If I am writing a book, and my primary goal is creating a strong emotion in the reader, should I be able to 'feel' that emotion in the outline phase?

My goal as an author is creating a strong emotion, whether it be melancholy, triumph, dread, etc. However, I can't tell at all whether my story will evoke these complex emotions from the outline itself, before I actually begin to write the scenes involved.

I am a short story/short film writer so I don't have experience with long form fiction. I always write short stories without outlining, so I don't have experience with that either.

I can't tell if I am simply outlining bad stories, if it's not really possible to feel emotional content from the outline phase because of its dry and skeletal nature, or if I simply have a misunderstanding of outlining.

Do other authors feel emotion in the outline phase? Or do they feel emotion only when they begin writing?

6 Answers 6


Yes, you should be able to 'feel' your outline.

I admit I don't really outline in writing, although I do have well defined characters and a problem in my head before I begin writing, and I do feel the emotions of my characters in scenes before I write them.

I think if your goal is to evoke emotions, you should really be outlining the emotional journey of your characters as part-and-parcel of the plot. The plot scenes should serve this emotional journey, if Jack and Jill are to fall in love, become sexual partners, get married, get pregnant, and you plan to kill one of them in a robbery or something: You should be not only plotting what happens in each chapter, but choosing your scenes to support the emotional journey, too. And their jobs, and the period and environment, etc. What is Jack's job that he might be killed in a robbery? A bank manager, perhaps? In what scene do they meet? Why are they single? How do they feel all along the way?

Those feelings should be detailed IN the outline, and by thinking about these feelings, you will feel them during the outline. You will feel them stronger when you write the scenes, but if you don't feel them at all during the outline, then they are likely implausible or inappropriate (e.g. forced) emotions.

If you outline the emotional journey along with the plot, it will help you pick resonating settings and plot points that emphasize and echo the emotional state. For example, after a first meeting, the emotional state should be intrigue, curiosity about this new person. A desire to explore (not necessarily sexually just yet), to get to know somebody better.

So, what is a good setting that suggests or encourages exploration? Can we put them in it, someplace they can walk about, that they haven't been before?

Or what is a good job task to suggest or encourage exploration? Maybe Jack or Jill (whomever you follow) can have that as part of their job to talk about, some successful work-related research or exploration.

Your story may not be a love story; that's fine. The point is, to evoke strong emotions in your readers, you must build up to them with an emotional journey. Simple sledge-hammers like their child dying in the first scene tend to fall flat, we don't know the characters very well, the result is too cliché, the manipulation too obvious. The emotions must have an arc, and that should be planned, along with the plot, characters, and setting that support the emotional arc. Then we DO know the characters, feel like they are real, so when you pull the ripcord on the big scene, we empathize and sympathize with them, we feel that emotion. If you outline the emotions, then you should feel them to a good extent in the outline, or they aren't working.

  • 1
    +1 I haven't written a large number of outlines, but when I have, the outline has actually been mostly about emotions alternating with events. Jack loves Jill and wants something, then something happens, now Jill is scared and tries to fix it, but that makes Spot angry because Jill promised never to do that, etc. The parts of a story where no character has a strong feeling about something probably don't need to be told, at least not directly. Aug 3, 2018 at 15:41
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    @ToddWilcox Agreed; and if you were outlining scene by scene how Jack went from not knowing Jill to being in love with her, it would be an arc, a progression of many scenes from "she's cute" or "she's funny" to "I can't see living my life without her". Similarly for her.
    – Amadeus
    Aug 3, 2018 at 15:50

Outlining is a rational activity. You think about your story. I never feel much while I'm outlining, except for the joy of working, but certainly none of the emotions that the characters feel or that I want to evoke in the reader.

That is one of the great disadvantages to outlining and one of the reasons why I sometimes don't outline and discovery-write instead. Then I'm engrossed in the events and go through the same emotions the protagonist goes through.

When I write from an outline, I never have these intense "experiences", and I never really know whether they are then lacking from the final work or not.

Outlining and discovery-writing are two different approaches, and I don't believe they lead to the same outcome.

Other differences between outlining and discovery writing, such as regarding plot holes and revisions, have been discussed elsewhere on this site.


Personally, an outline is the bare bones gist of my story as originally conceived that I then, more or less, stick to as I write the story to stay on track. It lacks depth and emotion as I purposefully don't give it control of my story. But in my head I have whole worlds of ideas about the characters and the story line. As I write, the characters develop, the emotion develops and the story develops. My ideas about who the characters ARE and why they do the things they do changes and grows. The best advice I've ever seen on this is in Stephen King's ON WRITING.


The outline is simply said: Just a rough explanation, what the chapter/scene should achive. Personally, I use the outline to describe, what the chapter and the scenes should cover. It is the most basic part of the story, cause it just describes the key plot elements basically.

As example: A rough outline for the finale would be:

xy is going into the dungeon and fights the dragon. Both die.

As you see: No emotion, no details, just the basic part of the chapter and what happens. The draft is the phase, where you start to pour details, emotion and action into your story, cause that is the part, where the actual story begins

  • How do you know what emotions fit the scenes, what if you can’t hack what the reader should feel next? - I’m asking because I think scenes should buildup in the outline Aug 3, 2018 at 13:41
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    No that is the wrong approach ... think of the outline as a strict summary of the things happening. Like a review. Nothing emotional, nothing with action, just stating what is happening
    – Pawana
    Aug 3, 2018 at 15:27

No, you should not expect to feel your outline. An outline, by its nature, strips away all the particular details that create an emotional response. Our emotional responses are naturally regulated, tamped down, if you will, to make life bearable. If we reacted equally to every emotional stimulus, particularly to the bare report of an emotionally charged event, we would quickly become nervous wrecks. When you look at Google maps and see an accident on your normal route to work, you don't burst into tears, though you must know that some people are going through some pretty bad trauma right about now. You just take an alternate route to work, equanimity undisturbed.

It is only when you learn that your cousin or your neighbour or your colleague were involved in that crash that you start to feel anything. You feel it then because you have a connection to the person it happened to.

The difference between an outline and a story is precisely that the outline strips away all the peculiarities that allows our emotions to engage with someone. An outline strips all of the emotional triggers from a story.

Except, of course, that emotional triggers can be tricky things, and in some cases the smallest thing can be the greatest trigger. So it is possible that even when stripped of all human specificity, you may react to the character in an outline based on the mere mention that they are in a wheelchair or own a puppy or play lacrosse. But those are individual outlying triggers. A normal outline is trigger-free for most people. The point of telling the full story in all of its intense detail is precisely to create triggers in the reader so that you can produce the emotional reaction that the outline would not produce.

For all these reasons, BTW, I look with deep suspicion on the notion that you should start a novel by outlining the plot. A better approach, in my view, would be to plan the emotional triggers that you intend to create and how and where you intend to activate them. A story is a series of triggers, carefully prepared and activated, so that the reader's emotional system is in a constant cycle of tension and release. You won't get that from an outline. If you did, there would be no need to write the story.


Outlines mean different things for different people, and I would say it depends on how detailed your outline is.

If it is just A happens, then B, character realizes C, etc.., then no. You can break down the events of a story pretty easily without emotion.

To me, it's how these events unfold, and how they affect characters I've come to love that evokes emotion in me. Outlining is helpful to understand the structure of your story, but if it has enough detail to be heart-wrenching, it's probably less effective as an outline. I think outlines are best for analyzing if the progression of events makes sense, as opposed to the emotion they're supposed to invoke. Worry about writing emotion into the story itself.

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