Writing 2.4 – Who Uses Outlines?


I was recently asked about my writing process.  Do I use outlines?  Do you plot a story or just make it up as you go along?  Please keep in mind that what works for one person might not ever work for anyone else or even that one person ever again except that one time.

For my most recent title, Connecting Flight, here’s what happened:

In mid November, 2011, a plane carrying two coaches of the Oklahoma State women’s basketball team crashed.  After seeing the story on the news, I wondered about the last moments of the two coaches, one male and one female.  I wondered what might go through the minds of people on a plane that is plummeting to earth and death is certain or at least likely.  What do people think about?  What do they do or say?  Did they pray, cry, scream, or something else?  And then I settled on what I would likely say.  “I’m not ready to die.  I’m not ready to die.”

And then I wondered about that proverbial light we’re supposed to see upon death, and I wondered what would happen if I or they were truly not ready to die.  What if they refused to go into that good light?  What if they just wandered away?  And what if they lived (no pun intended) up to that ghost theory that some spirits are here because of “unfinished business”?  What if?

I had the beginning of a story, but I couldn’t use the basketball coaches because that would be wrong.  So I did what most writers do – I put myself into it.  I made the male ghost an uptight math teacher.  I needed the female to be different, so she at first she was a rather uneducated, stay-at-home wife.  However, after going through several drafts, I eventually realized that she needed something in her past to haunt her.  (Again, no pun intended.)  She eventually became a model/actress.  Then she became a model/actress of the kind with very little clothing.  That was because she needed to have something in her past to hide and something to make her resist going to “heaven” because of a fear of being rejected based on that past.  There’s more to it than that, but it’s enough for now.

I had people.  I needed reasons.  They are both on a plane together going from Philadelphia to Los Angeles.  He is going to spy on his wife whom he thinks is having an affair.  She is going on business, another “modeling” job, so to speak.  She also suspects her husband is having an affair, but he has provided her with a great amount of wealth and material things, and she shares a good deal with her less-fortunate family, so she quietly takes one for the team.  I had a connection between them, but they wouldn’t know that until the end.


But that’s not important right now.  What’s important is the process.  What I first did was treat the story as I always do – like a movie.  I write outlines and, unlike Stephen King, cannot work without one.  Mine begins with a setting followed by the important events that should happen in that scene/chapter.  Here are the first three scenes/chapters in the outline:

 A.  Philly airport

  1. Ann and Chris, nervous, getting on plane, Philly airport,
  2. neither happy, notice each other, assume fear of flying
  3. small talk, both hinting but hiding something,
  4. turbulence, distracted, notice wedding rings
  5. Plane going down, people freaking, ann and Chris hold hands tightly, repeating “I’m not ready to die”  intensity so great they can’t let go, plane hits, all goes dark

 B.  Airport runway or wreckage site

  1. smoke clearing, EMT all around, blood, wreckage, triage, yelling.
  2. Ann and Chris looking in disbelief, sounds muffled in and out, vision blurry at times
  3. They’re perfectly clean, most others are a mess
  4. Both know something is wrong, not sure what, see a few others like them
  5. Some others walking away, looking back at them, waving for them to follow
  6. Still holding hands, pull apart, big Zap!  Touch again, painful Zap keeps them away
  7. Ball of bright light, others going in, Ann and Chris refuse
  8. See man crying, bloody, next to lifeless body of wife, kids too
  9. Leave area, run quickly, not looking, ambulance goes through them.

 C.   Random places away from crash site

  1. Panicking, crying, debating what to do, to go into the light or not
  2. Agree they not finished on earth, things to do still
  3. Discuss movies, ghost clues, rules, what they can and can’t do?
  4. Ann tells him to be more of a “man” when he cries.  He admits he’s not.
  5. Do we eat?  Sleep?  Piss?  Guess we’ll find out.
  6. Where did others go?  why didn’t we go?  people say spirits don’t know they dead
  7. But we know.  But we not ready?  We need rest.  Tired.  Do we sleep?  Mental detox.

This is not exactly how the story went, but it was the first, maybe second version of an outline.  Although the original outline only had 14 chapters, I eventually ended up with 18.  I always print my outlines so that I can keep them in front of me on the desk as I type.  I constantly check each line to make sure I’m going in order, although there’s always room for changes and improvising.  I also print the outlines because I like the visual of crossing off numbers and letters as I progress.  It helps give me a sense of progress and accomplishment.  Another part of my process is basically “watching a movie.”  When I type, I imagine that I’m watching a movie in my head, and I am simply writing what I am watching.  It allows me to write a lot in a short period of time, but it does have drawbacks, such as a drifting point of view and too much dialogue.  Oh well.  That’s what revising is for.


