To outline, or not to outline – by Dean Lappi

Author Dean Lappi

To outline, or not to outline, that is the question

When I’ve been interviewed, one of the common questions I get is – what type of writer am I? When starting a new book, do I plan it out with a full outline or do I just let it flow to see where the story takes me.

I think most writers fall into one of these two categories. For my first novel, I definitely was the second type. I came up with the basic idea of my fantasy novel Black Numbers, which was – what if magic was created through advanced mathematics instead of spells? I started writing and the book came to life as I wrote each chapter. I just seemed to be along for the ride.

I am just wrapping up the sequel called BLOOD NUMBERS. Since it was a sequel, I figured I could just let the ideas flow as I wrote each chapter. I mean, it worked perfectly well for my first book. But a strange thing happened this time around. Book two ended up being a larger story, with a half dozen new characters and storylines that all intertwined. I made it to chapter 38 before I found myself slowing down, unsure of where to go next with the story to ensure that every storyline came together properly. It was then that I realized what I needed to do. I had to create an outline.


I shook my own head at the silliness of that idea. I was, after all, 66,000 words into the book. Wasn’t it too late to create an outline now? I tried writing some more but struggled. My mind was filled with the story but everything seemed to be disconnected.

So I sat down one day last week and outlined the whole book. It seemed counter-intuitive to do it this way, after completing at least 66% of the book already. It also seemed a waste of time to be working on the outline when I COULD be finishing the book.

But something amazing happened. After I completed the outline, not only was I able to easily see the entire flow of the book, I realized that I had let myself get carried away with the new characters, and let some of my original characters languish. It was shocking because I didn’t even realize that I had been doing this.

So, I ended up outlining twelve new chapters that I added between chapters 1 – 38 to even out the storyline. While I was doing this, I came up with new ideas for how to finish the book, so I outlined eight new chapters that led to a satisfying conclusion.

By creating this outline, I was able to see EXACTLY what I needed to write. It breathed new life into the novel and I got excited all over again. I sat down and wrote 29,400 words in the following four days. It was like I couldn’t type quickly enough.

This brings me back to that standard interview question of whether I outline my book or let the book just flow. I can honestly say that my methods have morphed into a combination of these two now. While I am not sure if I will create an outline before I begin my third novel, I have gained a great respect for the outline method and fully plan to use one at some point in my next book.

Hopefully it will be before chapter 38 this time.


Dean Frank Lappi is the author of the horror/fantasy novel BLACK NUMBERS, which is published through Fantasy Island Book Publishing. BLOOD NUMBERS, book two in the Numbers series, will be published in May or June of 2012. He will immediately begin work on book three, as yet untitled, which he hopes to publish in May of 2013.

Dean has a Master of Arts degree in English, and he works for one of the largest companies in the world as a Web Content Manager. Dean is originally from Northern Minnesota, and now lives with his wife in the Minneapolis area. Find Dean on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.


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27 thoughts on “To outline, or not to outline – by Dean Lappi”

  1. Dean – I am so looking forward to Blood Numbers. I can't wait to see where you take Syd and Crowdal! I have worked to both an outline and freeform. I am working right now to an outline, and everything is flowing well.

    1. Hi Connie. Thank you for taking time to read my guest blog and leaving such a wonderful comment here. I am also looking forward to your next book! Have a fantastic evening. Kind regards, Dean

    1. Hello Stephen. Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to write the guest post. I really appreciate it. I'm very happy to consider you a friend. Have a wonderful evening. Kind regards, Dean

  2. Dean, I really enjoy reading this post. I have some of same experience like you. When I first wrote my novel "Last Kiss In Tiananmen Square", I thought I knew what this book is about so I didn't need an outline. Only after almost 20 years later, when I was revising it. I saw things were missing. Only then I started to outline it mentally and added many chapters in the middle. For my next novel, I will definitely write an outline before I started writing. I actually have a screen play outline, which can be writen as a book , too. But how knows how we feel next time when we have a book idea. Anything could happen.

    1. Hi Lisa. Thank you for your great comments. I think the outline helped me to "See" my novel as a whole. But for my first book, I didn't need one. So it definitely think it is according to the novel upon whether an outline is required. Sometimes a novel just comes alive and we, as authors, know exactly what needs to be done. Good luck with your next novel. Have a great evening. Kind regards, Dean

  3. Very interesting. It makes me wonder if I need to take a look at my method again. The first two practically wrote themselves but this one is harder. You have given me something to think about.

