In Part 1 of my outlining mini-series, I emphasized two points: 1) every writer I know uses different outlining methods and we all still get the job done and 2) outlining is about having a specific plan for what you want your story to be when you write it, not about using a specific method. Whether or not you’re won over to the idea of outlining your stories, though, those points don’t help you figure out how to actually outline—especially if you haven’t developed your own style yet. But fear not! This post (Part 2) is all about outlining methods. I’ve compiled a list of 7 methods that I either use or have used, along with what type of story they’re best suited for, to give you some ideas of where to begin or some new techniques to add to your current outlining method.
Main Ideas A.K.A. The Synopsis (Simple Stories)
Ah, the dreaded synopsis. There is a reason they’re so common, though—they’re meant to be a way to capture the essence of a story’s characters, conflict, and themes in a paragraph or two. There’s also no hard-and-fast way to write a synopsis, at least in my experience, but most include: the main character(s), the main issue, conflict, or obstacle, and the narrative arc (a.k.a. how the main character(s) are going to solve the main issue). Sometimes the main theme or “big question” is included, too. These basics can be adapted and changed to fit any genre.
At bare minimum, I suggest writing out a synopsis of your story before you begin—that way you have some idea of what you want to accomplish, even though it may not include most of the main plot points or chapter arcs (pantsers rejoice). Also, I mark this as best suited for simple stories because synopses, even though included for published books no matter what their size or scope, usually aren’t sufficient for you as the writer to understand your story if it grows into something large and/or complex. It’s a great place to start at the beginning of the progress or if you’re writing a short story, but if you plan to write a long and/or complex story, your creation will probably outgrow its synopsis pretty quickly.
Brainstorming Notes + Charts (Simple + Complex Stories)
This one’s like a two-for-one special. Brainstorming is a fundamental part of the story development process, and often part of the re-writing process as well. Over time and practice, I’ve learned that I can make my brainstorming also carry some of the outlining work for my stories, and brainstorming notes and charts are the technique I’ve developed to do that. I begin with developing worldbuilding ideas, character backstories, major plot points—whatever it is that needs work—and find a format that places those ideas into a concrete working space (a notebook, notecards, a Word document, a spreadsheet, etc.). Then I simply arrange those ideas up in the order I think they will occur in the story. This is especially useful for plotting because I can quickly see the gaps in scenes and recognized the broad patterns of my story.
Also, this is not the same as creating a bullet-point outline or a timeline (which I’ll talk about below)! This is a very rudimentary version of those things, perhaps, and thus can work well either as a starting point for later outlining or a flexible method for writers who don’t like to utilize lots of structure. Unlike lists or timelines, the format of brainstorming notes and charts is also flexible—one method I quite like is creating a web-chart with major plot points. I begin by writing down the various scenes I’m envisioning or important locations/movements in the story. Then, from those starting points, I write down smaller scenes I know happen around the same time/area, then draw lines between the ones that I know are connected. Often this is enough for me to figure out the order in which events occur, though I usually follow up with putting that information in a more structured and complex format. Shorter or less complex stories may be able to just have brainstorming notes as their outline.
Scene Shuffling (Simple + Complex Stories)
This method, at least partially, builds off technique #2, and is one that I’ve seen often but have only used maybe once or twice. Nevertheless I wanted to mention it because I can see how it’s useful (and I may employ it more in the future). Scene shuffling involves taking the plot points that you have rearranging them until you find the pattern or sequence that makes the most sense and has the most impact. This is often accomplished by using notecards or post-it notes with the each scene written out, although I’ve used unorganized bullet points in a Word document, so it can be as intuitive or structured as you’d like. This technique is particularly useful either toward the beginning of the outlining process, when you still haven’t honed your ideas fully, or when dealing with complex sequences of events that just don’t seem to be clicking.
