Outlining: A Multistep Guide to Storytelling

By , April 4, 2013

Outlining is one of the many ways writers approach a new project. A blank page is one of the scariest things a writer has to deal with each day, and a solid plan of attack is a good way to deal with your incipient nervous breakdown.

That, and a bottle of (insert favorite beverage here).

So here’s how it works…for me. I qualify this statement, because if you ask 7 different writers how their creative process works, you’ll get 10 different answers. Some will agree with each other, some with themselves, and there will be at least one (you know who you are) of them who believes all the other writers are crazy, and will find a reason to disagree with just about everyone.

Pro Tip: That’s the guy to listen to. He’s making things up as he goes along, but whatever plan he develops on the fly is guaranteed to work at least once. And no matter how he dresses it up, he’s going to hit on at least one of the points I raise below.

I’m an outliner, most of the time. When I begin a project, I see the story in my head, start to finish, and then write down the relevant steps necessary to get me from A to B to Contract. I find the outline is like having an editor present during the writing process, always lurking over my shoulder and making sure I’m telling an actual story rather than just pounding out words.

I realize this makes me the crazy guy in the room, and I’m mostly okay with that. When I sit down to write, I know I’ll be productive if what I type serves at least one part of my outline. Whether it’s revising previously written material, blocking a scene I don’t feel comfortable with just yet, or diving headfirst into the Narrative™.

Were I to outline this blog post, it might look something like this:

  1. Catchy title (think of something)
  2. Introduction
  3. Bit about outlining
  4. Sample outline
  5. Essential elements
  6. The middle bits
  7. Know when to break the rules
  8. Summary (it’s an essay, make it work)
  9. Humorous closing (give the fans what they want)

The essential elements of an outline are just that. The things you want your piece/story/novel/report to convey to the reader. In some circles, this is called an executive summary, so named because your corporate masters are really busy people. If you have to distract them from the Really Important Thing™ they are doing while you are making them money, said distraction needs to be short and concise.

As a writer, one of those corporate masters should always be you. Setting down in advance what you want to say can help you to remember why you are writing this crazy (insert literary work noun here) in the first place. It’s something you can come back to at any time for inspiration, and contrary to what you might think; it is by no means set in stone. Making the outline a partner in your creativity is like having a time machine to summon up your past self, a person mostly unfettered by the stress of looming deadlines, blank pages, and an empty bottle of (self-referential humor about beverages).

The outline is a pencil sketch of a larger work. It’s up to you to provide shading, definition, and meaning to the lines. Characters live in that nebulous blank space – the outline is concerned with events. Putting characters and events together gives you a scene, and you must empower yourself to write the scene as it was meant to be written. As you saw it in your head when you started the process.

Until of course it’s time to change it. I often hear writers (including myself) say that writing is revising. Another saw in my toolbox is that you’re not finished writing until you get paid, and both of these sentiments address when and how you should break the rules.

I mentioned above that the outline is a pencil sketch for a reason. Even with a comprehensive outline identifying all major characters, plots, events and phases of the moon in your story, you’ll feel the need to adjust old words when the new ones hit the page.

And in case you’re wondering, I have in fact plotted entire books around the phases of the moon. I thought it gave my story a solid structure, grounded it in a reality that the readers could see and relate to. When All out of All readers missed that subtext entirely, I asked them about the moon, and they told me that part of the story didn’t really mean anything to them, since they were more interested in my characters.

I had forgotten to tell them why that part of my story was important, and in the process wrote a book that focused on other things. The moon was there, I mentioned it in all the places where I thought it was relevant. But it never made my list of Essential Elements™, and thus failed to address the outline.

After the second time that book was rejected, I went back to the outline, stripped away everything that got in the way of my story, and then did the same thing to the manuscript. The new book is leaner, more relatable, and focused on the one thing every reader agreed about.

“I really liked your story, and the characters.”

In the end, this is what you really want to accomplish. That, and getting paid.

An outline is the box you put your ideas into, and it can be as big and polygonal as you are comfortable carrying around in your head. When an editor/agent/publisher asks to hear your pitch, they want to hear or see the shortest possible version of your outline, and that’s the one you should be writing to when your butt hits the chair and your hands touch the keys.

It’s time now for my humorous closing, so let me leave you with this: Don’t think of an outline as a straightjacket, but instead of an easily maintained recreational garment. The straps may seem tight at first, but after a while you’ll be taking it on and off easily.

Don’t let the world tell you you’re crazy – show them why your words are the ones that survived months of intensive eraser therapy, and join the rest of us writers in howling at the moon.

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