On Writing: Let’s Talk About Outlines

On my post for writers to post their questions, Victoria Crowley of VictoriaScotiaCrowley.com asked:

“Outlines. Let’s talk about outlines. How can outlines can be a useful tool for writing a book? And what’s the best way to use them?”


Outlines are like a warm heater in a cold cabin after coming in from the snow. They take a while to thaw you out, but once you get the hang of them, they warm up your fingers and gear you up to type all the way to the last page.

Or at least to the next big plot twist in your book.

Here’s how outlines work – or at least how use them in my books. (I have created a mock-outline for my book, The Man in the Box for those who are visual learners.)

1. All the Big Ideas

The first thing I do before I dive into a book full-swing, is make bullet points of all the major ideas I have for the book. Hopefully by this point, even though you don’t have all the kinks worked out (that’s what she said?), you’ve at least thought about the premise of the book and answered one of the  most important questions: “How will this book be different than others like it?” My answer to The Man in the Box was simple: A grown man – not kids – with a family and a mortgage discovers an imaginary world. 

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 5.12.30 AM

2. Add as You Go

As you start writing, you’ll see your plot/characters grow. So, you’ve got to figure out where you want to jump into the story. This is particularly difficult because you want to be mindful to jump into an already-moving story, but not choose a drab opening (like, say, you open up with your protagonist brushing his teeth and spitting the foam out of his mouth into the sink and watching it drain away). You want it to catch your readers’ attention. As you write, you’ll be thinking of more and more ideas, and as you do so, you’ll just keep adding them to your outline, filling in the blanks.

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 5.20.31 AM

3. Connect the Dots

This is perhaps the funnest part about following an outline (is funnest a word now? I didn’t get the red squiggly…). Once you’re in the meat of the book and your outline has grown in size, you get to start checking off what’s been written. And then you get to move toward the next point. Suddenly, writing isn’t about getting from page 1 to page 395, it’s about getting from point J to point K. Connecting the dots.

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 5.27.39 AM

And there you have it! By the end of the book, you’ll have some points you never got to, and you’ll have thought of others to be inserted near the beginning of the book – and that’s what the editing process is all about. But now you have a full book on your hands to work with!

I love outlines. They keep this undiagnosed-ADHD author focused and super excited to move the story along.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Was this helpful? Share some of your outlining ideas with everyone. How can this be improved upon?

Follow me on Twitter: @atoy1208 and Facebook. Why? Because you’re about to see some friggin’ big and exciting announcements concerning my new publishing company and upcoming book projects. 

About Andrew Toy
Writer when I'm not being a husband or dad. So mostly just a husband and dad.

54 Responses to On Writing: Let’s Talk About Outlines

  1. wallacecass says:

    I couldn’t agree more with this and would like to add that outlines can act simultaneously as a story roadmap and blueprint. Personally, I like knowing where the story will go and how it will end. An Outline fulfills that function and does not kill creativity because while it may show the sign posts, it doesn’t tell you how to get there. Thanks for the article. 🙂

  2. Another great and informative post! Very helpful! Thank you!

  3. This was good. My outlines help keep me honest. If I am going to go off on some flight of fancy with a character my outline makes me ask how does this serve the stories intent?

  4. I can tend to wander off course if I don’t use an outline. On the other hand, sometimes the story rewrites itself! The trick is being able to decide if this sidetrack is really where you want to go or if this is material for a whole new story. That makes the outline even more important! Excellent article.

  5. scarmich says:

    These are the kind of outlines I use to write research papers and answer customer questions at work… It keeps me on track! Maybe I could actually try it for a book too! Thank you for using your book as a demonstration!

  6. piratepatty says:

    Very helpful! Thanks

  7. Resilient says:

    This is so helpful! My outline was too specific. A broader one frees you up to do more adding and deleting and development. Thank you!

    • You’re welcome. Sometimes mine can be pretty specific as well, even to the point of having entire scenes written out that won’t come into play until 8 chapters later. It’s fun when you get to that point and all you have to do is copy and paste it into the book. 🙂

  8. ameliemurphy says:

    I started with a very basic outline. The only thing I’ve stuck to is there is a man and a woman in my story haha. I’m a pantser all the way.

    • Love it! But you’ve got to answer who they are, what makes them tick, what do they have to do with each other? Where do they live, blah, blah, blah, blah… Have fun pantsing it!

  9. J says:

    My progress has been vastly more productive since I started using an outline. Great examples and explanation Andrew. I’m watching your blog like a hawk so I don’t miss all your good advice!

  10. This is super helpful- I need to do this for my book, but have been intimidated by the scale. Your process makes everything seem easier!

  11. Debs says:

    I’ve found this very helpful as I am still working on the outline for my first book, I find there’s so many ideas that flow and I struggle with putting them in order as well as what to use and what not to. Thank you for your tips

    • You’re very welcome. As far as order is concerned, I would recommend looking at the story as an elevator, the more climactic and exciting scenes should go later on. Well, let me think about it some more. I think this deserves a post on its own.

  12. aswillkomm says:

    I enjoyed this – I find I tend to use outlines more during the revision process. Visuals were great!

  13. Pingback: On Writing: Let’s Talk About Outlines, aka TIME FOR A SHOUT OUT – victoria scotia crowley. on all things human.

  14. AH YES! An outline (that is, lack thereof) may just be the single-standing obstacle between me and all my unfinished titles. Thank you so much for this post! I shared it on my blog: http://victoriascotiacrowley.com/2016/01/20/on-writing-lets-talk-about-outlines-aka-time-for-a-shout-out/

    • Thank you so much for sharing it 🙂 And yes, I used to have many unfinished titles until I started outlining, and you know what outlines also do? They get me excited and pumped to get to the exciting scenes! You’ll get there.

  15. earthtodona says:

    I see this post and you a day after I thought I should probably try to write a book. Not knowing where to start or if I could write at all, I am sure glad you ran across my blog. Thank you 🙂

  16. bikurgurl says:

    Interesting perspective. I’ve been fleshing mine out as I go, understanding the destination, but perhaps putting the signposts along the way in the form of an outline will add more structure. Thank you for your post!

  17. bikurgurl says:

    Reblogged this on Bikurgurl and commented:
    Maybe this is what I need to restart my real writing with gusto. Perhaps all the practice writing ramblings and mindless banter isn’t clearing my mind and I need a clear OUTLINED path?


    I really like this post from Andrew @AdoptingJames — and he’s got a lot more in the pipeline!

  18. Pingback: Ramblings: On Writing: Let’s Talk About Outlines – Bikurgurl

  19. I like this method. It’s similar to the way I do it – a mixture of plotting and pantsing.

  20. Patty B says:

    I am also an diagnosed adult ADHD sufferer! I need to start an outline and start over and I pray this is it. I get started and then feel like that joke about the dog…who is excited to see and do everything until he sees a squirrel and yells squirrels then chases after it. I need to tame my “squirrels” and get to the job at hand!

  21. Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner and commented:
    I worked on an outline for my next novel based on what James Patterson taught in his online course. Normally, I would have kept everything in my head. I like using an outline because it helps me keep in sequence and not forget some of the things I wanted to put it. I still like writing with the characters helping because they sometimes come up with some clever things. My outline is a guide only.

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