The old debate of outlining vs. not outlining has been carrying on since the dawn of the novel. (At least it seems that way. I wasn't really around then, so I'm not positive.) There are those who claim outlining is a necessity for any well-written novel. It provides the structure needed to achieve the key elements of plot. Without it, a writer is lost in an endless sea of dead-ends and over-explored sub-plots. On the other side, there are the free-thinkers. I must admit, I have always believed myself to be a member of this camp. The ones that believe an outline feels kind of like being straight-jacketed and trapped inside a very small box. Claustrophobic feelings arise and keep the writer from experiencing the creative environment they need to write.
With my latest project, however, I found myself craving the unthinkable: STRUCTURE. Rules; something to give me a good swift kick when I started rambling off-course or shine a beacon of light when I got lost and couldn't see a way out. Another bonus I discovered along the outlining trail: I was no longer restrained by the shackles of chronology. Since I vaguely knew where my story was going, I could write whatever scene I felt like writing on a particular day. It was strangely liberating.
The fact is, a novel needs structure. Otherwise, what you have is a hot literary mess. But the actual process of outlining can be incredibly intimidating. It was for me, anyway. I discovered a way to tone down the intimidation and I would like to share it with you.
You will need: a pack of 3x5 index cards or some other small scraps of paper
First, and most importantly, brew a heaping pot of strong coffee or tea. It is essential to the creative process. (Not really, but just go with it.)
In the early, brainstorming and listening for ideas stage of your storytelling, write down one specific note or idea about the story on each note card or scrap of paper. Your ideas could be actions, a specific detail about a character or setting, a phrase one of your characters says, or a broader direction the story is going in. Write down all the ideas you have. Anything and everything. Don't think it will be relevant or help your outline at all? Stop analyzing and just write it down!
Once you have all your ideas written down, you can start arranging the note cards into a timeline of events. Note that this will be a continuing process and you will most likely be adding many more cards to the timeline along the way. It is also important to note that I started doing this on my bed, only to have the entire thing crash in on itself when I got up. Learn from my mistake and start on a hard, flat surface like the kitchen table or the floor. If you find yourself overwhelmed with a huge stack of cards, try sorting them into the three acts of your story: at or near the beginning, at or near the middle, and at or near the end. That way you can sort each separate pile into a more manageable timeline of its own.
If you are having trouble making decisions on when certain events should be taking place, just make your best guess. That is the beauty of this type of outlining: nothing is permanent. If you change your mind, you can just rearrange the cards. It's like the commitment-phobes' guide to outlining.
Now read through your timeline and mull it over. Does it sound like a structured story? Then the writing can begin, my friend. Does it lack continuity and sound more like bits and pieces of several different stories? Maybe you need to spend more time listening to your ideas and brainstorming where to go with them. If you are thinking of writing your story out of chronological order, you can rearrange the cards based on the order of events you have in your head.
This less intimidating style of outlining really helped me, a self-proclaimed organic writer, structure my story into something that resembled a plot line. If you are still one of those radicals that can't handle the confinement of any type of outline, so be it. Live free and write organically. For the rest of you, just give it a shot. What have you got to lose? (besides a messy storyline or none at all)
By the way, check out this awesome example of why outlining is kind of essential to a novel by Larry Brooks. It may blow your organic writing mind.