    1. Hi Yvonne. Thank you for taking time from your day to comment on my guest blog, and for your kind words. Best wishes on your third novel! Have a wonderful day. Kind regards, Dean

  4. I'm a bit of both! I outline in advance and write by the seat of my pants, and then outline some more as I go along.

    I can't remember who said it, but I recall a quote that went along the lines: "Writing is easy, it's the occuring that's hard."

    For me, the writing helps the occuring to happen, hence the outlining as I go.

    1. Hello Mark. Thank you very much for your insight. I like the quote "Writing is easy, it's the occurring that's hard". I like your outline in advance/write by the seat of your pants approach. It even rhymes. 🙂 Thank you again for responding here. Hope you have a great day! Kind regards, Dean

  5. Excellent post, Dean, and I really can't wait to read Blood Numbers. I thought Black Numbers was fascinating – one of those books you just can't put down once you start – and I know that Blood Numbers will be even more gripping.

    1. Hi Alison. Thank you so much for your kind words about Black Numbers. You are an amazing author and person, and your comments mean a lot. Wishing you fantastic evening. Kind regards, Dean

  6. Thank you everyone for your wonderful comments. The act of writing is such a fascinating concept to me. We all, as writers, go about the craft so different, yet with such amazing results. I appreciate so much you all taking time out of your busy days to come here and leave a comment. Kindest regards, Dean

  7. I work on the principle of broad story arc and critical mass. I keep brainstorming until I reach the level where the story and characters are self-sustaining, then start writing. I find if I try to plan too finely, my characters will refuse to do certain things. Then I have to back up, turn the wheel and try again. But I need the big map to make sure I'm heading the right direction

    1. Hi Scott. I agree with you about planning to finely and having it harm the storyline, but that the 'big map' makes sure we are going in the right direction. Well said! Thank you for commenting here. Kind regards. Dean

  8. Loved getting insight into yours and your readers' approach to plotting.

    I am much like Dean in my approach. I generally start with an outline, however, then immediately deviate from it as I find one character's development taking me in a direction different from where the outline pointed him/her. The characters inevitably have deeper sensibilities and intelligence than their creator — as long as I allow them their own internal latitude.

    Congratulations on a thought provoking blog.

    1. Thank you for your kind response Jay. I love your take on the characters having 'deeper sensibilities and intelligence than their creator', that is often the case isn't it. I think it is important to let our characters breathe and learn and grow. The outline just helps ensure the storyline is better understood by us, as authors. Thanks again and have a great day. Kind regards, Dean

  9. I'm with you generally, I let it flow. My first novel started with a couple of lines of dialogue and the story flowed around them.

    I can do outline though. I do a little commissioned work that requires the chapter by chapter synopsis in advance, and it does serve as a guideline for the direction of the story.

    Still, it's more fun wondering what's going to happen and how my heroes are going to survive the tight situations I put them in…

    1. Hi Jaq, thank you for your comment. It is, indeed, fun to wonder what will happen. I think it is part of the magic of writing. Hope you have a fantastic day! Kind regards, Dean

  10. Great post. I find myself a seat-of-the-pants writer. If I try to write down a structured outline, I get frustrated as my characters take off down rabbit trails and I have a hard time getting back. Love the cover and have numbers down on my TBR. Great cover too.

    1. Hi Reggie. Thank you for taking time to comment here. I really appreciate it. I believe that is the wonderful thing about us authors – we all go about our writing craft differently, but all with the same result of creating a fantastic story that comes from deep within us. Thank you also for your kind words about my cover. Hope you have a great day. Kind regards, Dean

  11. Dean I feel like your twin. I did the exact same thing between my first and second. I, too, found myself carried along by the story but by the second book, it was apparent I needed to sketch some things out. It worried me. The first book felt like magic as it wrote itself, and I didn't want to disrupt that process with the second. I decided to try it anyway and was pleasantly surprised at the outcome. I've decided from now on to go with a combination shoot from the hip and outlining, as this seems to be the best for me. My writing buddy did the outlining thing for his first and when he watched my first book conjur itself without an outline, he decided to try it on his second. He said he had a blast and was surprised how fun the process had been. He now uses a combination of outline and shoot from the hip. Fun stuff!

    1. Hello Richard. It definitely sounds like we are very similar in our writing history and methods. 🙂 I like your 'Shoot from the hip" approach, but still using an outline. It really worked for me doing it that way too. Thank you again for taking time out of your busy day to comment here. It is great meeting so many amazing authors here. Have a wonderful Thursday and best wishes for your next novel. Kind regards, Dean

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