Outlining, or how I learnt I wasn’t a creative genius

by M.J. Hearle

When I first put pen to paper, or more accurately fingers to keyboard, I had the opening scene of Winter’s Shadow pretty well figured out. This might surprise you, Welcome Reader, but it’s actually incredibly beneficial to have somewhere to start your story before you actually, you know…start your story. Not only did I have a beginning, I also had a pretty crackerjack ending in mind. I knew who was going to live, and who was going to die. It was just the middle part that I was a little hazy on. But surely that would just work itself out, right?


I was forty thousand words into my first draft when I realised I was in trouble. My narrative hadn’t just magically appeared and I’d wondered so far off course I could barely glimpse my great ending anymore. It was way off in the distance mocking me, like a desert mirage. I tried to course correct but only made it worse, getting lost in a maze of narrative cul-de-sacs. It took me weeks of wandering blind before I realised I had to stop writing, go back and actually figure out my plot before commencing my second draft. To do this, I created an outline.

But, what is an outline? It’s definitely not a synopsis. A synopsis is usually written in prose and offers a snapshot of your story, focusing on the broad narrative beats and omitting the smaller details. An outline is a much more comprehensive document, consisting of a scene by scene breakdown of the entire novel: chapter numbers, followed by a brief scene description.

Now, these descriptions don’t have to be incredibly detailed or even well-written. However, If you have a particularly cool idea for a scene and you’re worried you might forget it, feel free to jot it down (this is important if you have a memory like mine, which is about as effective at retaining information as a cheese grater is at holding water).
Here’s an excerpt from my outline for Winter’s Shadow:

Chapter 45.
Winter sees blue flames in the old man’s eyes. She freaks out, drops her phone. Jasmine is irritated at being ignored.

Not especially literary I know, but just evocative enough to remind me what this scene’s supposed to be about. I’d advise you not to spend too long on these descriptions because there’s a good chance as you move through your draft these scenes will change, shift around, or be abandoned altogether. Be warned – outlining can also become an addictive form of procrastination because it feels like you’re working on your book when all you’re doing is laying the foundation. I’ve read numerous blog posts from aspiring authors who proudly boast about writing sixty or seventy page outlines and I can’t help but think they’re simply putting off getting started.

Ultimately, your outline should serve as a map, showing clearly how to progress from point ‘A’, your opening scene, to point ‘B’, the place where you type ‘The End’. That doesn’t mean you have to stick to this map though. Feel free to strike off in other directions if you suspect there might be a quicker or more interesting way of getting to your destination. The outline for Winter’s Shadow barely resembles the finished product as I frequently deviated from the original course I’d set for myself. However, without the outline to fall back on I wouldn’t have had the confidence to deviate and never would have discovered the best way to tell my story. Remember, writing is all about exploring new territory, but it sure does help to have a map just in case you get lost. 

M. J.