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Fiction,  Writing

4 Ways To Get Back On Track When You’re Off Your Detailed Outline

You did what all of the writing books and experts told you to do when you started working your novel – you created a very detailed outline and you expected things to go super smooth. BUT now you’ve hit a wall and that detailed outline isn’t helping anymore.  Your characters aren’t doing what you told them to do. Your scenes, heck your entire plot, feels boring, like nothing is actually happening. And that ending you mapped out months ago is miles away, nowhere to be found on the page.


I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but sometimes having that thought out detailed, meticulous document can actually hinder your creativity. 


Before I jump into the four things that I think will help you when you’re off track from your outline, I want to talk a tiny little bit about why I think having too detailed of an outline is actually causing the problem. See I get it. I’m a planner girl at heart. I have goals for my week, my month, my quarter, my year. I love having a plan, but sometimes, okay most of the time, life does not go according to plan. And yes, I am also still learning this. I have tried to learn to be a little bit more flexible with my planning. This also goes along with my writing life – you need to have a flexible plan with your outlining. Having things too mapped out can cause you to freak out when the littlest thing goes wrong. And when you freak out, you don’t know how to get back on track which can cause you to stop writing – that’s where I come in!


Let’s assess where you are


How far off your outline did you get? Are you just a little bit, or are you a lot? If you’re not sure, you can do something my editor taught me called The Reverse Outline. You just read what you’ve already written and write down in bullet points what happens in each scene or chapter.  Note – you need to write what you actually wrote here, not what you planned – and I’m talking bullet points. 

  • Jimmy did this 
  • Which caused Laura to do 
  • And because of that, Jane did this other thing

This should show you in black and white what you planned and what you wrote and how far off the plan you are. 


Do you like where you ended up? 

Are you okay with where your story went OR do you like your original outline better? Neither answer is correct here. It’s just how you are feeling about your story. 


So if the answer is, “I loved my original outline and what happened is terrible.” OR “Yes, I love where my story went, the character did this really cool thing and I’m excited, I’m just not sure where to go from here because it’s so far off my map.”  Both are good!! If you like your story right now, but need help, go on to the next step.  If you hate where you ended up, I need you to take a small pause and do a little bit of journaling about where you think the story should be at this point in time in your outline, then you can move on to step three. 

Now, let’s look at your ending

Look at where you originally mapped out and ask yourself if it’s still the ending you want. Are you happy with the ending or is it not going to work based on all the new things you figured out in steps one and two?  Does it still make sense? Do you still love it? Again, there is no right or wrong answer here, just how you are feeling and what you think based on your story. 

If you like your ending and can start to see a path between where you are and where you want to go, great – move on to the final step.  But if you’re not happy, pause again and do some more journaling – ask yourself some What If questions to get to an ending you are happy with…but please, please do not start a new detailed outline. Not yet okay? Just write down where you’d like your characters to end up based on the new information and then go on to step four.

Getting from Point A to Point B

Now we are going to map out a quick and dirty plan from where you are to where you want to end up using bullet points. Doing this step first, before you start mapping everything out in full sentences, will help you see problems before they start. So get out your outline document or index cards and start writing down ideas, notes, thoughts, and plans for different scenes and chapters between where you got stuck and where you hope to end up. I just don’t want you to sit down and spend three weeks making a new detailed, meticulous plan. I want you to keep it a little loosey goosey, a little free flowing.

Secret 5th Step – Flexible Planning

Now I’m not asking you to not have a plan because I couldn’t do that. What I’m asking you to do is just try, just try the loosey goosey, free flowing for just a minute and see if you feel better. When you start actually writing again, you don’t have to keep this up. If you get back on track and you are in the zone and want to make another detailed outline, great, you can stop and do that in a day or two, but I’m asking you not to do that yet. I’m asking you just to map things out quick and dirty bullet points, one idea at a time, just so that you can get back on track and then assess how you are feeling.

The hidden step here is the way I now do my outlines – and again, this is totally optional, but if you’ve been stuck this might be something to try.  So I outline my entire novel using bullet points on index cards – usually 1-2 sentences max for each chapter.  BUT then on my final writing session of the week, I look at my living document and do a more detailed outline for the chapters coming up – that can be anywhere from 3-5 scenes for the following week.  That’s when I flush things out with character motivations, settings, ideas for dialogue, what I need to remember based on what I wrote the week before, etc and so forth.  I take my index card and use my writing software, Scrivener, to add detailed notes and flesh the scene out so when I sit down to write I have my plan. 

Hopefully you can see the beauty of being a little bit more flexible, I’m inviting you into the world of plotser. I really hate this term, and wish I could come up with a new one, but I haven’t been able to. It’s basically where you take the plotters, the people that have that detailed, meticulous outline and you merge it with the pantsers, the people that have no outline and just start writing – by the seat of their pants.

The thing I like about being a plotser, is you have a plan (because I am a planner girl don’t forget) and you can map out your whole book but that doesn’t mean I’m tied down to a meticulous plan right at the beginning. I don’t have to spend too much time before I start writing because I’m going to take some time each week to add, update, and map out more of my book as I go. And this works for me. 

So I’m inviting you to try this, especially if you are stuck, especially if you are feeling frustrated with your outline. If you have a detailed outline and you are cooking with gas and you are moving towards your goal. Perfect. I don’t think there’s any one right way to write a book, but I’m saying if you’re stuck, maybe try this.

Let me know in the comments below – Do you consider yourself a pantser, a plotter, or are you that sort of middle plotser? And do you also hate that word or is it just me? 

And if you found this helpful, I would love for you to check out my
Muddy Middle to Manuscript coaching package where I will walk you through a process of getting very clear on your Big Why, becoming friends with your characters, and we will fix your outline so you can type The End all with a smile on your face.