Do you really need to outline your story?

January 23, 2018 8:00 am Published by

Outlining is something we all learned early on in school, and many of us hated it. Won’t things go faster if we skip all that nonsense and just start the writing? Now that we’re creating stories instead of school essays, we may find ourselves asking this question once again: should we outline?

Reasons you should outline

Yeah, you should probably outline. But why, if you know how your story will go? You know the characters, the plot, the setting, everything is all there in your head and you just wanna make this thing already. Why go to the trouble of outlining? There are a few reasons, but mostly: you’ll forget something.

No matter how passionate and motivated you are, you will likely forget something if you don’t write it down. Even the greatest creators are not perfect. On an outline, you can include all the plot points and crucial information for the story so you don’t leave something out or write yourself into a corner.

The opposite can also happen without an outline: instead of leaving something out, you include more. Storytellers often come up with additional details they wish to write. There’s nothing wrong with more elements that contribute to the story in a meaningful way, but without an outline to guide you, your story could meander.

No matter the case, your outline is closely tied to your plot. We discussed plots last week, and we know how important they are. Unless you outline your story, your plot could turn out weaker than you realize.

Reasons you should NOT outline

All that sounds pretty dire – if you don’t outline you story, it will definitely turn into a giant mess! Well, not always. You might not always need an outline. If your story is very short or basic, you can probably remember the entire plot with no problem and just jump in. Also, some stories may not have a traditional plot. This might happen with games or interactive stories. In these cases, you sometimes can’t create a rigid outline. For some stories outlines really are futile or not worth it.

Examples

So how do we handle outlines at Azdion? It depends on the story.

Outlines were used for both Running Man and The Spark. At just over 30 pages for each comic, I had limited space in which to tell the story and couldn’t afford to lose focus. I did not follow Running Man’s outline closely, and it shows in its vague characterization and unfocused plot. It was originally going to be a very different story. The Spark’s outline was more detailed and I stuck to it, and as a result I think it ended up being a more solid story.

Lūdō had no formal outline. The film was so short that the story could stay entirely in my head. Critter has ball, Critter loses ball, Beast finds ball, Critter asks for ball back, Critter realizes Beast has no toys and offers to play with them. It was so easy, and since I wasn’t interested in exploring additional ideas or plot threads, it turned out fine.

Cinnabar and Almanac Adventures didn’t have actual outlines. Animations get outlined to some extent in storyboarding, but we didn’t write outlines for the episode plots. Instead, we started out with a general idea, such as “Camp Fire: Almanac sets the camp on fire” or “Potatoo Many: they have too many potatoes” and kind of made up the plot from there. These shorts were not that good, and the plots didn’t exactly help their objective quality, but we think the stream-of-consciousness storylines were responsible for a lot of the charm they did have.

In the end, I think an outline will generally help your story, but there are many ways to go about it. If you don’t want to write a long one, then don’t! Give yourself enough details to provide structure to the story while still leaving you some freedom. If you want an elaborate story with tons of plot threads, a huge detailed outline might be best so you don’t forget anything. And depending on your story, you might not even need an outline.

In the end, it’s up to you! Make whatever plans you need, and start creating some great stories!

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