The Roughline


If you’re like me, you hate outlining. Ever since I was a wee tot (I maintain that I was writing as a tot, though my ‘career’ didn’t begin until I was 7) I shied away from outlines. They make me feel claustrophobic– boxed in, and bogged down in such a way that killed my desire to write at all.

If I had a great story, I’d skip outlining altogether. Why did I need it, after all, if I already knew the story?

The answer to that, of course, is that, halfway through, I’d fall down a rabbit hole, forget there was ground above, and drive the story (quite literally) into the ground. (Admit it, that was clever) I’d pull up, a good 50k into a story and think:

What in the world am I doing?

By then I would have forgotten the direction of the story, and because I hadn’t written it down, it would be lost forever. I’d be stuck underground, with my brilliant story fallen to bits and my writerly soul in shards, too.

But I hate outlining.

So what’s a girl to do?

I recently began doing something I like to call a ‘roughline’. It’s a term I coined for an outline that has room to breathe. It’s an outline that doesn’t strangle your creative juices. But it’s still an outline– of sorts.

A roughline moves from point a to point b just like an outline, except it embraces when you write ‘stuff happens here’, and it can include a line of dialogue, a feeling, an expression, or that cool idea that might fit. It doesn’t have to be a rigid plot point after plot point map.

Yet it can get you to the end of a novel. Or at least, it will let you look back at what your ideas were in the beginning. Your call.

Here’s a sample roughline I created for display purposes (It’s not something I’m currently working on- It’s from a dream I had a long time ago)

Beginning: > Travel to Ireland; scene in airport. Two characters, people watching.

… Arrive, Aire > catch a taxi from airport. What even is the airport for Ireland? Dublin?

…I think fairies should come into play now, so have some glittering lights where there shouldn’t be. Maybe the characters can’t understand their innkeeper. Of course, they’d believe in fae anyway. B&B? Air&B?

… probably should include a tavern scene. Listen to some High Kings for setting mood. Pandora has some good Celtic channels. They always seem to sing about love and death and sadness.

Gift shop > Notice the [OBJECT] which is the Fairy Tree Three-faced Clock; the characters go to buy it, hear [LEGEND] about the beginning of the shop. I think it must be somewhere interesting. Research old, fae castles near Dublin.

…The clock cannot be bought unless all the clock faces show the same time, but they cannot be moved and neither can the clock.


… Characters move on, and go sightseeing but return to the shop. Character A fiddles with clock. Character B is impatient.

…Stuff happens. Maybe there’s a key or a secret code. SOLVE THE PUZZLE.

… Clock clicks and a secret door opens behind it. Or the bookshelf slides in? That’s cool.

Characters enter. The door leads to a basement, and then outside. There is a strange little man waiting for them. He says they have been accepted into the fairy guardianship.

… They solve some problem in the fae world. {INSERT PLOT POINT}

  • Listen to ‘Parting Glass’ by Peter Hollens.

> Characters go home and wonder about sanity.

See? It’s fun, it leaves room for a lot of addition, and since it’s so informal, I don’t feel like I have to stick to the plan.

What about you? Do the rigors of outlining help you think? Does the rigid organization help you rather than harm your story? Or are you more like me- and you roughline? What sorts of things does your roughline include?

7 thoughts on “The Roughline

  1. I was weaned on family history. A few members from both sides of my family were always willing to share a family story, reminisce about the good old days, or look through photo albums with me. When they all passed, no one was left to tell the families’ stories until I stepped in.

  2. I thought the same thing, Amanda, and as you can see from my likes and comments, I have been reading your blog as well. Keep up the great work!

    1. I will try. You as well! What began your interest in genealogy? (and forgive me if this answer is obvious on your blog- I’ll get there eventually…)

  3. Hi Amanda Your “roughlining” looks very similar to how I used to outline research papers, much to the consternation of the teachers/professors who wanted a more formal, structured outline. I am so glad to see that I am not the only one who keeps my options open even in outlining. 🙂

    1. KTC, we’re so similar in a lot of ways! I feel like when you stumbled upon my blog, I found a kindred spirit out in the world. I plan to sit down and read through some of your posts today. <3

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