Islands vs. Outlines

20 Feb

I make lists. Lists for groceries, lists for travel, lists of honey-dos, lists of camping gear, lists of plants, lists of writing topics, lists of characters, lists of places (both real and imagined), and lists of lists. The CEO of my domicile has informed me repeatedly that I have too many notepads, file drawers, and binders filled with lists. Add to that several years as a corporate trainer and it should be easy to see why using an outline to develop a novel would be a logical choice for me. Honestly, that was how it started. I sat down and created an outline of chapters for my first novel. When I finished, I was so proud of it. I thought, “Wow this is going to be so easy.”

Starting at page one I proceeded methodically thinking that the best approach. A few months later, reality set in. Four chapters in and I had no idea where I was going. Somehow I had gotten off track and was at a dead end. The characters had not done what I originally thought they would. (Imagine that!) I saw no way to get them back to the outline. I lost interest and ended up setting the whole project aside. The process repeated itself several times. Each time, I could see scenes I wanted to include in the story but never wrote them because the characters left the outline behind.

As it happened, I picked up a book on screenwriting by  Blake Snyder entitled, “Save The Cat!”. In it, he talked about something called “story boards”. A few weeks later I took a class from Mary Carroll Moore called “Your Book Starts Here.” Two days of the class were devoted to developing a story structure using story boards and something she called “islands”. The lightbulb came on!

Okay, some of you are rolling your eyes. But for me, this was new toy I had never seen before. The great part is, I can create a list! I can create my list of (islands) that are scattered throughout my head. I then scribble them on post-it notes and place them on my story board.  Once I determine what my most critical scenes are, the rest of the islands fill in the blank spaces of the story board. With the initial story board in place, I go back and write the scenes in any order I chose. If I find that a scene needs to go someplace else in the story, I move it. The transitions between scenes can be a little tricky but that can be cleaned up later.

The freedom of not having to stick to the outline has let me focus on getting words on paper (hard drive). I no longer worry about how it will all fit together in the end. Yes, I have over simplified the process. Yes, I will end up writing scenes that may never be used in the final story. BUT, I am writing more! I also feel that my writing has improved.

So, I would like to hear from you. Do you write from an outline or from scattered islands? Perhaps you do both as each has a place in our writers toolkit.


Posted by on February 20, 2012 in Other Strangeness


Tags: , , , , ,

12 responses to “Islands vs. Outlines

  1. Traci

    February 20, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    I definitely have “islands,” or key scenes that must be in my story. But when arranged in sequence, it strikes me that this is still a form of an outline, albeit a loose one! Maybe it’s accurate to say I island hop across a series of well organized islands as I write. 🙂

    • Dennis Langley

      February 20, 2012 at 5:11 pm

      May your island hopping include balmy breezes and sunny days. Thanks for the note.

  2. obiwannabe

    February 20, 2012 at 3:22 pm

    I’m just not that much of a planner. I have a vague concept of the general shape of the story –but connecting the dots is always surprising.

    • Dennis Langley

      February 20, 2012 at 5:14 pm

      Thanks for the comment. I agree that alot interesting things can happen while we are connecting the dots. Sometimes, that is our best work.

  3. L.S. Engler

    February 20, 2012 at 6:27 pm

    So cool that you found a method that really works for you. Sometimes, it can be the best drive of all to come across something and have that “Ah-ha!” moment and be totally charged.

    I try to work from an outline, but I think I more have a general idea of where something is supposed to go, and then I just go about putting it together. Of course, if you get right down to it, I’m the type that reworks an awful lot. I had a book written, got about half-way through the revision of the second draft, and then decided that nothing was working the way I wanted it to, so I scrapped it all and started over with a new plot. Well, same general plot, but all the pieces on how everything fit together changed entirely. I wouldn’t be surprised if I get half-way through a second draft of this one and the same thing happened again. I don’t so much structure my stories as I do re-structure them, again and again and again.

    I’ve always liked the idea of island, though. Maybe one day….

    • Dennis Langley

      February 20, 2012 at 7:31 pm

      Thank you for commenting. Someday I may go back to that first story. However, it will be torn down and rebuilt from the studs out as they say in the remodeling business.

  4. teschoenborn

    February 20, 2012 at 6:51 pm

    I always know the ending and have a general idea of how to get there. Beyond that, I enjoy the ride realizing the rewrite will come.

    • Dennis Langley

      February 20, 2012 at 7:26 pm

      I have actually written the final climax scene for my novel and it gave me some ideas for things that I missed in my initial storyboarding. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Brigitte

    February 24, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    Dennis, I too am an avid list-maker and have recently resorted to a half-hearted attempt of writing an outline for my novel. I have found it frustrating as I’ll make that outline, begin writing and go somewhere else with it! I’ll try your tips above — it sounds a bit more freeing than the dreaded outline. Good luck to you and thanks for the great advice!

    • Dennis Langley

      February 24, 2012 at 5:26 pm


      Thanks for stopping by. Sounds like you are having similar issues to what I encountered. If you want to try the island/storyboard method, take a look at Mary Carroll Moore’s website. The link is on my site. Her book entitled “Your Book Starts Here” is an excellent place to start. Good luck with your writing and let me know if it works for you.

  6. annewoodman

    February 24, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    Dennis, I don’t tend to write from an outline… I’d say I’m a pretty organized person, but all that disappears when I’m writing fiction. That said, I think I may strive for a slightly more orderly approach to my second novel. The writer I interviewed recently said to have the last scene in mind so you have a goal… I’ll probably work towards that the way you train for a marathon. In other words, my goal is to get to 26.2 (end of novel), so I have to put in the training (scenes) that will take me there.
    I like the thought of islands, though. ; ) I’d like to be on one right now!

    • Dennis Langley

      February 24, 2012 at 6:22 pm

      Hmmmm. Surf, Sand, Sun, Mai Tai’s. Okay, I’m there! Thanks for the daydream. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: