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I am working on a series of novels and it didn't take long into writing the first one that I realized the need to do some more outlining.

My question is how complete does my outline need to be before I start writing?

I've got my first two novels outlined pretty well and just rough outlines of the next 3. The first novel does have a few minor gaps in my outline but I'm wondering if I should deal with those when they come up in the writing or complete the outline before starting.

  • You ask how much is necessary. I've never outlined, so I guess the answer is "none." :) The real question is how much outlining do you need to do? – Ken Mohnkern Sep 7 '16 at 13:12
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There is no one answer to this because everyone writes differently. Some people have to outline every beat in every scene; some are complete pantsers. Every book is different too; some stories need a lot of outlining and some fall into place with broad strokes. Move forward, and if you're finding yourself bogged down or meandering, back up and try some outlining to see if it helps get you unstuck.

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    Spot on. I've never particularly liked the distinction between "pantsers and planners" as it's really a gradient rather than binary, but you make a great point about considering the book dimension as well as the writer dimension. – Ubiguchi Sep 7 '16 at 9:49
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I would like to expand on Lauren Ipsum's answer.

People are different, yes, and some people like to outline, while others dislike to outline. The latter are often called "discovery writers", because they need the experience of discovering things while they write to keep them motivated. Plotting the story beforehand will give them the feeling that the story has already been told, that everything is known about it, and they will find themselves uninterested and unable to make the effort to write following that same path again.

But there is something else.

Story is something that you learn. Which is why reading is helpful in writing. A person who reads and writes a lot will eventually develop a feel for how a story is structured.

In the beginning they will have to consciously think about and plan their plot, of if they don't they will find themselves lost and stumble into plot hole after plot hole. But with each story they read, this structure becomes more and more ingrained, and with every story they write, they become more and more sure of this procedural knowledge and better able to subconsciously produce this structure.

And eventually they will no longer need to plot, because each seed of a story idea will always contain this structure and unfold just right in writing, even without an outline.


Just a few days ago I sat down to analyze the first draft for a novel I had written. I had written it in discovery style: I had begun with the idea of the first scene, without knowing anything else about what story I would write, and then simply followed my protagonist from there, until the story came to an end. I am currently rewriting that novel, so to intensify and emphasize the inherent structure, I took a book explaining the schema for the plot points in a three-act structure and went through my draft to identify those plot points. I had never before studied the details of the three-act struture, and while I knew what it was and what plot points were, I had never tried to understand it in a manner that would enable me to apply it to my writing. This was the first time I actually really looked at that structure, and I was surprised to find it reflected in the structure of my draft exactly. All the plot points were there, the division into three acts was obviously apparent, and the character arcs had precisely the increasing-amplitude up-and-down curve that the theory prescribed. I had written a three-act structure without having learned it! So, apparently, I had learned it, but not through a how-to-write book, but from reading, watching movies, and many failed attempts at writing a novel or screenplay.


Despite all this, it seems to me – from many interviews with writers and my own experience – that the smoothest way to write is a combination of outlining and discovery. Develop your idea as much as necessary, and leave yourself as much space for discovery as possible. This will help you avoid lengthy and painful rewriting, and at the same time it will make writing fun and exciting.

Exactly how much outlining is ideal will mostly depend on the kind of story you write. A contemporary romance does not need much outlining, as the appeal lies in the interaction of the characters. A detective novel will need a lot of planning, because the narrative structure needs to integrated with the logical system of clues and discoveries.

But in the end, as Lauren says, you will have to find what is right for yourself. No one can tell you.

  • "And eventually they will no longer need to plot, because each seed of a story idea will always contain this structure and unfold just right in writing, even without an outline." meh, I disagree with "will always contain" and "unfold just right," but the rest of your answer is solid. – Lauren Ipsum Sep 7 '16 at 9:27
  • Your point on a healthy mix makes sense... I am rather uncomfortable not planning but what's comfortable is not what's best. – Acumen Simulator Sep 7 '16 at 11:26
  • There is no "best", only what works for you. Experiment. If you don't try different ways, you'll never know which one is the right one for you. And it may change from novel to novel and with experience. "Comfort" is not a word that I would use in that context, rather "fun", but then maybe that is one of the differences between us, and comfort is what it is about for you. – user5645 Sep 7 '16 at 12:21
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What is needed is a definite story shape. Stories are not merely a sequence of incidents. There is a definite progression. The protagonist has a desire. That desire is frustrated. The protagonist act to achieve their desire and is rebuffed. They try again and are rebuffed again. Repeat as necessary until the protagonist comes to the final attempt which brings them to the limit of their ability and to a moral crisis. They then either succeed or fail. (This is based on Robert McKee's Story. There may be other ways of expressing story shape, or possibly other story shapes, but the point is, stories have a shape. At minimum, there is a challenge, a crisis, and a resolution.)

A story will meander if it does not have a good story shape. An outline will not help unless the outline expresses a story shape. I suspect that some writers start out with a strong sense of the story shape in their heads, while others perhaps just start with a character or a setting and set out to discover the challenge, the crisis, and the resolution. For some an outline may be a way of mapping story shape.

So, what role an outline may play, and how extensive it may need to be, and when it needs to be created, really depend on the role it plays in the author's quest to discover the shape of their story.

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It depends on the series. Planning is definitely important, but it's important to be flexible. Your characters will always be capable of leading you down strange and unexpected paths: that's what makes them realistic and believable.

If you have certain things that NEED to happen, map those out - and the events that lead up to them.

Planning your story in-depth allows you to foreshadow future events. It can also make you excited to write future books and keep up the writing momentum.

Genre also plays a part - it's far more important to plan out a crime, fantasy, or scifi series with lots of world building involved than it is a romance or literary series.

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