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Outlining Methods for Dummies

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by jasperjheart, Mar 13, 2014.

  1. jasperjheart

    jasperjheart Dreamer


    My discussion topic for the day pertains to outlining. As a person who has difficulty sitting down and outlining my stories from the beginning, to the middle, and then the end; I am curious to hear some of your methods and experiences with the subject. Specifically, what type of method do you use, and how much does it actually help you during the writing period?

    Thanks in advance for your input!
  2. Noma Galway

    Noma Galway Archmage

    I don't usually outline longer works. For school, the last short story I wrote I outlined because I didn't want it getting out of hand. I just did the formal outline, but with a lot fewer words. Just tell where the scene is and what happens. I didn't throw dialogue or anything in.
  3. Julian S Bartz

    Julian S Bartz Minstrel

    At the moment I am writing the third book in a trilogy. From the beginning I had a broad outline for each book, then moved to a chapter by chapter outline, with each chapter only having two or three sentences about what needs to happen. Really broad and brief.

    From there I write it as it comes to me and change and move things as they come.

    I think everybody is different. Find what works for you but remember don't spend too much time outlining. More time writing!
  4. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    Three words: Setup. Payoff. Aftermath.

    At the risk of sounding formulaic, there should be some kind of a payoff in every act, every chapter and every scene.

    I don't outline too much, though. I list the book's big Payoff moments, define each as an "Act," and only keep a very loose outline (full of blank spaces) for the act I'm in just to make sure I'm pacing myself to get where I need to go.
  5. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    This is one of those ways in which writers are going to work differently. I know some that outline for six months (or more) straight through. They know every detail of every happening before they sit to write the actual story. Then, they just connect the dots.

    I can't work that way. I need a bit of mystery if I'm going to enjoy the process. I've also found that I need wiggle room to tap into my creative subconscious, and that is enabled when I'm writing with only a vague idea of where I'm heading.
    So, I do outline, but I use a very loose, dynamic outline. I plot out the major things that need to happen in a chapter but those are very basic, not detailed at all. Like this:
    1) Tom goes to the catacombs
    2) Tom gets lost in the dark, lower levels
    3) Tom hears footsteps
    4) Tom....

    You get the idea. Everything that happens in between, all the finer details, all the character interactions and things of that nature, they make the story come to life.

    Now, a key component of my process is to allow for things to change. Often, as I'm following my plot points along, I will write something that goes out of bounds from the outline. That's the subconscious kicking in and taking me in unexpected directions. Sometimes those directions are better. If that's the case (and it almost always is) I'll go back and alter the outline to fit. If it is not what I want, I will cut and rewrite. Sometimes, you see, they take me too far off track...though that is rare.

    It's different when I'm working on a short story. With a short story I need a more direction and I stick to the story plan more strictly. The reason being, I don't have the room to meander too long. I need to focus on a character or two, and I need every action to move toward the conclusion. I will still allow for wiggle room, but anything new my subconscious introduces has to be really good & clever for it to be kept.
    Last edited: Mar 13, 2014
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  6. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    I'm on my first novel still so take this with a pinch of salt, but here's how I'm doing it at the moment - roughly.

    I started out with a very basic idea - something to sum up the entire novel in one or two sentences, like: "Boy meets girl" or "Hero defeats dragon."

    Then I do that again, but I add a little more detail: "Man goes on vacation for the first time since his mother passed away recently. He meets a mysterious girl and falls for her like a pile of bricks."

    Then I do that again, but I add even more detail: "The man is Enar, his mother was sick for a very long time and he was the only one to care for her. It took all of his time and now that she's gone he's alone and lost in the world. He decides to go on vacation to get away from it all for a bit and to try and find himself."

    Then I do that again, and again, and again... until I know everything that happens from the point the story starts until it ends. Once that's done I go through it all to try and define scenes and sources of tension. I try to pick out what events are important to the story and which ones aren't. If an event isn't in some way important to the story, it's out.

