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Swoon Author Hanna Nowinski: To Outline or Not to Outline?

(Psst, the answer is to outline.) 

(Except no, don’t listen to me. Do your own thing.)

(That said, I’m going to give you my opinion anyway.)

Outlines help. They really do. For obvious reasons: you kind of wanna know where your story is going next. So you’ll know in which direction the scene you’re writing should be heading. It’s also good to know early on whether or not anything makes sense at all and if your awesome idea gives you enough story to tell to fill an entire novel. You don’t want write 60,000 words only to discover that you’ve written yourself into a dead end. You also don’t want to finish your novel and find out it’s only 5,000 words long.

I’ve outlined and re-outlined (and re-outlined and re-outlined) Meg & Linus many times.

For as long as I’ve been writing I’ve been asking myself the same question: Is there a way to turn an idea into a story exactly the way you want to? The answer is: Nah, not really.

We all know this thing (I assume?) where we’re in the shower and suddenly out of nowhere we’re hit with an idea. And it’s a really great one and we can’t wait to start writing, because we’re just! So! Excited about it!!!! That’s good! That’s great! You won’t finish a novel without being at least a little bit excited about your idea!


An idea alone isn’t a plot. Let’s say the thing that suddenly pops into your head in the shower is an awesome fantasy story: Lucy is quietly living her life as a senior in high school until one day a dragon shows up in her backyard because he’s supposed to be slain in his mythical realm. She has to help him and convince the handsome prince to let the dragon live.

You have a beginning and an ending there. But there’s still a whole lot of empty middle.

You don’t have to map out every scene if that’s not your thing. There’s no rule book for writing.  Somebody would have to write that, and writing is hard. But take it from someone who has a huge folder full of abandoned stories: outlining helps.

There are a lot of ideas out there about three-act structures and five-act structures and whatnot. You can work with one of them, or come up with your own, or mix eight of them together and see what happens. You might have to try a few or use a different approach for every story.

So really, everything I’m telling you here might actually not work for you at all and you’ve read this far while you could have used that time going for ice cream or reading someone else’s ideas that are better than mine. Sorry about that!

Anyway. After a lot of trial and error I’ve settled on something that hasn’t failed me yet. (Yet!) This is also what I did for Meg & Linus. I divide my plot into five stages: Catalyst, Big Event, Pinch, Showdown, and Resolution.

In the catalyst, you set up your story. In our example, Lucy comes home from school and there’s a dragon hanging out in her backyard.

Big Event: Lucy goes with her new dragon friend to convince the people in fantasy land to let him live.

Pinch: As soon as they get there, they immediately run into the prince who wants to slay the dragon.

Showdown: Lucy convinces the prince of the error of his ways. He’s probably always liked dragons anyway and didn’t really want to slay one.

Resolution: The prince declares dragon slaying illegal and Lucy decides to stay in fantasy land because the prince really is very handsome and they’ve already been exchanging a lot of secret looks earlier. (Oops, work that in with the showdown.)

Of course your idea will sound a lot better. And it would probably be best to add a little more to each of these five points to get a better grip on the story. You can then outline all of these points scene by scene or write a synopsis for each one or just do whatever you like. Anything to make it all take shape in your head.

Once you’ve done all this work that will probably take you days or weeks to finish, be prepared to write something completely different, because writing usually just happens however it wants to.

That’s okay. Winging it leads to pretty awesome new developments in a plot sometimes.

So why outline at all? ...If nothing else, your story still needs a structure. If it starts taking detours here and there, it really, honestly, seriously helps to have a destination in sight that your characters need to get to.

Bottom line: Figure out your story first. Then be prepared to spend days lying facedown on the floor crying because everything you’ve planned so carefully keeps going off in completely different directions. Or maybe that’s just me. I don’t know. Writing is weird. Have fun!

Author spotlight

Hanna Nowinski

Hanna Nowinski is a language enthusiast and trained translator for German and English who lives in the middle of nowhere, …

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