Plotting mysteries: 4 reasons to embrace an outline

Writers have specific feelings about outlining / not outlining. In the mystery writer’s community, it is called plotting or pantsing. Granted, pantsing (writing by the seat of your pants) sounds fun, but don’t turn your back on an outline quite yet.

Content over form

Forget the outline technique you learned in high school, where the emphasis was on the use of appropriate Roman numerals and letters. An outline is a memory aid. A place to hold all of your ideas together. The form isn’t as important as the content.

Catch errors before they are too big to fail

Who wants to write beautiful prose only to discover that there are plot holes so large a caravan of trucks will fit through them? Outlines let you see holes and fix them before you’ve spent weeks, months, years on sections that should be thrown out. (It’s hard to kill your darlings when they are polished perfection.)

Take your time

An outline doesn’t need to be short. Slow down. Take your time. Enjoy ‘writing’ the outline. Visualize the scene, the characters, the plot, the dialogue as completely as you would when creating a full draft. The difference is that you aren’t wasting time on all of the details. If your goal is a complete manuscript in six months, spend two months on the detailed outline. Three months writing and a month to edit.

Big changes are a snap

It is far easier to go back to the outline and change things – ANYTHING – than it is to rewrite entire sections of beautiful prose. Have you decided your main character isn’t a young girl, but a boy? Easy in an outline. Dramatic and painful in a full draft (and also tempting to keep some things that you wouldn’t have written for your new character). Do you need to insert a specific secondary character? You probably know exactly why and can create and include the precise character you need – with the added bonus of not disturbing chapters of beautifully written text.

Still works as stand in for Beta readers

Need a second pair of eyes? (Everyone does.) A detailed outline, full of who, what, when, and why, with snippets of critical description and dialogue mean the plot is there. The characters are there. Beta readers should be able to spot missing motivations (why does she quit a job she loves in order to take care of a mother she hates?) and inexplicable plot points (why does he go into the basement of the dark building when he can smell gas and the killer he’s chasing is a pyromaniac? Maybe he should make a call to the police first? Or the fire department?).

For a writer, the outline can be as inspiring and exciting an experience as writing a draft at full speed. Simply skip the polished prose part and keep the details.

Are you willing to try plotting?

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One lucky commenter this month will win a signed copy of Michele Dorsey’s Oh Danny Girl.

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