    Then I write the novel.

    Again, it may sound a bit like I've done this hundreds of times, but I'm still only halfway through my first novel. This is the method I used for the outlining though and it's been working out great so far.

    I'd like to comment on what TAS said about wiggle room. My outline is significantly more detailed than his is - but even then there's room for things to wiggle around. I don't allow for major events or important characters to appear out of nowhere - but there's definitely room for little details to add flavor and character to the story. It just happens. I think that no matter how much detail you add in your outline, there will always be things that appear in the actual writing that you didn't think of when you started.

    Finally - I've described my process and my progress through creating the outline in another thread here. It's pretty long, but there's a summary of it all - along with practical examples - here: http://mythicscribes.com/forums/brainstorming-planning/10410-experimenting-outlining-3.html
  7. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    I use a bunch of methods that I combined together.

    The first is the basic three act structure. It's the big picture view I have of the whole story. Here's a link to a post I made on it, describing how I see it.


    The second is called the seven point story structure. Dan Wells from Writing Excueses introduced it on the show, and I use it to break my story down into the individual plots and subplots. It's really helped me organize the way my plots unfold. Here's a youtube video of him describing the process, which I constanly plug. This is part one. I'm sure you can follow the bread crumbs to parts 2-5.

    Dan Wells on Story Structure, part 1 of 5 - YouTube

    Third. I use the scene-sequel format to break down my scenes. There are books on this, Elements of Fiction: Scene and Structure being the one I read. But here are a couple of links explaining these concepts. It helps me because each section of text can deal with multiple plots, and laying out a plot in scene sequel format allows me to organize how much I advance a plot or plots in a section.

    Doing it this way helps me in editing too, because I know exactly how much work is done in a section. So, If I have to scrap the section and rewrite, I know exactly what I need to put back into the story in order for it to make sense. Sometimes it all gets covered in the new section. Other times, I have to move stuff into a different section.

    jimbutcher: SCENES
    jimbutcher: SEQUELS
    Last edited: Mar 13, 2014
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  8. Chilari

    Chilari Staff Moderator

    Outlining is different for everyone. I used to try to use the Snowflake method - in which you start with the big picture and gradually add detail with each step - but I got bored by the time I got to step 6 or 7 and lost passion for the project. I do still use it for shorter stories, up to whichever step takes more words to write than the actual story should be, and it works okay for that (the smaller cast of characters helps - the "now flesh out your characters to give them five paragraphs each" step is what killed me for novels, when I had 18 characters to do that for) but I don't do that for novels any more.

    My current method, which is still in early stages of experimentation, is more of a pantsing approach. I set up a brief outline - about a paragraph - and about the same for eight key characters, but then I just started writing. When I start a scene, I make notes at that point going into more detail about what will happen and why, how various characters will react, what the motivations behind actions are and so on. These notes often go beyond what I will write that day, and sometimes beyond the scene it's part of, but the further ahead the notes take the story, the less detail I have.

    The result is that I know in a lot of detail what happens at the start of the novel (because I've written it), and for the rest of the current scene and the scene that comes after it, I know a fair bit about it, what happens and what I'm trying to achieve. After that I've got a vague idea of key events and maybe one or two brief exchanges, but no notes on it, it's all in my head. That goes up to about half way through the novel. The second half remains, at present, as detailed as my original one-paragraph outline. As I draw closer to it, I'll decide on key events, add details, and eventually of course write the thing.
  9. Trick

    Trick Auror

    I have a great excel spreadsheet that utilizes the 7 point plot system popularized by Dan Wells. It was set up for a teenager with very little writing experience so some of the instructions are a bit simplistic but it also has a timeline section at the bottom for organizing several interwoven plots into one seamless storyline. I love it because it's very structured without being overly restrictive. I am more than happy to send it to you if you want it.
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  10. Chessie

    Chessie Guest

    Its nice reading the different ways in which we work.

