Creating an Outline

There are plotters and there are pantsers, but usually I find that it’s best to be somewhere in the middle. I find it’s much more important to understand and be familiar with your setting and characters than to know all the details of your plot. This is because you’re writing from that point of view in that place, and those details help you decide what decisions characters make and how they influence the story. With that in mind, I’ll help you create a basic outline.

I prefer to use printer paper for this and to draw my own border near the edges of the pages, but it’s really up to you what kind of paper you use and the aesthetics of your outline. I do however insist that you use paper, not your computer, for this exercise. Paper is much more inspirational and I find it much easier to create background notes and info on a piece of paper than to try to conjure them out of thin air onto a computer.

Look at your factsheet and decide which events are most important to your story. You should start with the three most important: the one that really gets the story started (like your characters finding an ancient relic and learning that they have to go on a quest), the rising action (the turning point in the story, when you feel the conclusion creeping up on you), and the resolution of the story-the final battle and the scenes that follow. Put the first event in big letters at the top of the page, the second one in big letters a third of the way down, and the third one in big letters near the bottom.

Now that you’ve got the main events down, it’s just a matter of filling in the details. Now you go back to your factsheet from last week and start listing the smaller events that need to happen to create the story. These should be in order from first to last-in between the three you’ve already established of course-and in point form. You don’t want a lot of details here, just enough so you know what each event is.

Once you’ve got all the essentials on the page you can start adding fun stuff, new scenes and subplots. Remember that every empty space is a place where you can put a new scene as you’re doing this, but that you don’t want to fill up the page entirely. Why? Because if you fill up the page completely, you won’t be able to add things to this outline as you’re writing and new scenes appear-which makes editing harder.

How do you outline?

Previous Posts in this Series
5 Questions to Ask Yourself when Starting a Project
Setting in Early Planning
Characterization in Early Planning
Plot in Early Planning

2 thoughts on “Creating an Outline

  • Greetings!

    I write two things – novels and plays. For the plays, I usually have 3 plots and have a column for each. I then write out in chrono order in each column the high action events. That allows me to figure out what needs to happen when to get things in the right order / create comedy / make sense. I almost always know what each character “wants” (their driving force) so I can play one off the other and create action that joins up the big moments.

    For novels, I write mysteries. So I need to know before going in who dies, how and why. Same with knowing what all the characters want and who they are (relations, motives, etc). Once that’s done, I leave the rest to … uh … pants. : )

    Have a great w/end!


    PS: new post on my blog from this year’s Nano … character sketch/back story. 🙂

  • RP,

    That’s an interesting way to do it. I had to write a script recently for my drama class-I’m going to start typing it up tonight-and I kind of like it. In my screnzy adventures I haven’t written anything to be proud of, but I like this script; it’s kind of experimental but it’s interesting-now I have to debate whether or not it’s worth putting the effort into it to look at publication.

    I think mysteries are one of the genres where you have the least freedom to pants your way through-you have to know exactly how the person was killed in advance, right? How it gets figured out is the part you can be a bit free with, but it’s harder to throw in some of the needed foreshadowing if you haven’t already planned it.

    Thanks for reading,

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