So, the crash was in November of 2011.  I had an outline finished by January of 2012.  Normally an outline doesn’t take that long, but I was still teaching then and didn’t have a great deal of time to work on it.  However, as January began, I knew that I was about to leave the profession, so that motivated me to work more quickly and enjoyably on the outline.

I started typing the first draft somewhere around February 1, 2012, and I finished that somewhere about the first week of March.  It was right about then that I started working more at blogging, having just gotten my first few followers.  That’s when I first started posting chapters as blog posts for feedback.  There were some incredibly nice people who seemed to be reading and greatly enjoying the chapters.  Not a lot of critical feedback, but a lot of polite praise.  A few people even tweeted out my chapters for others to read, and I was gaining more and more blog followers.  It was nice.


Somewhere in June of 2012 I began revising.  The story was too short and the ending was too easy.  I had rushed it, nobody was interested in the very few queries I had e-mailed, so I knew I had work to do and spent the summer revising heavily.  But that’s when I was really starting to enjoy the blog following that was growing.  Between chapters, I was writing humor, essays, posting photography, and I had also gotten hooked on the flash fiction thing.  Writing and revising were pushed aside, far aside.  I had an audience to feed, and it felt nice.

I won’t recount that episode because I have already spelled it out in Writing 2.0, which brought me back to writing fiction.  It had been a year since I originally wrote the story, and it wasn’t going anywhere, and neither was I.  That’s when I did two things at once: 

1. Revised the chapters a second time in the form of a third draft. 

2. I posted the new chapters for a new audience who immediately helped me revise it further for a fourth draft.  It grew from 18 chapters and 50,000 words to 25 chapters and 76,000 words in about six weeks, and I could not have done any of it without an outline.  

I realize that some of this is a bit redundant for those who have seen the other posts, Writing 2.0, 2.1, 2.2, and 2.3.  However, as I said in the beginning, someone asked about my process, my outlines and preparation, and I wanted to explain it as fully as possible.  Thanks very much for asking, reading, and putting up with me.

How about you?  Who Uses Outlines?


86 thoughts on “Writing 2.4 – Who Uses Outlines?

  1. I just learned more about writing in this one post than I did when I took a few writing courses last summer. I’ve been juggling a few different ‘stories’ unsure of where to go and who I’m gonna go with, love your movie-in-your-head part, that seems to be the way my brain works…I’ve never used an outline but i’m seriously considering it now so thank you for writing this. Connecting Flights sounds like something I would love to read by the way 🙂

    • thanks very much for your kind words. “Connecting Flight” had been posted here, all 25 chapters, but i had to take them down while trying to pitch my story to agents. feel free to browse through other posts on writing, such as the others in the pull-down menu.

  2. Thanks, Rich. Do you have any recommendations for creating on outline? Is there a website you could point me towards. I’m basically planning a fantasy story and I’m creating a whole new world and any advice on how to organize this would be fantastic.

    • no idea about websites, but think “movie.” the beginning of a movie set on an imaginary world would start out showing/telling the details of what makes this world different, what is outstanding about it. atmosphere, creatures, geography. also about the time – future or past or parallel world. so you should probably start out by establishing those things.

      so you’ll have to determine what those differences will be and then write out a chapter in which you’re more or less telling it all to yourself to confirm what it “feels” like. i’d be happy to read what you come up with if you’d like someone to look at it.

      once you get the setting established – or possibly before – you are going to be working or have already worked out the plot. there should be elements of the plot that hinge on this different world. that’s one of the good things about an imaginary world. you can do anything you want.

    • Check out “The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology” by Tom Shippey. He takes some time to discuss Tolkien created the entire world history of Middle-earth before composing his signature novels. It’s fascinating, and much more concise than the 12-volume History of Middle-earth published posthumously by Tolkien’s son.

      • thanks for the tip. i will have to check that out. i’m not a great fan of his son, but you can’t take anything away from JRR. that’s for sure.

      • Thankfully his son only edited the massive history of Middle-earth, leaving it primarily the work JRR did organize himself to write his series. Still, it’s 12 volumes, and quite a commitment. Shippey is a good starting point.

      • You can see the difference in creating the world beforehand and creating the world as you go along if you compare Tolkien’s Middle-earth with CS Lewis’s Narnia. Middle-earth is much deeper and more consistent than Narnia. Tolkien pre-planned, and Lewis mostly didn’t.

      • That is why I had resolved to create everything before I started writing. I don’t want to have inconsistencies and I also don’t want to have to worry about creating parts of the world as I go along. Once I start writing I don’t want to have to stop or lose focus on the story.