    I think the process of crafting my stories is long. I like to brainstorm my idea until I get a minimal understanding of it. I write out a brief outline, far as I can go and not always complete. I know pieces of the story when I start to write. Then I just focus on getting the skeleton of the story on paper. I go back and brainstorm after the first draft is finished, scene by scene, before going back to the rewrite. I like to edit after all of this.

    Brainstorming is most of what I do. It helps me get a clearer picture of the story.
  11. Addison

    Addison Auror

    Everyone has their own method. Some outline first and write second, others write first and outline second. Just as everyone's method of writing is different; at the table, on the floor, typed or handwritten, with coffee or with a box of chocolate etc, everyone's method of outlining is different. I have tried two ways of outlining: 1. Outlining the events from beginning to end. 2. Outlining each chapter by who's in it, what happens and the settings in it. Your outlines might just follow the character externally or internally with brief mention of everything else. It could be short and simple, taking up one side of binder paper, or it could be long and in depth, requiring a whole tree of paper and an entire wall to hold up. Fiddle around and find what works for you, whether it's listing it in order with numbers and letters or doing those grade-school....charts...I forget the name, the one that's interlocking rings, or even the spider web outline.
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  12. Aspasia

    Aspasia Sage

    I love planning. My problem is sometimes (often!) I over-outline, and I lose interest in the story. I use a wiki application and basically just pour out my ideas first stream-of-conciousness style, then I convert that into a bulleted list, with things that absolutely must happen. Like :

    * MC1 meets MC2 in a tavern brawl
    * MC2 kills [Side Char]
    * Mob chases MC2 out, MC1 defends him

    etc. I've found this sparse method of outlining lets me be creative and not lose steam in the story, while still giving me clear goals to write toward. I do this for each important scene and overall for the whole story. Another thing I have found helpful is to put projected word counts on certain events. I know that I want the Big Reveal to happen about halfway through the novella ... novella will be ~40k so reveal must happen around 20k. This helps me a LOT, because otherwise I can keep rambling on and on and on ... Having a clear wordcount helps me to notice when I should be wrapping up a scene, keeps me on top of my pacing. I used to have extremely detailed outlines with numerous links and seperate character pages and history ... but that made me lose interest in the story. I get so into the worldbuilding / outlining, I forget to write! And too many notes makes me feel boxed in. I need a structure, but I also need leeway so I can enjoy the writing. I've been trying to work towards this, haven't been too successful yet but one day I will find the perfect balance of outlining and leaving stuff in the air. Structured planning methods haven't worked for me so far, as my ideas are not actually very structured in the beginning. I find a lot of stuff changes in the actual writing, so I never want to have a story completely planned out, I leave holes that I can fill in when I get to know the characters and world better.
  13. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    I see a few comments here from people who lose interest in their story if their outline is too detailed. This is a concern of mine, but it's not something I've had any issues with yet. I think that part of the reason for this is that I really quite enjoy the process of writing the words down. I like picking which words to use fo best effect or deciding how to write a sentence to convey a certain feeling. I find that if I don't know what's supposed to be happening I'm losing out on that and I have to concentrate on keep the story together rather than telling it.
    Now, I'm certain this isn't the same for everyone, but it's how it works for me. When I already know the story, I can focus on how it's told, rather than what it's told. I'm also fortunate in that I enjoy the planning process as well, the part where I make up the story and decide what happens.
  14. TWErvin2

    TWErvin2 Auror

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  15. Wormtongue

    Wormtongue Minstrel

    I've been working on my novel for years. OK, I started a novel years ago and haven't worked on it much.

    I've had this general idea of the story and the climax and a few chapters of first draft.

    I recently bought two things that have changed everything. First is Scrivener. Second is Writing Fiction for Dummies.

    Scrivener has given me powerful organization tools that have made it easy to create my outline with far less effort than I could have done it in Word.

