For some people, outlining is the best stage of writing a story—so much possibility! For others, outlining is more like getting dental work, ranging from uncomfortable to downright painful. Some writers prefer not to outline at all, some like to go all-in with a scene-by-scene breakdown before they hit the keyboard. All of which is to say, outlining is a deeply individual process, and I wouldn’t dream of claiming that I have “the one true method” of plotting a story. What I do have, if you’re interested, is a set of simple, straightforward steps that help me to come up with the broad strokes of my story, making it easier for me to fill in the gaps effectively when I sit down to actually write the thing.
I’ve used this method a couple of different ways, most recently I’ve been using it to plan out the story I’m going to crack on with for NaNoWriMo (more on my preparation process for that here!) but I also found it incredibly useful to apply steps 4 and 5 to turning a rough first draft into a more polished second one.
Also (sorry, I swear I’ll start on the actual steps soon), I’ve presented this as a numbered list because I like how tidy it looks, but most of these can be done out of order or skipped entirely depending on your personal preferences and how much of your story you’re already got in mind.
Step 1: The broadest possible brush strokes
If you were to sum up your story in one sentence, what would it be? I find this really difficult, but if you can get the essence of your story simplified down to a single line it makes it a lot easier to make the rest of your outline focused and effective. If you’re feeling like you have several possible sentence summaries, try to choose a primary one. There’s no harm in keeping those others in mind, either as sub-plots or other ideas you want to explore within the story, but you’re likely to come out with a more impactful story if you know the most important idea it’s trying to express.
Once you’ve got your story condensed down as much as you can, use that to decide on the start and end points of your story. So, let’s say the single sentence summary of your story is “Anna learns to get her magic under control by secretly studying at the College of Magicians”. The starting point of that one might be Anna realising she has magic, the end point might be an event that tests her control and allows her to prove to herself that she’s mastered her powers at last. Knowing where you’re beginning of the story and where you hope to end it makes it significantly easier to work out how you’re going to get from the former to the latter!
Step 2: Your cast of characters
Your mileage may vary on this one (repeat this sentiment on all subsequent steps also) but I like to make a list of all the characters involved in the story in any significant way along with a few key things about them. Namely: what are the first two or three words I’d use to describe how this character is going to come across to the reader? What role does this character have in the story, and/or to the main character? What is this character’s arc within the story, or do they remain essentially the same in personality and beliefs?
This is so that I can get a sense for whether too many of my characters are sarcastic smart-arses, or whether I have two characters performing essentially the same story function who might be better off being merged into one. Also, while obviously not every character in the story needs to have a distinct arc, I like to think about whether there are interesting changes taking effect in my supporting characters that I want to make sure I do justice to when I’m writing.
Step 3: The shape of the story
There’s going to be some kind of conflict between your start and end point, right? Start to plot where those are going to occur. I like to do this visually (plotting an approximation of the level of stress my main character is under against the progression of the story), you might prefer a written list, however you like to format it this is the stage where you start to place the major story beats. Traditional story-telling wisdom will give you a range of options for how to structure the bulk of your plot, the three-act structure and the Hero’s journey being a couple of popular examples. Think about what kind of events you want to include to build tension and what kind of character-building moments you want to include.
Step 4: Chapter by chapter… scene by scene?
I know some people can’t stand outlining, and even the idea of having the ending decided ahead of time is really a bit much, so if the idea of this step makes you feel like frankly you’d rather eat a stack of notebooks that’s fine. But if, like me, you enjoy the process of thinking through your story in advance, this might actually be… fun? Maybe that’s too far, I don’t know.
Make a list of the main event you intend to occur in each chapter of your story. This is where the list of story beats really comes in handy, because you can have a chapter for each of those and think about the events or scenarios that will have to lead up to and follow each one. This can be a good time to make a note of any specific ideas for scenes or bits of dialogue that come into your head as you imagine your characters heading inevitably towards horrible conflict or clawing themselves out of trouble.
If you’re super into outlining you can go as deep as you want for this stage, breaking down the key event of each chapter into separate scenes, just bear in mind that when you actually come to write the story there’s a decent chance a lot of these won’t work out the way you planned them at this stage. I often find that I’ve intended to spend a chapter on something that really only needs a page or so to cover, or that the order I’ve planned for certain situations doesn’t make as much sense in practice as it did in my head. I still think this is a useful exercise though, because it helps me to think about how the different events of my story fit together in a big-picture kind of way.
Step 5: Let’s talk sub-plots
By this point, assuming you’ve followed the steps at least vaguely in order, you have an outline that would take you quite happily from your story’s beginning to its end. Cool. But there’s one more thing that I like to do before I actually open NewStory.Doc, and that’s look at my sub-plots. Some of those might be vital contributing factors to the progression of your main plot, some of them might be more incidental, I’d advise you tease out any that feel important to you and designate a little symbol for each one. Then go through your list of chapters, putting a symbol next to each chapter that you envision having something to do with that sub-plot.
I do this because I don’t necessarily trust myself to remember mid-writing that, for example, the chapter where Anna fights her first duel is also an opportunity for a bit of flirty banter with the girl she has a crush on. A little romance sub-plot symbol, plus a note to self of how I imagine that playing out, helps me give all my ideas a chance at making it into the story. Assuming it still makes sense when I get to it.
The other advantage is that it helps me to see if I have an important sub-plot appearing out of nowhere in the final third of the story. I might know that there’s some major political intrigue playing out in the background of the story, but if that’s going to have a bearing on the final conflict I need to make sure it’s at least foreshadowed earlier on so that readers aren’t left scratching their heads.
What are your favourite outlining tips?
Share them in the comments—NaNoWriMo is right around the corner, and I can’t be the only one looking for any advice that will make those 1667 words a day come a little easier!