      • that’s a good approach – but you should be flexible. something might present itself that seems fabulous, but it might mean a change in the planning and history. don’t avoid changing in order to sacrifice what might be a great part of the story.

      • I won’t, but I want to have everything created (that I can think of) before I start to write. If I happen to think of something that requires an alteration to the world I create then I shall do so. But I’d ultimately prefer to focus on writing once I start, you know, writing.

      • I might take you up on that. I need to finish creating my world first, and then clean up my outline before I start writing.

        Thanks again, Rich.

      • i believe they were also friends. without fact checking, i remember reading that lewis wrote narnia first, and tolkien wasn’t thrilled. he felt that it was a god-satan allegory but that lewis should have been more detailed with the violence and gore. that gave him a push to write a similar god-satan allegory but hype it up a bunch.

        not sure if that’s true, but it’s what i remembering hearing or reading.

      • They were friends. It was Tolkien who convinced Lewis to become Christian, and then Lewis composed the Narnia series. Tolkien wasn’t thrilled with the Narnia allegory, and, I believe Tolkien was already planning Middle-earth when Lewis published Narnia, and it was the lack of planning and haste at which Lewis “threw together” the stories that upset Tolkien. Ultimately, the competition between Narnia and Middle-earth, Lewis and Tolkien, damaged their friendship. I could go on for days about these two. I spent a summer in Oxford studying them. I remember more about that class and those writers than any other from college.

      • As far as planning vs not, using Lewis and Tolkien as examples, there’s not much more I can contribute to the discussion. The comparison between the two is a good example of what happens when a writer pre-plans and what happens when a writer does not since they were writing at the same time, in the same city, and in the same fantasy genre.

  3. depends… if I’m working on a book or long-format piece, I will identify the “copy points” that must addressed and then they usually tell me what order I need to cover them in… “we” change our minds plenty 🙂

  4. Outlines… Not really. I don’t use them most of the time until after I have several thousand words on paper. I do use storyboard cards though, to shuffle and move things around, and to keep track of important character dilemmas or growth spurts. If I knew for sure what worked for me, I would have finished more than short stories, essays and flash fiction pieces, but instead I have several novel beginnings that want my attention. I did figure out for me, that what I share in public, I rarely want to finish in private.

  5. Thanks for opening up so much about the process! I am just starting to outline after a very long time of thinking I could just do it all flying be the seat of my pants and ending up very frustrated. I’m still learning how to trust the process, so it’s helpful to see how others do it.

  6. It must be that time of year – I recently did a post about my writing routine based on someone else’s post about their process. I tend to start with a character, a scene and then work from there to create an outline. Interestingly the outline for my last first draft novel read very similar to your own – short, snappy sentences to give an overivew of what was going on that would help me write the chapter. So that works well. 🙂
    I missed the last couple of chapters of Connecting Flight cause I got distracted and busy, so let me know when an agent bits – I’ll want to read the rest. x

  7. I’m beginning to learn I need outlines. I have yet to harness the muse in a satisfactory way, perhaps its just a time-learned lesson. I appreciate the depth of your post, and the intimate look into your craft. Thanks.


    • I like when people refer to writing as a “craft.” I don’t call it that, but I like when others do. Thanks very much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. Please come back and let us know how outlining works for you.

  8. I found this a very interesting description of your work methods, Rich. And I think it can be a help and a guide to many who might be starting out in writing. I myself do not use outlines, but I do keep a notebook or journal devoted to my ideas regarding any major work I’m working on. Since moving to the use of the computer, I keep a similar notebook on the computer as a separate document, and use it just as I used the old notebooks. I write down all my ideas and thoughts on the work I’m engaged with, and mark them as ‘taken care of’ sometimes using highlight color after they’ve gone into the book. Thanks for sharing this with us.

    • i’m very happy to share what works or doesn’t work for me. when it comes to outlines, i only use them for writing that will go well into the thousands of works, like 20,000 or more. with short stories only around 5,000 there isn’t much use of it.

      as for sharing my methods, i received an email yesterday that one of my other “methods” posts will be freshly pressed in a few days. that will be a lot more sharing.

      • I’m very happy for you that you are given this opportunity to be ‘freshly pressed’. I first got to know you after your very charming post explaining why you would never be freshly pressed. Having enjoyed this questionable honor, I have to say that I don’t think it adds anything to a blogger, but now that you will have a chance to experience it, I look forward to hearing your impressions regarding the experience. Wishing you good luck with all your projects.