    I created a list of scenes, each with a brief description of what the scene contained. Some of those scenes correspond to scenes I've already written, others are only ideas. But I can add scenes, delete scenes, and move scenes around as I see fit. The story follows whatever I do to the scene list.
  16. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I have to get this out of the way first, with apologies in advance. When I read the Subject line all I could envision was a bunch of crash test dummies drawing chalk outlines of where they had fallen.

    OK. I feel better now.

    There is good advice here, to which I'll add personal observations, plus a question. The question first.

    Why do you ask? That is, are you finding yourself stuck and are thinking maybe outlining will help? Are you asking out of a curiosity about other writers' styles? Some other reason? Knowing may help others provide more specific advice.

    As for observations, my first is this: most of these things aren't really outlines. They're summaries. They summarize scenes, summarize the entire plot, summarize characters or settings. They serve two purposes. One, it gets stuff out of your head and on paper, where you can look at it. Two, it's a way to make connections--connections between scenes, connections between characters, etc. Plot is built out of such connections. But a traditional Roman-numeral outline is not what most writers are talking about when they say outline.

    Second, with the above in mind, I have two sorts of outlines. One outlines what I intend to write. That's useful for the reasons give above. The other I make *after* I have written. It outlines what I actually wrote, which sometimes strays a good deal from what Outline One claimed I was going to do. Outline Two has proved invaluable to me, especially when I'm stuck, because I find that I have not written quite what I thought I had. I was less detailed than I should have been over here. I repeated myself over there. I left out an entire scene here and how in the world did I miss that one? And so on.

    If you do start outlining, I recommend Outline Two follow the same format as Outline One.
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  17. Chilari

    Chilari Staff Moderator

    I think, for my part, it's not so much that I've lost interest in the story, but lost interest in writing the story. If I've outlined the whole thing in detail, I know what's going to happen. I've probably pictured it in my head during long drives or when falling asleep at night. So then actually writing it is reashing ground I've covered. I've not lost interest in the story, I've just lost interest in the parts I've gone over already. I want a new story, something fresh to entertain myself with. The discovery is more exciting than the act of recording it, so if I make both of those part of the same process, and don't jump too far ahead, then I can maintain my excitement in the story.

    That might have been the big problem with a particular past novel, come to think of it: I was obsessive over the end of the novel, and the middle got a bit lost in the process, because I knew vaguely what events would lead to the end, but it was the end that excited me and going back to work out how things got to that point was not something that excited me. That's not the whole reason I dropped that story, but it was defiitely a factor.
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  18. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I used to think that about my own writing. If I even thought the story through to the end, I lost that initial rush of the idea. But since I never actually wrote the story, I can't really say how it affected the writing.

    But since I made up my mind to write a story *regardless* of how I felt, things have changed. Some of the writing is a drudge, some is rewarding and it seems unrelated to the amount of outlining I do. I'm resolved to write even if I think the story idea is less than stellar. I'm going to write the story, no matter what. Outline, no outline, whether or not I have time, even if the last five pages stink. Because the only thing worse than writing badly is not writing at all.

    I wonder if it's possible or useful to evaluate the outline as a piece of writing in itself. Outline as Literature!
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  19. eartshala

    eartshala Dreamer

    Firstly be prepared that, more times than not, your story will take rabbit trails and detours you weren't prepared for, changing the course of said outline.

    It's easiest to write a short synopsis on what transpires in each chapter. If you're really creative you might not stick to it but at least it will fuel ambition.
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  20. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

    I am ambivalent about outlining. I like having a clear sense of direction whenever I write, but it has been my experience that rigorous outlining can turn out a lot like Jurassic Park. You contrive this plot that seems perfect at first, but then it gets wrecked either by little plot-holes that you missed or the detours eartshala mentioned. Furthermore, spending too much time perfecting an outline can distract you from the actual writing much like world-builder's disease.

    On the rare occasions that I do finish a story, I do almost all my outlining mentally. Somehow an outline feels much more malleable when you keep it inside your head instead of writing it down on paper or a computer document.

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