There are all kinds of strategies out there for outlining a story, some more complicated than others. Here are 7 Outlining strategies that I’ve used myself with varying success, but each of these have been used successfully by several of my writer friends. I hope this inspires you to try something new and see if any of them work out for you.
This is one of my primary outlining strategies. This is something that pretty much everyone goes through at least once in their lives while writing grade school English papers. As in school, some people use the old Roman Numeral way of creating their outline.
- Act 1 – Starting the story
- Scene 1 Inciting Incident
- Scene 2 Character Reaction
- Act 2 – Preparing for the climax
- Scene J
- Scene K
- Act 3 – Going through the story climax
- Scene X
- Scene Y Climax
- Scene Z Resolution
Some people forgo the formality of numbers and letters and simply bullet their way through each scene of their story.
- Inciting Incident
- Character Reaction
- Establish Setting
- Character Choice #1
- Meet other Characters
- Stuff Blows Up
- Story Climax
- Story Resolution
You get the idea. The main goal is to get all your ideas out there and on paper so that you can move those ideas around if you need to.
I generally use this strategy in combination with making lists. The idea of the synopsis method is not to do a formalized synopsis like you’d do for a writing contest or for sending to an agent or editor. The idea is to get the generic ideas of your story out there and on paper in a story telling format. There’s minimal dialogue, most of the time there’s none. The synopsis is filled with descriptions of what happens. This is the “telling” of your story instead of the “showing” — that’s what the novel is for.
Tom wakes up and finds his apartment completely empty. How is it possible that he could have slept through someone steeling all his stuff? The only things that Tom has is his cell phone, the boxers he’s wearing, the bed he’s sleeping on, and the thin sheets covering him. Tom dials the police to report a break in, but the number doesn’t work. He has no service. Tom walks out of his apartment to find neighbors he doesn’t know but all seem to know him. Strangely, they too wonder the hallways of the building in their sleepwear. After questioning the pretty girl across the hall Tom learns that no one has left the building in years, there’s no need. Everything they could possibly need is provided for them. With additional investigation Tom realizes that he’s been placed into an artificial simulation to keep his mind alive while his body is being regenerated after a plane crash.
Well, I guess that’s starting to sound a bit like the Twilight Zone but you get the point I’m trying to get across. You don’t have to be super detailed, because the purpose of the synopsis is to get the general story out there. Be detailed enough that you remember the ideas that are important that you can flesh out later.
The important things to note in the synopsis are
- Who the story is about?
- What obstacles do they encounter during the course of the story?
- Who does the main character meet along the way?
- Identify who the antagonist is (if there even is one)
- Understand how things are supposed to conclude at the end of the story. This could change, but it’s nice to have a goal in mind.
Another important thing to note, is that a lot of pantsers use this method or at least a more elaborate version of this method in the form of their first draft. It’s a way to get the story out with a bit more detail and allows you to flesh out ideas as you go along. The synopsis can help you see where you’re story is going and allows you to full fill that creative spark inside.
Using Note Cards
Using note cards is quite popular for people who want something more tactile. Having note cards can also help free your mind and help you physically move ideas around into places that may be more difficult to see in a notebook or a Word document.
There are various ways to use note cards. You can use all one color or you can color code the note cards — blue for plot points, green for character development, and white for structure for example. The main idea is to take all the items that you would normally put on your list and put them on note cards instead.
- Name your characters with their descriptions
- Create a card for each plot point both major and minor
- Create a card for each point of foreseeable character development
- Name your settings with their descriptions
- Create a card representing each major structural point in the story (Inciting Incident, Act 1 Climax, Mid-Point, Story Climax, Story Resolution, etc)
After you’ve created all of your note cards lay them out on a table or on the floor or on a cork board. Arrange and rearrange the cards, add and subtract cards, move everything around until you’ve created your road map for telling the story that you want to tell.
Some people, including myself, have taken the note card process a step farther into the virtual realm. Useing programs such as Scrivener or yWriter to create your note cards can be helpful if you’re trying to keep all your ideas in a digital format.
Story Boarding is another fun and more tactile, artistic way of outlining your story. Again, you take similar ideas that you would write down on your list or synopsis and instead relying solely on words you add pictures as well. These visuals can be pictures or art you find on the internet or pictures you draw or photograph yourself. Many people find it helpful to have something visual to go with their concepts, it helps them spark their imaginations. Then you use these pictures along with your words to plan out your story in a similar way that you would use the note cards.
Personally I like having pictures to help inspire me and generally use Pinterest to create general character and setting story board like inspiration. Though I must admit I don’t have those pictures in any particular order.
Cork Board & String
To add a little additional complexity to the note card and story board methods, you could post your note cards and/or pictures to a cork board and then add some string. This is where you decide how all the cards are related to each other. Not only will you map out the order of your scenes, but you can use the varying colored string to emphasize how the plot, characterizations, and setting are all connected. What characters are connected to what plot points? How does the setting play a role in the progression of the story? What sub-plot points or clues connect to the main plot and at what points?
This is a process that can help you make various decisions about your story:
- See if you have any outlier scenes that need to be tied in or cut out
- Make it more obvious that a certain character isn’t getting enough screen time – maybe they need to be cut out or given a bigger purpose
- Perhaps you realize that the settings aren’t varied enough.
In the end, this may look like a tangled mess to an outsider, but you’ll know exactly what’s going on with your beautiful creation.
I have a friend who likes to mind map and plot tree his way through his outline before writing. He explores all the various choices the characters in the story can make that will effect the story. The story is all about how the plot challenges the characters and what choices they make right? He also creates mind maps for his characters, describing everything about then and then uses the plot trees to explain the decisions they make through the story.
I have another friend who refuses to get any kind of special writing software and has utilized Excel to map out his stories and uses it as his story database. Not only does he have spreadsheets with descriptions of his characters and settings, but he also creates character progression charts and plot charts. He counts how many choices the main character makes that give him forward or backward progression. He also counts the number of forward progressing plot points.
To help him make the decision of whether or not a scene is forward progressing, he lists all the scenes that will be in story on the spreadsheet. In each scene the following criteria that will be present:
- Physical Detail (What does the object look like?)
- Emotional Detail (How does the object feel?)
- Mental Detail (How/what does the object think?)
- Social/Societal Detail (How does the object react to other objects?)
- Attitude Detail (How does the object feel about the objects around it?)
- Now the object in question is whatever or whomever the story is about.
Answering these questions allows him to see the character progression throughout the story. As the answers to the questions evolve into forward or backward motion for the character there will be either a +1 for forward motion, -1 for backward motion, and 0 for no motion. The idea is that the character needs to move in either a forward or backward motion, if nothing changes in the character throughout the story then what’s the point?
If the object is in the same state for all the scenes of the story, there isn’t really a story.
Mixing and Matching
I personally use a mixture of the first four methods discussed here, which I’ll post on more extensively next month. But there are many more methods out there and if you’re interested I found this article by Novel Now 7 ways to write a plot outline very interesting. They don’t really go into “how to” write a plot outline but go more into “what content to put into” a plot outline and that’s what I found most interesting about the article. I’m more of a “hero’s journey” and “3 Act” structure gal, but it was eye opening to read about the other structural methods they discuss, especially this thing called “the snowflake method.”
So I hope this inspires you to take a look at what outlining method could work for you. Sometimes you just need a different perspective and you never know what could work better until you try it. Some methods sing louder than others to different people, thank goodness for that. Life would be so boring if we all did the same things right?
Enjoy the writer’s journey. Write On!