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To Outline or Not to Outline

That is the question!

Time to tackle another writing article. Since creating the "On Writing" section in my blog I have really had a blast sharing my experiences with all of you. Being an author is one area that I sincerely enjoy discussing, and many of you ask me questions about these kind of things. So ... Here goes-

There are a lot of different ways to write a book. And, many authors disagree on the proper technique when starting. I have read many books about using, or not using outlines. The opinions vary in many ways. Some authors swear by using a full outline, some say use "some" outlining, and others say they never write one thing out prior to starting the book. I've heard that some authors have a mild idea of direction and then they make the story up as they go. Some of these folks have even said that they often surprise themselves with the outcome of the story. While that sounds exhilarating and neat to me, I prefer to have much of the story outlined before starting. All of that said, the truth of the matter is that all of the successful authors do this differently, so there is not one-single-only way to outline your book.

Obviously this is personal preference. And, I can tell you that non-fiction is different than fiction. For me, my non-fiction needs to be detailed carefully in an outline. When I do fiction, I am a little less clear and mostly just give myself a track to follow. This allows me some latitude and ability to alter course along the way (as long as it finishes generally the way I originally conceived it).

Now let's look at a sample to give you some creative ideas and show you how I do it. When I put my outline together for a thriller fictional story, I do not list chapters. Instead I break the story into pieces (chapters will come naturally as I write the book) and write something brief about the following sections:

1. My Hero/heroine is on another successful chase (usually 1-3% of the entire book);
2. My Hero is asked or forced to get the Antagonist and really doesn't want to (usually 4-7% of the entire book);
3. My Hero finds a Helper (usually 4-6% of the entire book);
4. My Hero prepares for the "chase" (usually 10-12% of the entire book);
5. My Hero finds himself/herself in a new place; which is often Antagonist's (usually 2-4% of the entire book);
6. My Hero is tested by the Antagonist's cronies and is winning (usually 20-25% of the entire book);
7. My Hero is tested by the Antagonist and is still winning (usually 10-12% of the entire book);
8. The Antagonist captures my Hero and he/she is often near death (usually 10-15% of the entire book);
9. My Hero narrowly escapes (usually 2-4% of the entire book);
10. The Antagonist pursues my Hero (usually 10-12% of the entire book);
11. My Hero has a final victory over the Antagonist (usually 8-12% of the entire book);
12. Final status of Hero is usually humorous (usually 1-3% of the entire book).

Remember, this is merely the way I do it. Also, those percentages and the breakdown of section types is based on it being a thriller book.

If you'd like to see one of my outlines from a book I've created, simply say so in a comment, and I will send you one. Let me know if you want fiction, non-fiction, or both.

Now ... Get cracking!


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Posted by Vaughn Ripley

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  1. In my writing group, we call the absolute non-outlining writers “pantsers,” as in “flies by the seat of his pants.” There are so many different ways to outline… One of my favorites is to get all the critical ideas down onto different index cards, which I can then shuffle, resort, and lay out visually in front of me. Poetry, though, that just has to flow.

    Good topic.

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