Should You Outline Short Stories?

How many times have I talked about outlining on this blog? Too many to count most likely.

I personally love outlining. I’m a super organized person in real life and a tad OCD about things. That goes the same for my novels.

Outlining isn’t for everyone, but it can be used as a means for editing. That’s why I’m asking this question…

Should you outline short stories?

When I outline my novels, I make a list of characters, a list of plot points, summarize each chapter, and then bullet scene by scene. I also make a list of editing points as I write the first draft.

I’ll be honest, I’ve never outlined a short story before. When I write short stories, I tend to base them off a writing prompt I found somewhere on the Internet or I’ve created myself. Then I just start to write and somehow I end up with a short story.

Then the editing comes along and then… what?

There’s a short story I wrote a long time ago. It was for one of my creative writing classes in college. (I’ve been out of college for two and a half years, so… it’s been a while.)

Since writing it, I’ve edited it, and edited it, and edited it. I’ve submitted it to contests and magazines, but haven’t gotten anywhere with it. Still, I’m not giving up on it. In fact, I’m waiting to hear back from a magazine about it at the time of writing this post.

I submitted it to another place this past August. That story I sent in was the seventh draft. Yes, 7.

It’s grown a lot in the past few years. Did I outline it when I first wrote it? No. Did I outline it when editing? Yes.

Why bother outlining a short story… especially when it’s already been written?

Like I said, I love outlining. But I don’t outline my short stories because I just tend to roll with it. I have noticed that outlining the story after it’s written can be a huge help to editing.

I’ve been saying it a lot this week and that’s to keep your short stories simple and to the point. Only add in important aspects about the plot. Give detail, but not filler.

Outlining your short story is prep for the editing process.

  • What’s important?
  • What drives the plot forward?
  • What can I afford to cut out, if needed?

Create a list of characters and write down their purpose. Are they all needed?

Bullet-list each scene and briefly summarize what happens. Is each scene important and paying its rent to the plot? Do some scenes have too much information or not enough? If not enough, is it really needed?

I did this for my short story and gave it one last edit before shipping it off to my writer’s group a few months ago. A car accident happens in the story and everyone agreed that I had put too much detail into that scene.

They said that when you get into a car accident (to the extent in the story), you’re not looking at your surroundings describing the scenery. Especially not if you have big injuries.

Looking at their feedback and then looking at my outline, I was able to easily pinpoint and judge what was too much in that scene. I cut a lot of it out and rewrote what remained. Reading the story now, I agree that it’s much better and flows nicely. Plus, the less description added more tension.

So, should you outline your short stories?

It’s still up to you, but it definitely doesn’t hurt. I know everyone works differently, but this has helped me.

Maybe it’ll help you too.

Do you outline your short stories? Do you outline any of your writing? Let me know what you think in the comments below!

25 thoughts on “Should You Outline Short Stories?

  1. Nope I never outline short stories. Much like characters, I create everything on the fly. It means there’s a whole lot more editing afterwards, and fixing plot holes (yes even short stories can have plot holes haha) and then tightening it all down.

    It’s the few times I can just pants through an idea and story and enjoy the process. No planning for me!

    • Lol, editing can overwhelm me which is why I think that’s the big reason as to why I outline. There’s still a lot of editing involved, of course, but it helps.
      I don’t outline absolutely everything though. I have just faced the blank paper before and that’s definitely fun too. Either way, you never really know what’s going to happen.

  2. it depends on your style and pace of writing……. everyone has his own style…. but some writers have that stream-of-consciousness style of writing that there’s no need to outline….

    • Exactly. It works for some, but not others. And sometimes people only outline for big projects. It all just depends on the situation and who you are as a writer. 🙂

      • I do outline novels, but never short stories. I didn’t outline my first novel and the plot and pacing turned into a mess. I outlined my second novel, and it had the whole process a lot easier. I’ve just started outlining my third, but as I said, I don’t have much patience so my outlining is a bit lack lustre lol

        • Outlining with short stories can definitely be a hit or miss. Novels, yes. I agree with you. But my OCD kicks in and my outlines are very detailed. Sometimes too detailed, even though it’s just a guideline.

  3. Great post. I’m such a newbie that I want to try both ways, I’ll outline some ideas for short stories that I have and leave a couple of them open, and see where it goes when I start getting into them.

    • Outlines are just like guidelines anyway. There’s always room for them to change. But I do that too. I outline some parts and leave other parts alone.

  4. I haven’t outlined my short stories in the past but I’m going to start. I’m writing one now I did loosely outline. I won 2nd Place in a magazine contest some months ago and my story was published. I didn’t outline but my draft was a kind of outline I added to after I wrote the rough draft. 🙂 — Suzanne

  5. Super true about not getting a lot of details out of a car accident. When I was in one (it was on the freeway but no one was seriously injured) I remember things in pretty much four flashes. 1: Oh that car merged RIGHT in front of us, we’re going to hit them aren’t we? 2: Airbag hitting my face. 3: My partner is yelling get out of the car and something smells burnt. 4: Sitting in the grassy freeway island, and I guess my glasses are gone?

    Some of the details started to bleed back in with hindsight, but for the most part that’s all I was really processing. Yay shock, bruised ribs, and a tweaked neck!

    • Oh, geez! I’m sorry you went through that, but I’m glad everyone is okay.
      Luckily, I’ve never been in an accident but I know people who have and they all see to say the same thing about it.

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