Outlines are not for everyone
I won't tell you that every single writer needs to work with an outline. That would be as ludicrous as any other 'you must do this' rule that you've read about writing. However, at the same time, I don't believe anyone should say 'never' to some tool in writing. You never know when something that otherwise doesn't work for you is just the bit of help you need to get through a problem story.
Outlines are not a magic bullet that will fix a plot for you. A person has to understand plot and storyline before they can create a reasonable outline. Making an outline can help you understand structure better by laying it out in simple pieces, but you still need to create those pieces to make it work.
I used to write without outlines, but I found something interesting when I tried them out: My plots became more coherent, the storyline had more depth, and I needed far less post-work.
Seemed like a good change to me.
If you have trouble getting to the end
There is one group of people who should seriously consider trying outlines. I can't begin to tell you the number of people I talk to every week who say they won't finish their current story. They have any number of reasons, from the story is now boring to they found a much better version of the same thing.
Whatever the reason, stopping before they've finished this story is not going to make the next one better. I'm sure this is hard to understand when you are facing a dying story on one side and a bright shiny -- SQUIRELL! -- story on the other side. All you need do is close one and start a new one, right?
Except for a problem: You are as likely to drop the next story too, when you reach a spot you can't work out. That's right when you'll get a bright new idea, too. You are giving yourself excuses to quit and not to work harder to fix the story you loved so short a time before.
A very basic outline can help get your through this problem. An outline is not set in stone directions you MUST follow. An outline is a roadmap showing you where you start, where you think you want to stop, and some of the key places you want to visit along the way. Just like any real-world roadmap, it doesn't tell you who you will see, what you will say, or what surprises you might find along the way. You want certain things to happen. Here is the place to line them up so each event leads naturally to the next.
An outline/roadmap also doesn't preclude road blocks, detours and side trips. What an outline does provide is a basic itinerary for your character to follow and a place to work back to when the character gets lost.
And creating an outline does not mean you have told the story, any more than studying a roadmap means you've taken the trip. These are nothing more than directions for getting to certain spots you want in the story.
If you lose track of storylines
This brings up the 'lost storylines' problem some authors face. If they have no idea where they are going with the story, they are apt to wander off into the wilds. Having an outline can help. This doesn't mean simply giving the main character direction, though. Quite often writers have lesser characters who start taking over the story or go off and do things elsewhere -- and the author simply loses control of the entire plot.
Sometimes this can lead to an exciting story the author hadn't seen before. There is nothing wrong with tossing aside the outline (or rewriting to suit the new direction) when you actually see a better story forming. However, there are a few things you need to test before you leap off in the new direction.
(1) Does this new path lead to a reasonable ending? That's your first question. Can you trace from this break in the original story plan a path (no matter how murky at the moment) all the way to the end of the story? Can you see how the events you now plan to follow will make a more satisfying story for the reader?
Oh yes, don't forget that reader. While it's important to write for you as the first reader, it's not unwise to think about how others will see the story, too. Are you going to rewrite the opening to fit this new ending? Or is this only a better path from where you started? Will it be a satisfying ending? Will the new trouble you see really be more exciting than the previous problems?
(2) Is this really a better story or is it just a different story? The truth is that by the time you get a ways into your story, you may let your muse start to wander and find some new shiny idea when you really don't need it.
This is where you have to start training yourself to focus. You need to do so, whether you work with an outline or not. Focus on the story at hand, and not go kiting off to some other piece, even with the same characters. If the new story is all that good, jot down the basics. Hold on to it and let it grow and be ready when you finish this one. Don't drop this plot for a new one, if you are not completely and entirely certain it will make the much better storyline.
Don't lie to yourself, either. Put both ideas out there and look them over carefully. Be wise in your choice, grasshopper. It will either move you ahead in your writing life or set you back again.
Create better pacing
One of the best things an outline can do is help you create better pacing. You likely have a number of interesting events you want to happen. So you write them up -- but because you don't have any idea of the plan of your story, they're all bunched together in the start and you don't have anything more to say.
