(Some) Outlining Methods Pros and Cons

Outlines are not everybody’s thing. I know that, but they can be incredibly useful. I’ve said before that I wasn’t an outlining kind of writer when I first started, mostly because I didn’t know it was an option, but I’ve come around a bit and I’ve been testing out how to effectively outline this past year or so.


There are a couple of reasons I’ve done this, first being that I was getting stuck. I would write myself into a situation that had to be a certain way because of character traits and decisions made earlier in the story and because of said situation I was forced to go in a certain direction that I didn’t want to go in because it was either that or do a total rewrite. In short, I was stuck in a loop of starting over and over and over until I lost interest. Outlining doesn’t necessarily fix that problem entirely, but it helps test the waters for things that may be problems and helps me direct my characters away from directions I don’t want to go. I find that it also helps me write faster since I’m not spending as much time wondering what I should do next, and it helps me get hyped about my story. It’s not a sure-fire thing, but it’s certainly preventative.


I think there’s a misconception, which a lot of people have about the outline, that it’s a set in stone contract or a walkthrough of your story. The truth is that you may not even use the outline at all, you may simply make it and never touch it again because it may have already fulfilled its purpose to you. The point of an outline is to get you to think about your story before you actually write it. Brian A. Klems puts it this way in his article “Choosing the Best Outline Method for You” in Writer’s Digest:


“Think of it, perhaps, as a recipe. You can follow a recipe exactly for, say, a cheesecake, or you can add a bit of chocolate to the batter, and poof—chocolate cheesecake! Or, you can add a graham cracker crust and some cherries to the top, and you’ve got a different version of the same classic. Recipes guide us—but the creativity still belongs to the head chef.”


So, if you’re convinced, and you want to start using outlines, you may be wondering “What the fuck do I do now?” And I might respond “That is a very good question, I was hoping you could tell me.” Just as there is no one way to use an outline, there is no one way to make an outline. Here are a few ways people suggest you go about it, and some pros and cons to each strategy:


  1. The Expanding Outline (aka The Snowflake Method):


The idea with this one is that you start with your basic premise


Ex. Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water


Then you keep expanding and adding more details to it


Ex. Jack the seventh son of a seventh son with his twin sister Jill must hike up the mount Hecuba to retrieve the water of youth to heal their sick mother. à Jack the seventh son of a seventh son with his twin sister Jill must hike up the mount Hecuba to retrieve the water of youth to heal their sick mother, because they are the only one’s powerful enough to defeat wicked Zolo. Zolo almost kills them several times (with his henchmen, his giant hawk, and with his turtle Steve), but Jack and Jill persevere and face Zolo for one final battle when Jack falls from the mountain, leaving Jill to follow him down quickly or perish. ETC.


More information here.



  • Helps identify the places that need expanding
  • Can be used on the micro and macro level.


  • Long
  • Not simple


  1. Summary:


This one’s easy. Just start writing the story but summarize the conversations and scenes.



  • Straight forward
  • Easy to follow after it’s done


  • Not good for much brainstorming
  • May have to do it several times


  1. Skeletal Outline:


This is the one most people think of when they think of outlines. It’s like when you were a kid in elementary school and they made you do those outlines for essays that have the class hated more than writing the actual essay. You basically just use a story common story structure and plug in elements of your story



  • Easy to follow
  • Easy to organize and reorganize
  • Bird’s eye view
  • Helps identify key elements


  • Dull
  • May have to try different story structures out


  1. Free-Writing:


This is method I use a lot with in my outlining process. It’s basically just doing a dry-run of the story with low attention to detail. I use this when I have no ideas, but I think that writing will help me think clearer.



  • Intuitive
  • Engaging
  • Good brainstorming


  • Not easy to follow
  • May cause you to get lost or too focused on small details
  • May not help with the flow of the piece


  1. Contextual Preperation:


This one I think should just me standard if you’re writing a story. It’s not outlining the story elements or plot, just hammering out details about the world and the characters. What are the politics, climate, history, ruling class, etc. of the world and what are your characters’ motivations, fears, habits, ticks, appearances, history, etc..



  • You know what every element of the world will and won’t do
  • Good brainstorming
  • Good reference
  • Good descriptions
  • Good for pantsers
  • Goos motivation
  • You will probably use this


  • Long
  • Not step-by-step
  • No plot


  1. 3 Act 9 Part 27 Chapter Outline:


This is a basic structure that I’ve used before, more information here. You can manipulate the details, but it gives you points to touch on.


More information here.



  • Step-by-step
  • Good for making sure you touch on why things are happening and how your main character is influencing the plot


  • Dull
  • Need to make sure your chapters flow
  • Maybe not the layout you want


  1. Notecard Method:


Honestly I don’t understand this one. I think it’s useful if you have elements you want and don’t want to commit to a place for them yet. You can use notecards to move around elements easily. More information here.



  • Easy to manipulate
  • Easy to follow when it’s done


  • Long
  • Not easy in the brainstorming stage


Are Your Hands Wet?