Character Timelines (Simple + Complex Stories)
Character timelines are a fairly new outlining technique for me and I don’t know of many writers who use this technique, though I’m sure that there are many who have come up with something similar long before I have. To create mine, I use a spreadsheet program like Excel. Because most of my writing is closely tied to actual timelines (months/years), I made the first vertical column (starting at cell 3) list the twelve month of the year, and the top two rows (1 and 2) list the year (i.e. 1956) and how old that character was that year (i.e. 30). I fill in the main body of the newly-created chart with important life milestones, events, and plot points that pertain to their arc. The result is that I have an organized, visual plan for what happens to them before, during, and after the story, and also a good idea of what backstory gaps I need to fill in. Below is an example of my technique (not from an actual WIP):
Character timelines also lead me to the next outlining technique…
Story Timelines (Simple + Complex Stories)
…story timelines. In a way, these just a more detailed version of a scene shuffling or a mixture between character timelines and bullet point lists (technique #6). Instead of spreadsheets, I use a Word document and bullet-points for this because it makes more intuitive sense for my thought processes, though I’m sure a spreadsheet could work well for this too). I begin by making headings for all of the years that constitute both important backstory events and during-the-story events (I may, for instance, making a heading for every year between 1914 and 1980). Underneath each heading, I list each specific event that I know occurs during that year. After that, I move on to organizing them by month and then eventually by day, if such accuracy is needed for my story. Much like with character timelines, writing out the sequence of important events helps me not only understand how they logically unfold but alerts me to areas that have gaps or no longer make sense.
Both character timelines and story timelines can be used for any length or complexity of story, but by nature they lend themselves more to longer, complicated stories with multiple character arcs or plot threads because of all the details that go into making them. I couldn’t see myself creating a character timeline for a short story.
Bullet Point Lists (Simple + Complex Stories)
Bullet point lists have been my go-to outlining technique for several years and one that I still use often. It’s also, I think, one of the most common outlining methods and is the easiest to understand and to use, since you can do it by hand (which I did when writing the first draft of my WIP) or using a program like Word (which I tend to use now). I typically do the following:
Staring I start the opening scene, I make a bullet point for each new scene, change in dialogue, or important element that I want to make note of as I imagine them unfolding in the story. Each point can be sparse or can include specific information like the outcome of a piece of dialogue, an important element of the setting, or the larger meaning or symbolism of an action. I continue building the list, sometimes going back to add in new details or switch around the sequence of scenes (scene shuffling, anyone?), but I try to keep it organized in a linear fashion. Outlining plot points this way makes it easy to group them into chapters, which can be done either during the process or afterwards once you have a clear picture of the sequence of events. By the end, you have a blueprint of the story you plan to create.
I know that, for many, making a list seems stifling and too organized, but what I like so much about this technique is its flexibility—if you don’t want to list all the minute details and would rather discover them as you write, you can still make note of the major goals of each chapter or scene and have them as reference to keep your writing on track. And, if you’re like me and like to plan in more detail, you can expand your bullet point list as much as you’d like.
Summary Notes (Complex Stories)
At last, the mother of all outlines—the summary notes. Although bullet point lists have been my go-to technique for several years, I’ve recently started relying more heavily on summary notes because my current WIP is very large and very complex (family sagas have a tendency to do that), and the best way for me to understand all of it is to go into more detail than bullet points can provide. This technique is very straightforward—I essentially write a SparkNotes-type page for each of my chapters. That means fully sentences, full paragraphs, and full details that I then organize under chapter and section headings.
This is the only technique that I suggest only for complex stories—I can’t see how this level of detail would be necessary for a short work or for a longer work that didn’t include a lot of character arcs or locations. I don’t even use this technique for when I write short stories or in the past when my novels have been simpler. But, if you are planning on creating your own tome, then this may be of use for you—it’s cut down on editing and ruminating a lot since I began implementing it.
Whew! What a list. I hope that at least one of those techniques sparked some new ideas for you or maybe even convinced you to give outlining a fair chance. But just because you outline doesn’t mean the road from then on out is a smooth one—there are always hang-ups and questions that pop up even when you think you’re ready to go. That’s why the series isn’t over yet—in Part 3, I’ll answer some common outlining questions and give answers for how to fix common outlining problems. Check out the next post for outline troubleshooting!