  9. I think outlines are probably the way I should go if I want to write a longer story. For short stories, I generally just sit down and type. I’ve got a short story on the go now that I’m going to post on my writing blog for feedback, because I don’t know if it’ll stand as it is or if readers would want more information about the characters involved or to see a more definite conclusion!

  10. Great points and an example for support. Personally, if I’m writing something lengthy, yep … and outline starts the process. Sometimes, an outline sketches a post … but you have taken outlines to a higher level … well done.

    PS: RM alert.

  11. I don’t use outlines in the same way. I have the story in my head and write as I go along. I take notes and have notebooks full of them. I admire the use of an outline but I can’t use one until I’m well into the story. Then I may outline a bit to keep myself on track.

  12. I don’t use outlines for my 1500-4000 word stories. I have tried them for books and I believe they would work best for me in those cases. I have also been told that it is best to have a running sheet on each character so hair color doesn’t change and names don’t end up on the wrong person.

    • totally agree that an outline isn’t necessary for short stories. as for things like hair color, i prefer to not even mention it unless necessary. thanks very much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

  13. I was wondering where you went, Rich, with the Flash Fiction. I’m glad you’ve been busy writing. I’ve been feeling the same way in that I’m not really writing much fiction or accomplishing very much. I’m so easily distracted and writing takes so much focus…what a terrible excuse I have. Well, good for you!

    • thanks very much. i LOVED the flash fiction, but that and other things were taking too much time away from what i really wanted/needed to do. it is very possible that now, after finishing the novel, 25 chapters and 76,000 words, i can go back to it. but what partly kept me away was an unfriendly response from someone when i made a suggestion about their FF piece. i felt, “why should i bother if they aren’t going to appreciate the real reason we are there?” and that was maybe snooty of me, but it helped steer me to where i think i needed to be for a while. regardless of all that- it’s nice to be missed. thanks very much for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  14. Outlines… I start with a general idea of what it is I want to write which generally usually is all about what emotion do I want people to feel as they are reading and then get my first sentence out.

    I love it when the story takes over. Sometimes its as if I’m being dictated by some weird force out there and the words just flow. I especially love it when the story takes me by surprise and I suddenly find myself crying or laughing hysterically.

    But this being said, let’s face it, all I write is short flash fiction. I’m too lazy for the real hard process involved in writing.

    • there can be a mystical effect when a story takes control for a while. it doesn’t always work out well, but it is always worth following, just in case. thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  15. Interesting article— ah outlines vs. “pantsing”

    Since my ideas are initially vague, I start out with a general outline. As I delve deeper into the story, I break it down into chapters, then break it down further into scenes. I tried writing stories without an outline and it was (at least) twice as much work to revise it.

    I also remember using index cards in H.S when outlining a story – the method worked. But thank God for computers because I can’t envision having 50 index cards spread out all over my livingroom floor, switching them around until it makes sense. I twitch just thinking about it.

  16. Thanks for this awesome post. I was never a fan of outlines, but then I end up with stories I am not that in love with. I think you just convinced me to give outlines another try. BTW, I couldn’t get through your outline because I am boarding a plan to St. Louis in a few days and your outline was kinda scaring me lol.

    • “awesome”? that’s the best thing i can possibly except to hear all weekend. maybe even the week. thanks a great very much for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  17. First of all I would like to say great blog!
    I had a quick question in which I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind before writing. I have had a tough time clearing my mind in getting my ideas out. I truly do enjoy writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally wasted just trying to figure out how to begin. Any ideas or tips? Cheers!

  18. I love to write, but honestly I hate outlines. I get a lot of creativity in form from things that bubble up; Eventually leading to Flash Writing. I’ve begun a couple of novellas, but the outlines derailed me tragically. (Especially the love story between a young German Solder and a young, sensitive Jewish girl.) … I had the entire story right in front of me with major events & all … but honestly, getting my timeline straight along with the characters & having it jive with the actual history was just plain overwhelming.

    I’m revisiting all the writing courses I’ve ever taken and revisiting all the great papers I’ve written, with all my instructors comments. There’s a lot of material there that I can use now and build on. I’m looking into some writing communities here where I live.

    Meanwhile, I’m doing what all my instructors impressed on me to do … “Keep Writing… You have what it takes” … What can I say … I’m a work in progress 🙂

    • i can’t disagree with a word you said because what works for a, b, and c doesn’t always work for d, e, and f. sometimes an outline takes a little “fun” out of writing. sometimes the unknown of what’s ahead is part of the fun. no argument there, that’s for sure. good luck with writing and post a link here when you want someone to read something.

  19. Pingback: Writer’s Process Blog Tour | brainsnorts inc.

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