An Alternative Approach to Outlining For Writers Who Don’t Outline

    outlining - junk shop

    I have a confession to make. I’m bad at outlining.

    Okay, I suppose that’s not entirely true. But I have tried numerous methods for novel outlining, and it took me a while to find one I liked. For the most part, my previous attempts always felt too prescriptive. I needed direction, but not a rigid summary of events.

    After a lot of trial and error, I’ve devised a method that works well for me. I call it the Junk Doc, and I’d like to share it with you today. I hope you get as much benefit out of it as I have!

    Step 1: Start With A Question

    Some of the best novels of all time are elongated answers to really good questions. A few examples: What if all evil in the world was condensed into a single piece of jewelry? Or, what would a future without books look like? Or, what would happen if a group of boys was left to govern themselves? These aren’t necessarily complex questions, yet they provide a foundation for some truly excellent works.

    Likewise, I recommend starting your Junk Doc with a single question. It need not necessarily be a high-concept question like those mentioned above, though it could be if you’ve got one. If you don’t know where to start, try this: “What do I know about my novel?”

    Feel free to use a notebook page, a computer document, or whatever you’d prefer. Then write anything and everything that answers your question. Every book is about many things, so you should have a lot to write about. Plus, you’ve probably already been thinking about this question for weeks, months, or even years already. You might write about unforgettable characters, inescapable plots, hidden secrets of your world, or even the type of font you’d like to use on the cover (please not Wingdings). Keep writing. Keep answering your question. Commit every thought you have, no matter how seemingly insignificant, to your Doc.

    I’d like to stress this point: The Junk Doc is a helpful tool, not a publishable product. That means elements like spelling, grammar, and coherence need not apply. The purpose of this exercise is simply to get your thoughts—all of them—down on the page. This is vital to the creative process because it gives you a hard record of any ideas you’ve had for your novel. Furthermore, it gets you writing rather than just thinking.

    To give you an idea of what a nascent Junk Doc might look like, here’s the first sentence of the most recent one I did. Please excuse the weirdness—I’m a fantasy writer.

    I’m thinking of a place where the unwanted gather. It’s not the kind of place you can find on a map. Rather, it lies in the spaces between maps.

    This was my answer to the question, “What do I know about my novel?” I started with setting details, but as I mentioned, one can start anywhere. Also, read that last sentence again. For me, it helped fill in an important detail about my setting: it’s an alternate world, yet still somehow parallel to others.

    But look closer and you’ll also notice that my last line doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The spaces between maps? What does that even mean?

    Truth is, it doesn’t really matter. The purpose of the Junk Doc is to provide a framework. And unlike me, you don’t have to share any part of your Doc with readers (unless you really want to). Start with that first question, then continue onward.

    Step 2: Let Your Creativity Propel You

    After that first sentence, I added a lot to my Junk Doc. No really. It’s about the size of a novella.

    That’s okay. It might feel like a lot, but sometimes getting sloppy ideas down on paper (or screen) beforehand makes subsequent writing easier. Keep adding junk. Continue asking yourself questions. Then follow your imagination wherever it takes you.

    For example, let’s pretend you started your Junk Doc with a brief description of your main character. We’ll call her Pinto Bean. From that name alone, we’ve got so many places to go. You might continue with a bit of backstory explaining how Pinto Bean came by such an unusual name (perhaps her parents are big fans of Chipotle?). From there, you might delve deep into the setting Pinto Bean and her parents grew up in. Maybe a small town? Sure. Next, you might wonder what kind of conflicts lie dormant within this seemingly quiet, franchise-friendly little place. Perhaps a Moe’s is encroaching on their turf. See? This junk practically builds itself.

    The important takeaway is this: continue writing. I believe the more you know about your novel before actually starting it, the better. That’s because writing a novel without any form of prewriting forces you to perform two tasks. First, you must generate the ideas. Second, you must translate them onto the page. Though that dual process works for some writers, it’s a lot of mental strain for others (me, for one).

    The Junk Doc allows us to split this process. First, we create the ideas and commit them to our Doc. Next, we translate those ideas into readable prose. It might take a bit longer in the short term, but I think it’s valuable in the long-term. Plus, this method cuts down on future revisions.

    When will you know when it’s time to stop your Junk Doc? I think that point is different for every writer. Maybe you reach the point where there’s nothing more to create. Or maybe you just can’t wait any longer to write. When you’ve reached that spot, feel free to proceed to Step 3.

