Mitosis (Or, How to Outline When You Suck at Outlining)

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I have always had a love-hate relationship with outlining. On one hand, my writing is more focused and precise when I use one. Editing is certainly easier. On the other hand, it can be disruptive to my creative process. When I start writing something, I often only have a vague idea and a character or three to start. I rarely ever know all the meat and bones of the story going into it. The process of writing for me is also a process of exploration, and I love letting the story unfold naturally. Its how my brain works. I know its how the brains of many “pantser” writers work as well.

So, for me at least, the hardest part of outlining is going from a vague idea with a few general plot points, to a detailed chapter-by-chapter sequence of specific events. For me, it feels very “cart before the horse,” and it squelches that lovely story unfolding process thingy (technical term right there) that I described. But I knew my writing would benefit from outlines, and so, stubborn as I am, I was determined to find an approach to outlining that worked for someone with a brain like mine.

I’ll stop here for a moment and add a, perhaps obvious, but necessary disclaimer: Being as I suck at outlining, I make no promises on whether this method will or will not work for you. Far more qualified people than I have produced tips on this topic that are likely also far more useful. But, from one sucky outliner to another: this DOES work for me, and it works for me BECAUSE I suck at outlining. So, voodoo logic states that it might (might) for you too. Abandon only some hope, ye who enter here.

So, how do you create something from nothing? Well, you start with what you DO know and then you break that into manageable parts…and then you do it again…and again…until you have an outline. Think of it like mitosis, otherwise known as cell division. One becomes two, two becomes four, four becomes eight, and so on. Each piece you break apart gives you more information and data than you had with the piece before it, while still containing valuable information relative to the previous parts. Of course, when you piece it all together, you will benefit from the principal of gestalt…which says, essentially, that the sum of the parts is greater than the total of the individual parts. (Example: three drivers in separate cars cannot use the carpool lane and thus are stuck in traffic…however three drivers in the same car can, and will laugh at everyone sitting in traffic).

If you’re still reading this after all this rambling, let me tell you how I have learned to outline.

 

MITOSIS OUTLINING

You start with your main idea. That’s all you need to begin. I apologize but you will need at least that much; if you don’t have a single thought on what you want to write about, I recommend visiting NaNoWriMo’s Adoption Forum.

Let’s use Harry Potter as our example. We know we want to write a book about a child who learns he is a wizard and is sent off to a wizarding school where he learns more about who he is and runs into several obstacles along the way. That’s a simple idea that we can work with.

 

Cell Division Step One: Divide this idea into 3 parts (Beginning, Middle, End)

Here we are simply going to define the setup, middle, and end of the story at a high level. No detail, just the basics.

  1. Beginning: Our introductions to Harry and his crappy muggle world, and then the awesome revelation that he is, in fact, a wizard and not a muggle after all.
  2. Middle: Harry starts to get settled in at Hogwarts, but quickly learns that where there is good magic there is also evil. He makes friends and a few enemies as well. He gets involved in the mystery of the secret vault at Gringotts and starts investigating.
  3. End: Harry solves the mystery of the Sorcerer’s Stone and achieves his first defeat of his arch nemesis, Voldemort.

So far that wasn’t so bad, right? All we did was define the setup, the main idea, and the ending. So let’s divide some more cells, shall we?

 

Cell Division Step Two: Divide each of the above three main parts into three sections apiece (for a total of 9)

From here, you are going to break the Beginning, Middle, and End each into three sections. Each of these breakdowns also follows some logical steps: setup, action, conclusion. Sometimes thinking of it in simple terms like that helps to form the ideas.

The idea is to add slightly more detail and definition to each section so that you can (you guessed it) continue to divide them further.

1. Beginning

  1.  An 11 year-old Harry’s abusive life with the Dursley’s is described in detail.
  2.  After repeated attempts to contact Harry with no success, Hagrid shows up and says “WHY, YER A WIZARD HARRY!”
  3. Harry experiences his preparation for, and arrival to, Hogwarts. He meets Ron, Hermione, and also Draco. Ron tells Harry about the robbery at Gringott’s the same day Harry and Hagrid were there.

2. Middle

  1. Harry gets settled into his new digs and life as a wizard in a wizard school. He gets to know his new friends and teachers, and clearly identifies early who his enemies are as well. He gets invited to the Quiddich team but is pretty much convinced Snape is trying to get him killed.
  2. Harry starts one his first of many recon missions at Hogwarts as he tries to figure out more about the stolen article from the Gringott’s bank. They find a room guarded by a three-headed dog. He and his friends also learn that Hagrid is raising a baby dragon, which is totally not legal in the wizarding world.
  3. Hermione, the only one who ever seems to read in this series, discovers the secret of the Sorcerer’s Stone, and they realize that’s probably what was in the vault. Harry serves detention in the woods and discovers a dude sucking on a unicorn. He meets a centaur who tells him that unicorn blood sustains life.

