Creative Outlining - Not an Oxymoron


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The first time I was asked to write an outline, I balked. Stifle my creativity with Roman numerals and chapter titles? The process was like pulling my fingernails out. Not only had I never tried to summarize the scenes in my half finished book, but deciphering what should be detailed and what could be omitted was almost as difficult as creating the dreaded synopsis.

Although the assignment was a monumental struggle, it taught me a valuable lesson. With direction, with the upcoming events in my novel detailed, I felt motivated to write the last scenes that had previously eluded me. This worked wonders for a novel that was nearly completed.

As I approached my second novel, I missed the plot line and character prompts and decided I needed a new outline. Easier said than done. With only a few ideas for scenes and very little else, the traditional outline stumped me. How could I decide what needed to go into which chapter if the story was largely a mystery? Every outline attempt was convoluted and difficult to follow. Frustrated, I gave up. There had to be a better way.

As with most dilemmas, I polled other writers and published authors for possible solutions. One author explained that before she began to write, she created a synopsis and used this as both an outline and a tool to sell the unwritten book to her publisher. Impressed by this dual duty, I knew I had to find a way to make this work for me.

But if outlines intimidated me, then a synopsis terrified me. How could I combine the two into a format I could follow? How could I brainstorm all the ‘what ifs’ and avoid the constant rearranging and renumbering of chapters? After much consideration and thought, the answer came to me. By combining the two–a traditional outline and a synopsis–a story could be detailed with very little structure, but maintain a workable format. Once begun, I discovered how invigorating this form of free writing was and decided to call it a Creative Outline.

What Creative Outlining Is

Creative Outlining is–in essence–a scene outline. Without Roman numerals or chapter headings, you have the freedom to maneuver plot points and swap scenes. New ideas become easy to add without confusing the format. This technique allows you the freedom to write an entire novel, or other lengthy work, in a few short pages.

As with most writers, I picture a story in my head, not as words on paper, but as a mini-movie in my mental cinema. Sometimes I know the whole story, other times, I only know the low and high points. Brainstorming is an integral part of shaping a novel. For any writer who’s fallen in love with the inherent creativity in free writing, this is the perfect outlining technique.

How It Works

As aspiring writers, we sometimes forget we are the masters of our universe. Creative Outlines are written ‘for your eyes only’. The sheer flexibility of this technique allows you to go back and insert as much as you’d like, wherever you’d like. The purpose is to breathe life into your outstanding inspiration. Do not edit, do not to stop to research. Use asterisks (***) to make any areas of research simple to find later on.

Using the Three Little Pigs as an example, these are the steps of a Creative Outline:

Step One–Begin by describing any information that occurs before the opening scene. Use quick, memory cementing sentences:

Three little pigs are born on a farm, but escape becoming Easter dinner by running away. They lose their mother, family, and friends, but are safe. Until they have an encounter with the Big Bad Wolf. As they are chased, they are separated.

Step Two–The opening scene should be written as above, with quick, strident sentences but labeled:

Opening Scene: Little piggy is looking for a safe haven from the Big Bad Wolf and thinks how a house of straw might protect him from all his huffing and puffing. **Look up Timber Wolves**

Step Three–Free write the rest, using the ‘And Then’ method.

(And Then) Little Piggy’s brother decides that he wants a house made of wood. The Big Bad Wolf would have a tough time blowing that down! **Research different kinds of wood**

(And Then) Third Little piggy decides to build his house from bricks in hopes the Big Bad Wolf won’t get inside. **Research types of bricks for home building** The beauty of this outline is the ability to be totally creative without stopping to find facts. When you begin the actual work, you’ll find your creativity stimulated by the research and the development of your characters.

For instance, I’ve made the Three Little Pigs runaways. Through their mutual need to survive, I can showcase their reliance upon one another and their growth as they discover the importance of teamwork and family. Feel free to play with the structure, rearrange or add as ideas occur. Making changes is much easier when you’re dealing with paragraphs instead of whole chapters or scenes.

Another benefit of Creative Outlining is that once you’re familiar with this technique, it will become easier to create, even before it’s needed. When inspiration hits, write the Creative Outline and save it for your next project. Over the course of a year, I developed seven such outlines and eventually three of these of these were requested by an editor in New York who was intrigued by my writing style.

Creative Outlining provides the benefits of an outline, but allows you to maintain a higher level of creativity. As master of your writing universe, you can decide to add as much or as little as you need. This simple tool will prompt you during those dark moments when your novel falters and help keep the story on course. Have fun playing with ‘what if’ and follow your instincts.

J. R. Turner is the author of the award-winning novel, “My Biker Bodyguard” and the Knight Inc. adventure series. Visit to find out more.


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