A month ago, I started this series talking about the many diverse forms of outlines available to writers, some of which you may find surprising. After all, there’s more to this outlining business than a simple checklist of scenes. Outlines are not stuffy old lists. Indeed, you can come at outlines from a highly creative place, and this month I want to continue the conversation.
The first three types of outlining I covered were: The Skeleton, The Snowflake, and The Flashlight. Today I’ll tackle three more, and there’s a good chance you’ve either never heard of them, or haven’t taken them seriously. But just remember that every writer works in their own unique way, and sometimes it’s profitable to take unorthodox routes.
Get out your pen and paper, and maybe some coloured pencils to give it a splash of colour. It’s time to draw.
First of all, is it just me, or do we not draw nearly enough anymore? Everything seems to happen on computers nowadays. Don’t get me wrong: computers are marvellous tools, but there’s just something about writing by hand that connects me to the material in a more primal way. I don’t do it often enough, but this visual map method of outlining presents the perfect excuse.
Here’s how I do it. I begin by drawing a series of boxes in the middle of a sheet of white paper, each of which contains a central plot point or character detail. You don’t have to write down every plot and character point, just the ones you would like to explore. Once this is done, start writing down questions about the things you’ve written in your main boxes.
This example only demonstrates the very beginning of this process. The few times I’ve tried outlining this way, I’ve ended up using a lot more than one sheet of paper; I’ve ended up taping together a dozen sheets or more. So fair warning: give yourself some space to work, and be prepared to have a lot of fun.
The biggest advantage to this method is that it’s easy to come up with new ideas. For example, when I started out with the first four boxes in the example, I had no idea that Jason’s brother had recently changed his name or that the package had mysterious numbers printed on them, or that his aunt was going to mail him a birthday present. If I were to continue adding questions and answering them, it wouldn’t be long before I had fleshed out the full story.
Some writers don’t like to flesh out their plot in advance, preferring instead to discover it as they go along. There’s nothing wrong with working this way, but just because you don’t plan out the intricacies of your plot doesn’t mean you should avoid planning altogether.
It might surprise you to hear this, but there’s more to outlining than plot and character. Don’t forget about the setting! When I talk about the setting, I’m thinking of a few different things. First of all, there’s the physical place. For example, in the story about Jason I started outline above, what town do they live in? How big is it? What province or country is it in? Is it nearby to any cities?
Then you should consider the time. What year is it? Is this a historical setting, a contemporary setting, or a futuristic setting? What season is it?
Also included in setting are the fundamental facts of the situation before the main plot of the story gets underway. For example, how old are the main characters? How are they related to each other? What are their relationships? Have they lived in this town all their lives? What are their education levels? Do they have college degrees? Do any of them own businesses?
In other words, you plan ahead by planning backward, developing the context of the story that is about to begin. This often takes the form of a little bit of freewriting. Here goes nothing:
Jason and his family have lived in the remote town of Wright’s Hamlet, British Columbia, for more than a hundred years, a town where most people never leave or come back. Jason, however, is one of the rare people who left town after graduation and then came back six years later with a degree in mechanical engineering. He started his own firm, but he has been having a lot of conflict with members of the local town council who don’t want to work with him on upcoming projects. Even his mother, who has been the mayor for ten years, won’t tell him the real reasons why. Because of all this stress, his brother Scott has moved deep into the country, high up in the mountains, and now he goes by a different name altogether. Scott doesn’t answer the phone or come to town anymore. In fact, no one has heard from him in almost six months. Jason is very worried, especially since it’s going to be winter soon and the roads into the mountains are treacherous and often impassable for months at a time…
This bit of freewriting came off the top of my head, but already I can see all sorts of interesting story hooks that I’d love to sink my teeth into. When the context of a story is fully explored, discovery writers have a lot information to work from the plot starts to heat up.
This is only slightly different than fleshing out the context, because both employ the same general concept—freewriting—to get ideas out of your head and onto the page. Freewriting is a form of writing that is low on preparation and high on creativity and spontaneity. As the above example demonstrates, you can come up with a lot of story hooks in a short amount of time.
Realistically, the only difference between this type of outlining and the context-exploring type of outlining is where you put your focus. You can focus on the characters, on the background, on the plot, on the ending… it doesn’t particularly matter, as any approach will work just fine. The key is to ask a lot of questions—seriously, a lot of questions—and add as many on-the-fly details and answers as you can, even if you don’t end up using them all. In fact, you’re bound to hit a lot of dead-ends while freewriting, and that’s okay. When you hit a dead-end, simply jump to a new idea or path and follow it to an alternate conclusion.
Let me repeat, again, that everyone’s process will be different. So just because one person maps their book by one method doesn’t mean another has to do it the same way. Diversity is the spice of life!
I hope these outlining suggestions will help get your creative juices flowing. They have for me! I wouldn’t be surprised if I start writing about Jason and his mysterious letter this summer…
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.