3. End

  1. Harry and his friends realize how Hagrid came by the dragon eggs. He was tricked into it by someone who wanted to know how to get past the three-headed dog. Hagrid unwittingly tells them the secret too (can’t tell this guy anything), and they decide to charm the dog and get in the room.
  2. Harry gets into a confrontation with Professor Quirrell, who admits that it was he, not Snape, who tried to kill Harry in his Quiddich match. He also reveals that he’s been behind all the recent shenanigans as he is trying to restore good old Voldemort to his physical form…hence the Sorcerer’s Stone. They struggle, Harry wins, but passes out.
  3. Harry is in the school hospital, for what will not be the last time. He learns from Dumbledore that Voldemort can’t kill him because of his mother’s love spell. Dumbledore tells him that the stone has been destroyed, so basically V will have to find another way. Harry’s first year, at least by some standards, has been a success.

 

Cell Division Step Three: Keep Dividing, Creating Chapters

From here, you continue to divide until the ideas grow larger and more specific.

How much deeper you go is up to you. You might decide to stop at Step Two because that’s enough detail to keep you on track. Or you might go further. The concept here is that by starting with a larger idea and slowly breaking it apart, the idea can unfold in a natural way instead of trying to throw random ideas together and make them fit logically.

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I think it goes without saying that there are many benefits of working from an outline (consistency being not the least of them), but if your outline acts more like a roadblock than a helpful guiding hand, then its time to try something that works. Maybe this will…maybe it won’t…but I’m all about best practice sharing.

Are there any other “pantser” writers out there who have struggled with and overcome their outlining hangups?

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20 thoughts on “Mitosis (Or, How to Outline When You Suck at Outlining)

  1. This is great. I had to force myself to outline my novel. I prefer to work on the fly, and I am terribly disorganized, so making myself outline is a good thing. I like your ideas here!

    1. Glad you liked it! Its challenging, being like us, because it just creates more work for us in the long run. Editing is always a nightmare for me, because often things are all over the place. If you try this, let me know how it works out for you!

  2. This is great. It’s a slightly more articulate version of what I did last nano – which was the only time I’ve ever successfully managed a plan. I got to a complete stage 2 before I started writing, with stage 3 done for the first section only, (I did get to stage 3 on the rest as well before I wrote past the first section, it;’s just that November started first!)

    1. How did it compare to not using one at all? I have to say…I am more excited this time around- about the writing and the process of writing- having this outline done, but the real test will be what happens starting tomorrow!

      1. It was really helpful to know where I was going. I could concentrate on just writing each scene instead of having to spend ages deciding what was going to happen in it!

  3. This was so perfect to read today! This week, after I reached a screeching halt on my latest WIP and realized I had to outline. Outlining by hand works much better for me, too, for some reason. Perhaps because it pulls me away from the distraction of word docs, wordpress, twitter, etc. I’m still at the loose outlining stage (filled with questions that I ask myself to which I still don’t have answers) so maybe it’s time to take that and go deeper. Does anyone have a giant whiteboard or conveniently placed glass wall? No…?

    1. I basically “created” this method when my back was up against the wall as well…I knew I wasn’t going to organize my thoughts without one. And I do know what you mean about doing it by hand…the one time I took index cards and mapped out my story was probably the best experience I had with organization.

      Hm, a giant whiteboard…I may need to consider an investment 🙂

      1. They’re kind enough to not make me pay rent in the transitional phase before graduate school, so I try to keep on the good side…although the spare bedroom may be another matter…

  4. Well, this is inspiring! I hate outlining and haven’t done any outlining since I left college and am no longer forced to do so. Since I’m been out of college for a couple of decades, you can imagine how difficult it might be to try it again. But your explanation is so clear, that I feel I just might be able to do it. I’m planning on participating in the July Camp NaNoWriMo and I promised myself I would prepare an outline ahead of time so I won’t be panicking near the end of the month 🙂

    1. I hate it too (well, obviously, if I wrote a post about it :P), and the only way I was able to get over that hate was to dramatically simplify it for myself. I knew that there had to be others like me, so I’m glad you found it helpful too. If you use it in July, let me know how it works for you! 🙂

  5. Dear Sarah. Thanks so much for the above tip. Like you I thought an “Outline” was a “creativity Killer”.

    Up till I read your piece I considered writing to be just like doing a Jigsaw puzzle – a piece here fitting a piece there. Trouble was I used to run out of pieces. Consequently I have never finished ANYTHING!

    Right, I’m off now to try and put your idea into practice.

    prosperity to all scribblers!

    Dave

    1. Hi Dave- thank you so much for this comment! This is exactly why I wrote this article, because I knew there were others out there, like me, who needed a compromise. You’ll have to come back and let me know how it works out for you!

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