Before anyone taught me how to outline a story, I believed that the ideal circumstance for writing went something like this:
“I awaken from a dream, alert, lucid, and armed with a brilliant new story idea, having witnessed a complete and coherent narrative in my sleep. I then grab my laptop, hunker down, and tap away for three hours until everything is there, perfectly written and saved to a Google Doc.”
This scenario has only occurred once for me, when I dreamt the near-finished version of my short story “The Painter’s Foe.” The immediate product was something that I hardly felt the need to edit—for better or for worse.
My miraculous experience with that story convinced me that I could wait around and get lucky ideas from time to time, like Fawkes the phoenix dropping Gryffindor’s sword down to me in a hat. When that never happened, I realized that my “ideal circumstance” was so uncommon that it might as well be disregarded as myth. Fleshed-out, complex storylines almost never emerge at random, ready to be typed up and sent off to The New Yorker. The interactions of characters, the motivations of antagonists, and the overall meaning of a story do not arise implicitly during the writing process. A writer who begins drafting a story before planning out these elements runs into battle armed with nothing but a rubber chicken.
What happens when your villain is boring? What drastic changes must be made to accommodate a central conflict that’s too easily resolved? And what do you do when your story starts to speed onward, dragging through side-plots until your original idea is left in a muddy ditch, ten miles back? These are questions asked by authors after their rubber chickens—their rushed-to-draft story ideas—did not hold up in battle.
When going to war with an empty page, arm yourself with a weapon that takes in what makes it stronger. You may not obtain Gryffindor’s sword, but you may forge the next best thing: An outline.
Plan out as much as you can. Build an outline that lets you fill in all the blanks, or even create new ones for you to fill. Consider the details that weren’t included in your recent moment of inspiration: What is your protagonist’s life goal? How did your mentor character become so wise and yet so disgraced? Or, what makes that charming love interest so important, anyway? A thorough outline answers all of these questions and more.
The simplest justification for outlining is that a story’s problems are always easier to fix on a smaller scale. Catch and fix whatever you can before you attempt to pen your first draft, and you’ll save yourself from many headaches later.
Today, I believe that the ideal circumstance for writing a story goes something like this:
“I take a moment of inspiration from my life, and I place an unwritten protagonist there as a starting point. I craft a larger setting, picking a genre that suits my mood, and I transfer all of this to the first page of an outline. I make a table with three columns: Character name, character background, and character secrets. As I fill my character table, a plot idea takes shape! Now my outline is three pages long, and I can plan out the exact events of every chapter from start to finish. When the outline is up to eight pages, I have a clear and satisfying arc for every major character. The puzzle pieces fit together not by luck, but because I cut them that way.
“At last, armed with my outline, I charge into battle.”
(But I’ll keep the rubber chicken in my back pocket, just in case.)