WAW: When is an outline done?

Writing About Writing: A once-a-week post about some aspect of writing. I’m not an expert; I’m just some guy. Take it with a grain of salt.

I’ve been talking and thinking and writing a lot about outlines lately. I’ve also been working on my own outline. I decided a couple weeks ago that my outline and research were done, but the more I reflect on that decision the less meaning “done” seems to have.

It’s tough to determine what marks an outline as “done,” but there are a few good guideposts.

Elements of a completed outline

  • You have a detailed outline that lays out a rough sketch of every scene from beginning to end
  • All of the main characters are fully fleshed out
  • The world exists*


That last gets an asterisk because it’s the one I’m the loosest about. Item 1 I will not budge on. That is the single most important element, to me. You need to know where the story starts, what happens in the middle and how the damn thing ends. Item 2 also has little wiggle room. You have to know your characters and why they’re doing what they’re doing. But if you don’t also have every single secondary character totally realized, that’s probably ok.

Then we come to the world building.

Building eternal

Worlds are complex. Ridiculously complex. For every problem you solve and question you answer, you will find a dozen more.

So when is the world done?

As I’ve written about before, there are some things that I think you really *should* have before calling the worldbuilding done. Things like languages, measures, nations, history and cultures.

But it’s possible to get mired in those details forever. And that’s a dangerous trap to fall into.

So when is it done? When you want it to be…kinda

I think worldbuilding, and therefore outlining, are done when you believe you sound credible enough. Note the enough. You’re never going to know everything. It’s just not possible. But do you know enough? Maybe? Probably?

Good enough is good enough – at least for a first draft. Let good enough be your guide for the first draft. Writing a draft and going back to fill in details of the world is vastly preferable to outlining for eternity.



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