I have to write to an outline.

I have to define what the story is, who’s in it and what happens at the end before I start writing.

A lot of people don’t work like that.

Many’s the time I hear, ‘oh no, I just start writing and see where it takes me’.

If that work’s for you then keep doing it! What works works.

It definitely doesn’t work for me.

I get distracted by ideas. While I’m ‘just writing’ other ideas completely unrelated to the main one crash in and demand attention. There is also the ‘the next idea is better’ thing. Doubt creeps in and the next idea that comes along to rescue me from the rubbish I’m ‘free-writing’ always seems better. But then the focus shifts, the idea gets tested and found wanting and the same problem arises.

That might not make any sense, but I know what I mean. Which is another problem.

So if I don’t write to an outline I get lost in a maze of stupidity.

The outline doesn’t have to be very long, or very in-depth, but I need one. I have to start with the end in sight and the outline gives me that.

I need to know how many characters there are, what they want in the story, what they are like as people, how they interact with the other characters, what they sound like. All that comes from the outline. It may be touched upon ever so briefly, like ‘Bryn, the quiet assassin that is sent to kill Amy. Bryn is overconfident.’ That’s all I need for Bryn until I get the outline completed.

Bullet points. Headlines. Brief descriptors of people, places, scenes, direction, plot, snatches of dialogue.

Broken sentences that drive other people crazy are outline gold for me.

Then I can review the outline, see if it has what I need to tell the story. It takes a few tries to get the outline ‘done’, sometimes as many as ten passes, adding or stripping stuff until it feels right.

When the writing starts the outline is the guide, the rough idea, the pieces to the puzzle sorted in to corners, straight bits, sky, etc. Nothing more.

Once the writing starts new bits are always needed and some of the old ones get tossed out.

This process works for me with everything I write, from short-story, writing assignment, to screenplay (with some obvious structure differences) and full-blown novel idea.

Do you use an outline? If so, what depth does it have what goes in and what stays out?

Is the idea of an outline completely alien to you? How much do you have when you start writing, where is the focus for development?