We’re just about halfway through October, which means those of us participating in NaNoWriMo this year are up to our proverbial necks in preparations (the #NaNoPrep trend you’re sick of seeing me tweet about).
I recently ran a poll on Twitter regarding outlines, and it turns out the vast majority of writers that responded do use some form of outline before writing a first draft. I also had quite a few Twitter followers tell me that they want to start outlining more but that they’re not sure how to go about it.
And I thought to myself, “Say, what a wonderful topic for a blog post!” And so here we are. Now, please understand that I’m not a writing expert. My methods aren’t universal or honed to perfection. However, when it comes to outlines, I do feel like I’ve got plenty of experience under my belt, and that’s what I’m going to share with you.
But why outline?
I definitely encourage some form of basic outlining, even if you consider yourself a pantser (a writer who prefers to create the story as they write). Here are the main reasons why:
- Outlining saves a lot of rewriting in later drafts.
- Outlining gives your story a healthy structure before you start writing.
- Outlining provides a solid sense of direction and a path to follow.
- Outlining helps avoid the “I don’t know what to write next” days.
- Outlining provides a surefire way to get all your ideas down in an organized, easy-to-follow way.
Important: outlining does not remove organic growth or development from your story! Many writers make this assumption, and it’s simply not true.
The most important part of outlining (as with any part of the writing process) is to find what works best for you and develop your own strategies. Here’s my method; follow it to the degree that you wish.
Note: I follow this method for most of my writing, but I tweaked it a bit for maximum efficiency in preparation for NaNoWriMo. Just thought I’d point that out!
This step could take hours or days or weeks. You need time to think. Your goal here is to understand your story from start to finish. You don’t need all the details, but you should come up with a solid plot and a cast of characters to work with.
Step 1: Write a one-page summary
Summarize your novel from start to finish, and keep it to one page. Try to do this in one sitting. Don’t focus on details. Don’t use paragraph breaks. Just keep writing one sentence after another until you’ve told your story. Make sure you’re implementing all of your characters as well (the main cast, anyway).
Step 2: Mark your three-act structure
Here I recommend printing out a copy (or several) of your one-page summary. A print copy is always easier to work with. Grab a colorful pen and separate your summary into the three acts.
If you don’t know what a three-act structure is, do some research online. It’s not a complicated topic, but it’s an essential tool for giving your story a proper structure.
Next, highlight, circle, or underline the sentences from your one-page summary that correspond to the following elements:
- The status quo (how things are before the conflict; this should be the very first sentence of your one-page summary)
- Inciting event (the event that initiates your conflict)
- Major disasters (the plot-significant events that make things worse for your characters). Usually, there will only be one per act, and they will normally take place towards the end of their respective acts.
- The crisis and/or climax (the final confrontation of your story’s main conflict).
- The resolution (how things have changed after the conflict).
Now you have your story’s basic structure marked. You’ll always know what major event or turning point comes next.
Step 3: Develop a summary for each act
Act by act, develop your summary. Don’t edit the one-page summary! Keep that, and start this step in a new document.
Here you can go into more detail and explanation. You can go as long as you want for each act, but remember, you still just summarizing. Don’t narrate every single bit of action.
If you’ve read up on the TAS (three-act structure), you’ll know that Act II is usually the longest, followed by Act III, with Act I being the shortest. Look back at your marked one-page summary. Do your act divisions line up accordingly? Revise if necessary.
Step 4: Create a visual, scene-based outline skeleton
This is where your “actual” outline begins. Personalize this step as much as you want. You may want to draw a timeline (give yourself plenty of space to work with!), or you may prefer an academic outline approach, or maybe bullet points work best for you.
You already have your major events identified from Step 3, so put those in their proper place first. Something like:
Inciting event – major disaster 1 – major disaster 2 – major disaster 3 – crisis – climax – resolution.
Of course, your end result will vary according to how you’ve done the previous steps.
Step 5: Fill in the visual outline with each individual scene
Now go through your extended, act-by-act summary and fill in your outline with as many individual scenes as you have to identify. The purpose of this step is to establish which events you will show in your story and how to combine them into solid scenes. Generally speaking, each sentence or cluster of sentences in your summary will form an individual scene.
Now you have a start-to-finish visual outline with no gaps, no question marks, and relatively few hiccups. As you write your first draft, you’ll always be able to reference this outline to check what event comes next and how it relates to the broad structure of your story.
Step 6: Create an index card for each scene
Your outline is done, but this additional step will be a huge help during later drafts, so I’d urge you to get it done now. Following your outline, create an index card for each individual scene. Include the following information:
- Scene number
- A one-line summary
- POV character (if your story includes multiple POV characters)
- A spot for word count (to fill in after you write it, of course)
…as well as anything else you think you might need to be able to quickly reference.
Make sure to leave plenty of space on the front or back of the card, because it’ll be super handy to jot down edit notes later on!
If you’re the artsy type, color coding certain elements of your index cards can be fun and helpful too. For instance, I assign a color to each of my POV characters and mark a border around each card with the corresponding color. Or maybe you’d want to color-code your cards according to what act they belong to, or whatever tickles your fancy.
What you end up with
A one-page summary: your big-picture reference, and a handy precursor to your synopsis (though they won’t be the same thing!).
An extended, three-act summary: a complete narration of your story, a great resource for an overview of character development, subplots, and other nuances that don’t fit in your one-page summary.
A visual outline: your guideline to follow while writing the first draft.
A stack of index cards: a fantastic resource for subsequent drafts and editing. You can reorder scenes and make edit notes without having to mess around with a long document.
Outlines don’t remove organic growth from your story. Quite the contrary! Each of the aforementioned steps gives you a chance to change your story and discover/add new elements. Just think, following all the steps probably takes a few days or a week, at least. During that time, you’ll constantly think about and mull over your story, so new ideas will surface naturally. Don’t be afraid to go back and change your work at any point!
Also, your outline won’t be a rigid ruler to follow. Even when you write your draft, you can explore new options and change your outline accordingly. You’ve created guidelines, not boxes.
So…this post is pretty long, but I hope it helps you understand outlines a bit more, and how to create your own! As I said before, my strategy isn’t the only one, and it may not be the best for you. Mix and match my steps with your own as much as you want, and find what works best for you.
In the meantime, have a great day!