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FEATURE: How to Write an Outline

Outlining a Story/Novel

With examples from The X-Files


Outlines are like plans or blueprints for a story. They create a visual abstract of the plots, dialogues and scenes, and are guidelines as to what happens at each step of the process. They are a necessary item for some, but not always a good thing for others.

Some people can sit down with an idea and start writing, the plot and scenes falling into place as they go. Others have to sit down and plan out every last detail beforehand, right down to writing down what each character looks like and what scene should go where. And then there are those who fall in between - they sketch out a vague idea of where the plot will head and dive right in.

The good news is that every one of those methods are the correct way to write your story. These different ways to approach writing a novel or a story are all worthy in their own right. The deciding factor on which method to use depends solely on the author and what works best for them.

So what exactly are the various methods of outlining?

There are several ways to outline a fic. Each story consists of a beginning, middle and an end. Depending on the length of the story, there could be a whole lot in the middle, but for the purpose of this feature, we'll stick to novels with the understanding that all of these methods work very well for a simple short story.

Before we get into the meat of this feature, I also want to stress that no matter what method you use to outline your story, always remember that outlines are not set in stone. Your story will deviate from your outline and you should embrace those changes.

Summary Method

A summary outline is just that - a paragraph or two that gives a summary of the plot. There's no definite structure to the outline, just a bare-bones look at the story or idea. This sometimes doubles as a synopsis.

Example: A man finds an old abandoned mine, complete with strange noises and lights. He goes deeper into the mine and sees something strange and when he goes to investigate, there are remnants of alien machines and human skeletons. Mulder and Scully are called in to investigate. Once they get to the scene, they find that there's more to the machines than they bargained for, and they race against time to find the groups behind it all.

Short, sweet and to the point. The above example would probably have more details than what I put in there, but you get the idea. Using a summary to outline a story is the simplest way to do it.

Formal Outline

This is usually what most people think of when faced with the daunting task of outlining a story. This type of outline comes complete with Roman numerals and bullet points to help steer the author toward a complete story. It's very structured and usually has an ending already plotted out. Many people will sometimes include phrases and/or highlights they want to include in the story.

Example:

  1. Beginning - A wizened old man stumbles across an old abandoned mine, complete with strange noises and lights.

    1. The man is old, gray hair, blue eyes and a worried expression as he investigates.
    2. He finds some strange looking mechanical devices, but it's the human skeletons piled up alongside one wall that scares him the most.

  2. Mulder is in his office reading a report, when Scully interrupts him.

    1. They talk about the case they were just given.
    2. Scully practices her "keep things sensible" mode as she listens to Mulder start in on his alien theories.

Some people take this method even further by having a detailed character profile drawn up for each character. This is fairly easy in fanfiction, but the profile helps when you have an original character that will play a major role in your fic.

Plot Cards

This method involves index cards that are set up for each chapter, or in the case of a short story, each progression of the plot. Plotlines, bullet points, dialogue and anything else you can think of are written on the cards, then laid out on a table or the floor in the order you think they would logically fit in the story. The cards can be rearranged, taken out, or new ones added in as you plan out the narrative. Once you are happy with it, pile the cards up in their proper order and write the story as you work your way through the stack.

Storyboarding

Storyboarding is similar to the Plot Cards method, except it's mostly done on paper or a dry erase board. The story is broken out into the various story points, usually written within boxes, then connected by lines and/or arrows drawn in flowchart style. As the plot progresses, the lines and arrows can be redirected to other areas until the story flows in the right direction and writing commences.

Outlining as You Go

This method is very useful for those who don't like to outline, but find that they need something to help keep track of little details. Basically, it involves writing down specific plot lines, character details and other important points as you write to make it easier to tie up all the loose ends when you get to the end of the story. This method works better for longer works, such as novels, but may be beneficial to those who write short stories, especially when noting original character details, such as eye color, etc.

Snowflake Method

This method is based on the mathematical theory of taking a small idea and continually building upon it until you have a full-fledged novel. It focuses on managing creativity to organize thoughts and ideas into a "well-structured" story by using a 10-step program designed to help in completing a novel. There is a lot of work involved in the process, requiring many months of preparation before you start writing. A spreadsheet program is also used at the end of the process to help organize everything one final time.

Basically, the first step involves writing a one-sentence summary of the novel. In the next step, the sentence is expanded on by adding in a little more detail. After that, detailed character profiles are written, along with their relevance to the story. Step four takes each sentence in the paragraph written in step 2 and expanded on again. Then the character profiles are built up further, going back and forth between the summary and the character profiles until you have an extremely structured outline, at which point the first draft can finally be written. Very time consuming and may be bit of an overkill for a short story, but it's worth mentioning for those of you who may find it useful. For more information, check out the website.

To outline or not to outline...

As I stated earlier, outlining a story is not for everyone. In fact, I fall in with the "take an idea and start writing" category (or "pantser" if you go by the NaNoWriMo definition) when working on stories and novels. For me, it's hard to outline a story when I don't know what's going to happen next or what the ending will be until I get to it. Not to mention the fun of reading the story as I write. Hee! I love the surprises! But I can appreciate the value of outlining a story and realize it's a wonderful tool that should be included in everyone's "writer's toolkit" no matter what method they use the most. And besides, for those of you who are like me, you never know when an outline may be needed.
Tags: !feature, author:traycer_
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