Two weeks ago I came to you on my knees, begging for your outlining tips. I’d been (unsuccessfully) attempting to outline a new story, and turned to you before drugs, alcohol, or petty theft.
I’d say that was a step in the right direction.
This is why I count on you guys to save my sanity. Because of course you had really great outlining tips for pantsters like me. Before I give you the floor, I wanted to relay a few resources I found helpful while outlining in case my fellow pantsters want to take now.
Author Corrine Jackson’s post on outlining in three acts was invaluable to me. She mentions it in her post, but this description of story structure is super helpful while outlining.
As was this story structure series on Story Fix. It’s not an outlining how-to, but if you read each post in the series you’ll have the main points you should cover in your outline.
And author Jody Sparks’ post is a quick lesson in another type of outling.
And then there are the sites and books you guys suggested. I’m so excited to share these with you. As promised, your completely awesome outlining tips for reforming pantsters:
“I usually start with the scene that inspired the story in the first place and then go from there.”
1. Color code, either with Post-Its or your word processing program’s highlight function.
2. Use a method that’s easily adjusted rather than writing directly onto a poster board or in a notebook (again, Post-Its are easy to move and re-stick, and you can always insert something into Word or whatever).
3. Start with the biggest things first: inciting incident, turning points, dark moment, climax, etc… Then, fill in the details as you move forward.
4. If you’ve got multiple plots layering on top of each other, try outlining each one individually first, then weave them together later.
“I usually start with a synopsis. It’s easier for me to go step by step, deeper into a story than to dive in head first in a super detailed outline. So, after I have a solid synopsis, I then create a … map is how I think of it. It’s chapter-by-chapter bullet points of what needs to happen where. I find it easier to make sure each scene and chapter has its GMC (Goal, Motivation, Conflict) and a solid arc this way. Plus, it’s a much easier way to see the whole story arc at once.”
“I’m an outliner. After I’ve thought about a SNI for a (usually long) while and have the concept/situation down, I write the first 5,000 to 10,000 words. Then I write an outline of all the scenes I expect to write (including those I already wrote). I write maybe 3 sentences to describe each scene. While drafting, I update the outline as things come to me and the story goes in new directions. So I don’t necessarily stick to my outline at all—but if I get stuck, it’s there to show me how to get to the resolution.”
“My methods are a bit crazy, but they work pretty well for me. I first do the 7 steps method on my major plots and character arcs on my whiteboard. Then I take that and do the Save the Cat beat sheet, and usually a short blurb/query at the same time. Then I take all that and make a chapter/scene outline, with 1 or 2 sentences per scene. That gives me enough structure to know where I’m going with the book, but keeps it open enough that each scene is still surprising when I write it.”
“I wish I had some lovely words of wisdom for you, but I always seem to begin with one line. That first line is usually something that relates to a monumental turn in the MC’s story or life, and then I begin. That one line has a story in it, a definite direction, so it’s not just completely willy-nilly, but it never seems to stay either as the story develops.”
“I use post it notes! I have a wall in my workspace that I stick them to and then rearrange as necessary. Even in my early writing stages if I have a great idea pop in to my head, I put it on my to-be-arranged section. When it’s time, I start popping them in place. The great part about it is I can always rearrange as necessary!”
“What’s helped me in the past is to open a Word doc for each of my plot/subplot lines, using a different font color for each. I write one sentence for each scene in the main plot, then for each of the subplots. I print my docs out, lay them side by side and connect the dots.
I also have one of those scrapbook paper choppers. You can slice your plots into strips and glue each colored plot line onto one piece of paper. My husband does the same thing, but he hooks his laptop up to separate monitors with a Word window open in each monitor. His way is less messy, but I don’t have access to three monitors.”
“I love Susan Dennard’s post on writing a synopsis. I use it to write a rough outline. It allows me to see the big picture and keep on track. At the same time, I allow myself to veer from early ideas if I get inspired along the way. When I sit down to write, I can jump to the scene or chapter I’m most excited about. I think it’s the perfect balance between pantsing and plotting.”
“I use a combination of the Save The Cat Beat Sheet (which I have in Excel Spreadhseet form) and the Snowflake outlining method.
“I started my WIP with a basic outline of what would happen in the story with the major points in the story and even some smaller little ones that would help build my story.”
“I second the Save the Cat Beat Sheet that Jessica mentioned. It’s been like a total wake-up call for me, as far as plot planning goes.
“I third Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! I used to be a total pantser, but after reading Save the Cat, I’m able to have the best of both worlds. Here’s a link to a beat sheet spreadsheet that’ll calculate where your beats need to go for whatever word count you’re aiming for. It’s helped me so much!”
“I start with brief beginning/middle/end notes, trying to get an idea of what I want the story to generally be about and where I want it to go. Just summaries really. And from there I start breaking down the chapters, briefly summarizing what I want from each chapter. I try not to do too much outlining because events easily change so know what you’re going to write but keep the idea simple to allow for random changes.”
“I’ve been using a combination of methods from K.M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel and Alexandra Sokoloff’s Screenwriting Tricks for Authors—both outstanding (and reasonably priced) books. For my WIP, that means I have a detailed outline for the entire book (clocked in at around 5,000 words) and I’m going back to make sure I’ve hit all the story structure points. I’m finding that the actual writing is flowing much better—not spending as much time flailing around for how to accomplish a scene.”
“It does help when you’re outlining just for you … then the format doesn’t matter. You just have to find what works for you.
If world building is the hang-up to getting you started, then I’d say write background notes. I did this for my sci-fi WIP. Describe settings, culture, history, laws, so you can be inspired by these elements as you write.
If knowing where it ends is keeping you from plunging in then try the beginning/middle/end method suggested above … just brainstorm lists of things that might happen in those three places and try to sort them out and connect the dots afterward.
If multi-layered/interweaving plots are the issue (or if you’re a visual learner) then flow-chart and/or Post-It style outlining might be best.
I like scene lists myself (like Rebecca suggested), though I usually don’t use them until later in a book when the plot timing gets more complicated.
I also like Rebecca’s suggestion to write the first 5-10K before outlining. I think this is the best bet for pantsters because we have better ideas about what might happen after we’ve been immersed in the story for a bit. Yes, that 5-10K might need revising or even rewriting later, but it’s worth it if you want to make an outline that might actually get used as you write.”
You’ll notice I haven’t told you what worked for me. (I’ll do a separate post on it.) That was a strategic omission on my part, mainly to avoid a blog post the length of a novella. You’re welcome.