    Step 3: Start Your Novel (And Keep Your Junk Doc Close)

    Now that you’ve imagined so much about your story, the writing process should be far easier. You’ll have significantly less risk of story collapse since you already know so much about your world and characters. Plus, I’ve noticed that good Junk Docs get me excited to find out what happens in my novel. This enthusiasm is essential to writing a great book.

    One issue you might notice is a lack of organization. That’s understandable, and honestly kind of a weakness with this style of outlining. Since the Junk Doc can swell to such immense sizes, it might be difficult to track down specific details among the jumble. Therefore, you might consider taking a bit of time to rearrange your junk. Perhaps bolded headings for different characters, locations, events, or miscellaneous details. And of course, a simple search command helps, too.

    Finally, don’t feel beholden to your Junk Doc. It’s a guide, not a contract. In fact, when you start writing prose, you’ll likely find that your story flows in unexpected directions. This is fine, and probably even a good thing. Allow this to happen. Enjoy it!

    Go create you outline

    All in all, the Junk Doc is a great way to get your mind’s inner workings down on paper or screen. I find this method works best for those who need help fueling their stories, yet dislike the rigidity of the traditional sequential narrative. The Junk Doc is open-ended, not to mention fun to write.

    Hope you enjoy it. Now go create some junk!

    About the author

      Kyle Massa

      Kyle A. Massa is a speculative fiction author living somewhere in upstate New York with his fiancee and their two cats. His stories have appeared in several online magazines, including Allegory, Chantwood, and Dark Fire Fiction. For more of his work, visit his website

    • Shri Radha says:

      Wow, great collection!! Every resource is very useful. Thanks for sharing

    • Great tips. Thank You. My problem is that I can talk, and I can verbally express myself very well. I have been encouraged (unsolicited) dozens of times to write a book. But when I sit down to write, my mind simply quits cooperating. It’s almost like my mind and my fingers belong to 2 separate bodies. Here is a link to my work page – CFI Academy Reviews

    • Thank you for this! I love the idea of answering a question. I think it would scale down well for shorter stories or even articles as well.
      For those who do have smart phones, I like using the “Notes” feature on iPhone because it automatically syncs with the Notes on my Mac. If I add to my “Junk Doc” on the go, it’s there for me when I get back to my desk!

    • This article has helped me more than you know. I am writing my first novel, a historical mystery. I have been planning this for a few years. I have random thoughts but I have trouble outlining because I don’t know yet all the answers from beginning to end. I have been having trouble on where to begin. This will help me organize my ramblings. Thanks so much!

    • Chris says:

      For those of us who really don’t ‘outline’, your step 2 says it all:

      “Step 2: Let Your Creativity Propel You”

      So why not just bear that in mind, and dive straight into the novel?

      The nearest to outlining I get is to decide on a couple of themes, or maybe three or more, that I want to incorporate into my story. (I write crime novels).

      I then write a few scenes around these themes, with no reference to each other, though I might include my series characters if appropriate. (For example, for my last book published – Disrespected – I wanted to examine the themes of honour crime; hi-jacking a bus; loss of faith; and identity theft.)

      I then write scenes for all these, then decide on the order these scenes would take place, and fill in the gaps as I develop each individual thread by letting my characters lead me to where they want to go. If I’ve got to keep turning pages to find out what’s happening, hopefully my readers will too.

      After about thirty to fifty thousand words, I usually get an idea about how the story’s going to end, so I write an ending.

      I then steer each of the separate threads towards that climax, twisting them as I go, to get a little tension. At the climax, I release the tension as it all comes together. I then add a twist in the tail, either on the a final page, or as a final very short chapter, or an epilogue.

      During the whole process, scenes, and even whole chapters, get lifted and moved around to re-order them as fits best. Also I go back into the plot to write in signposts, clues, and necessary back story if required, so that new characters don’t suddenly appear out of the blue.

      It seems to work for me.

    • Good ideas! I’ll add another to deal with those ideas that pop into your head on the go or in the middle of then night. Most of us own smartphones, so look for a specialized app with but one purpose—to make it easy to send email to a single address such as yourself. For iOS I use MeMail, but there are others.

      Then when that idea pops up, email it to yourself. From there, you can copy it into your Junk Doc or wherever.

      I’ve tried other ways to take down ideas, but nothing has been as easy, quick, and hard to miss later as emailing myself.

      • Chris says:

        That’s probably great advice, Michael… for those of us who are tech savvy enough to understand it.
        I don’t have a smart phone… My mobile phone is over ten years old and is just that: A mobile phone. I can’t even get my head around texting, let alone all these apps and suchlike.
        I have been known to get up in the night, though… to write a scene that’s appeared in my head. Often, when I do, I’m still working at the computer several hours later as the scene develops into more.

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