To Outline or Not to Outline – Or is There a Third Choice?

This week’s blog focuses on the topic of whether or not it is better to outline your book or short story before you dive in and write. When I wrote my first book, it was in the days before airplanes allowed tablet devices to be used during that down time before the flight took off. I fly through Atlanta from Jacksonville, FL every week and usually the time waiting to take off exceeds the actual flight time. During those dark ages when ALL electronic devices had to be off and stowed, I wrote my first novel completely in longhand in notebooks. It was an interesting exercise that was very time consuming. I not only had to type everything I wrote later on, but, being a left-handed refugee from Catholic school, my handwriting is pretty horrible and I often had to guess at what I had written.

Needless to say, I did not outline this first book. While it flowed fairly well, it did take a longer period of time to figure out what my characters would do next. I didn’t have an ending in mind and the middle of the book was a struggle.

When I sat down to write my second book, Let Me Be Frank, I had just read a book on how to outline novels. The book extolled the virtues of meticulously outlining the book and writing full character biographies. As I began to perform these tasks, I found that it felt to much like work. I wanted to write, not outline. It was slow going and eventually I abandoned the process and started to go back to my stream-of-consciousness ways.

One Saturday morning, however, a light bulb went on (it was the light in my office). After it was light enough to see my computer, I started pondering different ways to create a road map for my novel without the tedious and limiting exercise of outlining. Then it dawned on me. I had used a technique to lay out complex documents and presentations. I also used this technique to lay out my doctoral dissertation. It is called mind-mapping. Mind-mapping is a visual technique for laying out the things you want to include in your work and then sequence them.

Usually, when I lay out a work-related document or presentation, I know all of the components that need to be included, but I don’t always know the order. Mind-mapping works well for this. The issue in translating this technique to a novel is that you may not know all of the components at the beginning. What I found was that this technique allowed me to think through the story and set up those components at a high level. This helped me avoid the dreaded “muddle in the middle” syndrome where you have the beginning and end of the story set, but the journey to get from one to the other is not clear.

So, what is mind-mapping and how does it work?

It all starts with a white board or a piece of paper. The format is a hub and wheel type configuration. The hub is the title of the book, or if you don’t have one, some working title. You can put it in a circle or other shape right in the middle of whatever you’re drawing on. Then, if you know how your book is going to start, draw some shapes for those early chapters and put a one sentence description in each chapter. For instance, you might have someone getting kidnapped in your book. The first shape might say, “Chapter 1: Susie Gets Kidnapped.” The next shape might read, “Chapter 2: Susie’s Boyfriend Discovers Her Missing.” This continues as far as you can go. If you get stuck in the middle, go to shapes at the end of your map. Maybe the last shape will read “Chapter X: Susie is Found.” You don’t have to number these later chapters until you know how many you’re going to end up with.

Once you have set up the starting and ending chapters, think about how you are going to get from one to the other. It really pays off to take the time to think this through. Remember, you can always change your mind map easily if your characters take you off in a new direction.

This truly is a road map. I would compare your mind map to mapping out a route in an app like Google Maps. You know where you’re starting, you know where your destination is. You are presented with options for your route. You can pick the route that you think will work best, but, if you run into traffic or an accident along the way, you can change your route to get around it. Also, if you want to get off of your route to do some site seeing, you can do so easily and then rely on your app to get you back on your route. The process of mind mapping is just like this. You can change it along the way to suit your needs.

Mind mapping also translates easily into whatever tool you might be using to write your novel or short story. I use Scrivener, which is a very popular writing application. Scrivener actually has a cork board within the app where you can set up “index cards” with short descriptions of your chapters and scenes within those chapters. You can take the descriptions from the shapes in your mind map and put them directly into these index cards and you have a pseudo outline for your work that can easily be changed or rearranged.

Once you have your mind map created, keep it with you as you write so that you can move from chapter to chapter easily. Don’t be afraid, however, to make changes. Your writing should not be fenced in if new and exciting detours emerge during your creative process.

To see what a mind map looks like, I’ve set the image for this blog to be the mind map that I set up for my book, Let Me Be Frank. If you want more information on mind mapping, please be sure to post your questions or you can contact me through my web site and I’ll be glad to share what I have learned about them.

About Don Massenzio

Don Massenzio was born in Syracuse, New York, to first generation Italian American parents. He is an avid reader. Some of his favorite authors include Harlan Coben, David Morrell, Stephen King, and Hugh Howey. His favorite book of all time is ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

Don began writing as a way to combat the long hours of travel and numerous hotel stays that are part of the ‘glamorous’ world of corporate travel. He uses writing as a therapeutic outlet. He recently took the jump to sharing his work with others.

His first published long work is the novel, Frankly Speaking. It is the first of what will be a series of books focused on the character, Frank Rozzani, a Florida private detective. The book is a throwback to the days of pulp detective novels with a tip of the hat to Jim Rockford from 70’s television and The Rockford Files.

The second Frank Rozzani detective novel, Let Me Be Frank is now available.

Prior to finishing his books, his published work was comprised of short stories that will be merged into a collection in the near future.

Find out more about Don at his web site:

9 thoughts on “To Outline or Not to Outline – Or is There a Third Choice?

  1. Great post, Don!
    I too wrote my first novel in longhand and it WAS very time consuming. After I typed the manuscript into Word and began to edit, I realized that I might be able to “create” on a computer, after all. Since then, no more longhand for me!
    I’m a plotter BIG TIME and I always create a rough outline, detailing what absolutely MUST happen in each chapter. As I write, I alter the outline.
    Your mind mapping sounds interesting but I think the main thing is that we each have to do what works best for us.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Last Christmas, I mind-mapped an outline for the rest of my latest cosy mystery series. It’s such a great way of doing things. I love being able to chuck down lots of random ideas and elements without having to necessarily know the order in which they need to appear. For mysteries, it’s particularly useful, I think, because it’s important to think about when clues are going to emerge, etc.

    I did mind-map one of my novels (not a mystery) using text boxes in Microsoft Word once and it worked well, but it’s just not as much fun as sitting down with bits of paper on your lap, staring out the window into the sunshine and coming up with ideas you can mind-map at random using one of those low-tech thingies… You know… A pen! (Yes, I’ve moved on from my old quill!)

    Once I’ve mind-mapped the order of things, I just transfer my ideas over to Word.

    From what I’ve heard some authors say, there seems to be this myth that you can’t outline in Word. So if you find Scrivener too much of a learning curve, folks, why not check out the little-known outline facility in Word? You can also get the document map to show on your screen in order to navigate around much more easily – way easier than scrolling up and down thousands of words of text!

    I worked out the outline facility myself, but if you can’t work it out OR get any help from Word’s HELP facility (not unusual), try a search online. Here are a few links to start you off (although you may have to pick through some of the info):

    Click to access Outlining_Word_2007.pdf

    Good luck with trying this out if you haven’t copped onto it before, and thanks for posting, Don.

    Liked by 1 person

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