Last month, I wrote about whether or not you should outline, and the benefits of either choice. Click here to read it. This month, I want to talk more about how to outline. There are a lot of different ways to go about it.
My main reason for writing today’s post is that it’s entirely possible that people who avoid outlining are doing so for the wrong reasons. Indeed, an outline may not be quite what you think it is. For example, an outline isn’t necessarily just a point-form list of sequential events and details which will later be expanded upon to write the actual story. It can take this form, certainly, but not all minds think alike, nor do they find this form of outlining helpful.
So let’s start by expanding our definition of the word “outline.” Instead of it just being a summarized form of a larger story, let’s define it as any document that provides additional context and content for a larger story. You’ll see what I mean by these distinctions as we go along.
The skeletal outline is the most traditional, the one you probably already know. So that’s where I’ll start. This type of outline falls most readily into the point-form-list-of-sequential-events mould I mentioned earlier. It’s also the kind of outline you most likely learned in high school when you first learned how to write essays:
Introduction: Thesis Statement
Body Paragraph 1: First Proof
Body Paragraph 2: Second Proof
Body Paragraph 3: Third Proof
Conclusion: Thesis Restated
When writing fiction in particular (although it works for non-fiction too), you can alter the structure to reflect the building blocks of a narrative:
Exposition: God creates world, God creates animals, God creates Adam and Eve.
Inciting Incident: The snake deceives Eve, Eve deceives Adam, covenant with God broken.
Rising Action: The prophets foretell Christ, Christ returns, Christ dies, church grows.
Climax: The church fractures, strife increases, war/famine/pestilence… Jesus returns!
Denouement: The saints meet Jesus in heaven, peaceful eternity begins.
Maybe I should have given a spoiler alert?
For the above example, I’ve used the classic narrative pyramid as a structure and filled in point-form details of the story’s plot. There are other popular narratives structures which you could use. The most popular is probably the hero’s “journey”:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hero%27s_journey.
One of the more popularized outlines of recent years is the snowflake method. It’s certainly not for everyone, but it has some definite advantages. For example, it’s especially good at helping you to expand upon ideas that are only vague in your mind. So if you have a notion of what the core concepts in your story will look like and need help fleshing them out, the snowflake might work well for you.
Start with a statement: Daniel is thrown into a lion’s den and survives.
Expand on that statement: Daniel is thrown into a lion’s den by a Babylonian king and survives.
Expand further on that statement: Daniel, a Jewish youth in exile, is throw a lion’s by King Darius of Babylon and is saved by a miracle of God…
Essentially, you begin with a short statement and continue to build off that statement, adding complexity and detail as it occurs to you, until you’ve come with the bones of a good story. This is a great way of generating content about your characters and plot.
A big disadvantage, as you may be starting to realize, is that it’s not the most efficient means of outlining. Snowflaking your outline will take a while. But then again, any outline that serves to improve and ease later writing is a good outline. If you take a lot of time in the outlining stage, chances are you’ll save an equal amount of time later.
Generally, I like the flexibility of being able to explore my story organically and not having to stick to a meticulously crafted structure that was planned out ahead of time. But you know what I don’t like? Getting lost in the woods, which is what always happens to me if I don’t have an outline to guide me.
Therefore, I most consistently stick to the flashlight method of outlining. It allows you to have the best of both worlds—making up the story as you go along, and planning ahead just far enough to avoid major pitfalls.
Chapter One: Jane finds out that she’s been diagnosed with cancer on the same day that her boyfriend Wyatt proposes to her.
Chapter Two: Jane says yes, but decides not to tell Wyatt about her diagnosis.
Chapter Three: Jane goes for her first visit to the oncologist. Afterward she has lunch with her best friend, Susan, who’s visiting from Texas.
Later: Jane eventually tells Wyatt the truth, but he no longer trusts her. They have to learn to trust each other again in order to find healing, both physically and spiritually. Jane and Susan take a summer vacation together, and Susan helps Jane come to terms with her diagnosis.
What happens to Jane next? She doesn’t know, and neither do I—except in the most general terms. But until I do figure it out, I’ve given myself enough material to get started. When I reach the end of Chapter One, I’ll sketch out some more concrete ideas for Chapter Four. When I reach the end of Chapter Two, I’ll sketch out Chapter Five, etc. Just like a flashlight only shines a narrow beam of light at a wall, the flashlight outline only reveals a few chapters ahead of wherever you are in the story. You can still take your story in exciting, unexpected directions, but you have enough foreknowledge not to run headlong off a narrative cliff.
These are just three possible outline forms, and there are many more to talk about. And that’s exactly what I’ll do. Next month!
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.