Outlines Are Lighthouses, Not Destinations

As a mostly pantser who desperately wanted to be a plotter, outlines have long been my nemesis. I was so envious of people who would just know a whole story upfront without going through the trouble of writing the whole thing wrong multiple times. But after nearly 5 years of warring with outlines, I finally figured out an outlining method that works for me so I thought I’d talk a little bit about that today! This post is less going to be about how to structure an outline and more about my approach to outlining in general.

A few years ago, I read a post on goal setting that I loved so much it’s become one of my all-time favorite philosophies that I reference often and have internalized deeply. The main takeaway is right there in the title (which I borrowed for this post): goals are lighthouses. Goals illuminate your path forward and guide you toward your next step(s), but aren’t necessarily fixed final destinations that you must reach.

I spent a long time believing that once I had an outline, the point was to stick to it. I thought that there was something fundamentally wrong about going back and reoutlining a book after I was partway into a draft or revision, and therefore I believed that I was just a bad outliner.

But reframing outlines are lighthouses helped me realize that for me, the process of making the outline—sitting down to think about my path forward—was far more important than the outline itself. It doesn’t matter if I stick to it, but without making that plan, I wouldn’t know where to go—even if once I actually get there, I realize I have to do something different or add a new element or even backtrack and change course.

Maybe this is obvious to some of you and I’m just late to the party, but this was honestly a very big revelation for me because it took away a lot of the pressure I felt about the outline having to be “right” from the start. It also gave me the freedom to play around with my outline a bit which led me to another realization: a lot of beat sheets or really rigid structures just don’t work for me for a first draft. I find it far more helpful to use a more fluid approach and then add in any missing beats later on.

When I sit down to outline, I start with what I know. I begin identifying my “fixed points”: scenes that are definitely going to be in the book and are going to occur at a specific point. The inciting incident for example is a fixed point because I know that’s going in the beginning of the book. Other fixed points might be a big midpoint reversal or a shocking twist near the end—but they don’t have to correspond to moments on a traditional beat sheet. Most of my fixed points are scenes I’m very excited to write even if they don’t “serve a function” in terms of structure. It’s just a guide to help me figure out roughly when things happen and in what order.  

Every book is going to have a different number of these fixed points. For example, I’m currently drafting the sequel to my debut, and my outline had probably a dozen or so events that are very unlikely to change or move because I’ve been thinking about this book for 2 years now and have a pretty good idea of what happens. But a few months ago, I tried to outline a totally new book, and that was far harder because I only knew about 5 things for sure.

Once I know what I can’t move, I fill in other elements that I know I want to have happen at some point but I’m not 100% sure when or in what order. The more fixed points I have, the easier it is for me to slot in these non fixed points, but I try not to stress if I can’t figure out exactly where they go.

At this point, I kind of let the book dictate what it wants me to do. For a contemporary romcom WIP, I didn’t really need more because I felt like I knew the characters and conflicts well enough to feel my way between the different milestones so I stopped with that very sparse outline. For my sequel the other hand, I decided to actually go in and break it down farther by chapter since I have a tighter timeline and I wanted to be able to spot any problem areas quickly.

And then… I just start writing! I check my outline to figure out where I am now and I brainstorm in more detail to figure out exactly what steps I take to get to the next point. Sometimes it’s a single scene. Sometimes, once I’m partway into a draft, I realize something I thought would take me 1 chapter actually is 2-3 chapters. I write what feels right and then update my outline with whatever I end up deciding to do in the draft. And by the end, I have a much clearer outline with details about the book I actually wrote which is then my jumping off point for when I start planning my revisions!

As I mentioned above, I’m not going to go too much into detail about how I structure my outlines, but I found that the best tool for me was Excel or Google Sheets. I create 3-4 columns to start with: chapter/scene number, brief summary of the plot, POV (if it’s a book with multiple POVs), and changes/notes for the next draft. That last column is vital to me because it helps me keep track of what I intended to do vs. what I ended up actually writing in my draft as well as give me a centralized place to note any ideas I come up after I’ve already drafted a scene.

I’ll also add additional columns based on the project. For my sequel, I added columns for the 3 main plot threads. For the romcom WIP, I added columns for character arc and central romance. I don’t always use these extra columns to plot, but it’s helpful to have a designated space for when I want to leave myself specific notes like “hey this is a great place to include this subplot” or “change this character intro to have more conflict” so that I can remember to weave that in during my next revision.

Basically, I found outlining to be a lot more fun and—more importantly—a lot more useful for me once I started to realize that it’s actually a living, breathing thing. And the more I leaned into treating my outline as a roadmap for my current and future drafts—a lighthouse illuminating the path and helping me bridge the gap between the story in my head and the one that’s on paper—the less rigid and constraining it felt.

I hope this was helpful and if you have any favorite outlining tips, make sure you share in the comments below!

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