In a story, the power and impact of big events is made better by build up to them. The best way to do this is to know what is going to happen and start putting in hints, smaller problems leading to larger ones, and leading your characters towards the trouble.
Presenting one huge problem after another, and with no respite and no change of pace, the problems themselves can lose impact, no matter how important they might be. The reader needs breathing space between the larger events. That does not mean you need to lessen the overall tension of the story, though.
Even in the 'Mountain and Valley' method of plotting -- where high conflict is followed by lower, relatively quiet times -- you can still have things going wrong, and small problems leading, inevitably, to the larger ones.
With an outline, you can see better how to pace your events. You want things to go from bad to worse, with the worst of the problems at the end. You want the earlier events to lead to an ending where the main characters have no choice but to face the biggest problem of all. This final confrontation cannot be put off or put aside because the events have reached a point where there is no turning back. All the problems throughout the story have led the characters (and readers) to this point and all that is left is to make the final choices on how to deal with the trouble.
When you are laying out even a simple outline, creating this sort of timeline for events is not difficult. If you have multiple Points of View and more than one Main character, this can also help you make certain the characters are all getting equal time and facing equally important incidents. How about the sidekicks and other lesser characters? The love interest? Haw you built their storylines up with equal power to reach the same end?
Fixing small problems with mini outlines
You might get stuck at some spot in the story, with no clear path of exactly how to next, even if you know the general plan of the story. Sometimes all you need is a quick outline of the next few events to see how things work at this specific spot in a story. In those cases, take the time to jot down the events. Move them around, add and subtract things, until you find a sequence of events that will get you through this section.
These mini outlines are nothing more than brainstorming with notes so you can track the yes/no ideas you get. You are talking to yourself between brain and paper, and arguing out the ideas. Sometimes getting them out of your head and onto paper/screen can help to make the problems easier to focus on.
Remember, this is not school work
Outlining is not as difficult as it sounds. The most important part to remember is that this is not school work. You don't have to lay out a perfect outline and worry that things are perfect. No one is going to grade you on the work.
Sometimes all you need is a few lines per chapter:
Chapter 1: Summerfield getting local reports about vampires. So predictable. ? days before Halloween and the vampires show up. Power flickers. Tessa reports magic and heads out. Storm hits, Julia sends others home. Summerfield offers to take Pam home.
Chapter 2: Relatively quiet ride taking Pam home though weather turning worse. She admits worries, two young daughters, only her to take care of them. When she's home, Summerfield talks to his sister about setting up trust fund.
Chapter 3: Weather turns to ice as heading home. Off ramp and place to wait. Call from Julia, tells her Pam's safe, no worries. Tessa arrives in cat form, startles him. Tessa changes and explains growing problem.
This is a barebones version of what is going on, but it does give direction from one chapter to the next and tells me where the MC is. I could add bits and take them away, move things around. Jot down bits of dialogue I don't want to forget. I can also layer in problems and characters before I write the first draft. For instance, Pam is having problem with soon to be ex-husband who used to work with Summerfield.
Other outlines might be nothing more than designating an MC location and time so that you can keep the timeline from getting fouled. There's nothing worse than realizing one character knows something before it happened, but it's easy to get those kinds of problems if you write out of order or you go back and add in material in the wrong place.
How to write outlines
You can do outlines on notecards, which makes it easy to move them around and add in new scenes. You can do them on paper, on computer, on special programs like SuperNotecard, WriteItNow and Scrivner. You can write them in whatever style works for you and at whatever level of detail you want.
There are no rules.
Sometimes writing down notes for a new story while finishing up another one can help to fight that 'I want something new' feeling which can draw you away from finishing one piece. Don't overdo it if writing too much takes away the joy when you start the new story. Notes on characters, world building and some basic story plot is all you need.
Don't be afraid of outlines. They aren't the horrible things you were forced to do in school. Outlines are another tool writers can use when they need them, as long as they're willing to get over their high school homework reactions.
(And yes, I did write an outline for this post, as well as an outline for the overall series of posts!)