more than you can plan to make a spontaneous discovery, but outlining clears away the clutter and opens a clean space in which spontaneity and inspiration can thrive. An outline should encourage exploration, experimentation, and digression, because it provides a grounding, an anchor point, that can be reassuring in those moments when you are exploring uncharted terrain. I personally find the overwhelming uncertainty of having multiple characters and plotlines in free-fall to be crippling creatively. If I’m worried that the narrative is wandering all over the place without any discernable direction or goal, the last thing I’m going to feel inclined to do is to set off on yet another new digression following a random idea (even though this could actually prove fruitful in the end). But having an outline provides a kind of narrative security (even if illusory) that eliminates the anxiety of not knowing where the story is going, and this can be liberating in that it can make you feel more receptive to new ideas when the unexpectedly appear.

Everyone is inspired with good ideas now and then—but a good writer is prepared to make use of this inspiration when it arrives—and when it doesn’t, well then, you can always return to your outline.


Pipkin.jpgJohn Pipkin grew up in Baltimore and received his Ph.D. in English from Rice University. He currently lives in Austin, where he teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Texas. He is the recipient of fellowships from MacDowell, Yaddo, Dobie Paisano, the Harry Ransom Center, and the Mellon Foundation.  His first novel, Woodsburner—which centered on a forest fire started by Henry David Thoreau in 1844—received widespread critical acclaim and won the New York Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, the Massachusetts Center for the Book Novel Prize, and the Texas Institute of Letters Steven Turner First Novel Prize. His new novel, The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter—set in late-eighteenth-century Ireland during the age of scientific discovery and political rebellion—was published by Bloomsbury in 2016.


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