Mastering the Outline

A Guest Post by: Patrick Sullivan

 The outline is the best known tool for crafting a plot, and arguably the strongest one. Though the outline is a simple tool, it will affect the shape of your story. My own outlining process has changed drastically over my years of writing, and each time I’ve felt it allowed my stories to become a lot stronger.

In its simplest form, an outline follows one of two paths, either a paragraph by paragraph description of the story, or a bulleted list of the events and story beats in your tale. You can even explore different formats of writing such as poetry and screenplays as a form of outline.

But how do you go about building this outline? Linear? As things come to you, then sort them out, perhaps? There are as many ways as paths through a story, and each will give a different benefit.

If you’ve only used one technique to outline your novels, I recommend you explore alternate ways to plan out your story. One way is the method of starting with a beginning and then writing until the end. Some methods revolve around figuring out your key story points (tent poles, or any number of other terms). A method I used to good effect involved starting with the basic idea, and then writing every scene I could see fitting into that concept onto note cards, what I call the scattershot scene method. From there I picked the scenes that fit my story the best, added ones I missed to fill in any holes, and built the story from there.

Now I start with the base concept, coming up with 15 or 16 potential story arcs, or more if I want a truly epic tale. I then decide which I like. From there, I add details, and then use the scattershot scene method. Each scene is assigned one primary and any number of secondary plots, to ensure proper development. So from my current outline, one of the lines started with [3][8][10](R) to indicate storyline 3 was primary, but storylines 8 and 10 were secondary. The R tells me the point of view.

Another method is to write something other than prose to explore an idea. The next novel I write I intend to explore as a screenplay. The format allows a focus on elements such as dialogue. It also removes the requirement of writing a great deal of prose, so more attention can go to the places the format works best in. Will it work? For me, maybe not, but for some I guarantee it would.

Different things work best for each writer. The odds of finding your best method on the first attempt are small. Even if something works for you, keep exploring, you might surprise yourself.

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Patrick Sullivan is an explorer of ideas across many forms, from digital data and code to stories. He grew up in southern Arkansas, but found his true home in Denver, Colorado where he now lives working in the software industry while writing tales he intends to someday share with the masses.

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2 Responses

  1. Patrick Sullivan says:

    Yeah, for some people outlines really don’t work, they need that magic. Part of me wishes I could write that way, because of how the people who go that route wax poetic about the wonder of discovering the magical moments as they go.

    Meanwhile I learned to find the joy in the small moments. I’m actually in the middle of a scene right now where the MC admits he screwed up to someone by keeping a secret from her because he feared it would mean she would leave (to do something else, not because the information would make her hate him). Being in his head in that moment that I was able to build through the outline setting up all the points that got me there made not getting those other types of magical experiences worth it.

    I find that most people never even try to outline. If they do and it doesn’t work for them, so be it and more power to them. But I’ve run into many who are like me and avoided it for so long because outlining is a dirty word, and then SOMETHING forces them to, and they get mad they never tried sooner.

    It all comes down to spreading your wings and trying a lot of things until what makes the most sense in your own writing path clicks, then rocking it.

  2. Terry Odell says:

    Just the word “outline” sends shudders through me. I admire people who know their stories well enough to lay them out in any form. The only time I came close to outlining was for the second half of a short story, where my crit partners and I brainstormed the way things had to be tied up. That was the hardest, most boring think I ever had to write, because I didn’t have the “fun” of discovering new ideas when I was writing; I just had to put the right words on the page. Finding the right words wasn’t as much fun as finding those ideas. But I know it works for some. I tend to figure out the plot points I need for the next scene. The farthest ahead I’ve ever been able to get is 3 chapters.

    More power to you.

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