Dare I dive into such a sticky topic? Outlines seem to be an area of writing that famously divides many writers. Those that dislike outlines defend their spots ferociously. They’ll tell you that outlines suck out the creativity and joy of discovery from writing. On the other side, outliners will defend their side as fierce. They’ll tell you there’s no way to write a novel without an outline.
When you’re new to writing, coming into this age old battle can feel overwhelming. How do you know which side is right? In the end, the choice depends on you. While I could not imagine writing a novel without an outline, I don’t think it’s impossible. There are plenty of authors who have been capable of this, and if that’s your style, wonderful! But, for those who want or need to give outlining a try, I’ve broken down four methods. These methods are ones that I have found success with in my personal writing. So I encourage you to explore these options, try some new ones out, and figure out a method that works for you!
#1- Mind Map
This is the most recent method I’ve tried out. For a recent story, the only thing I had any idea about was the main character (MC). I didn’t know what was going to happen in her story, I didn’t know where all this was going to happen, or anything else. All I had was my MC’s backstory. So I gave mind maps a try. I used this chance to start digging into details of my MC’s life that could give me a hint at what her future story might be. So my mind map started out like this:
The little details gave way to ideas about the plot of the story. I decided that my MC and her mother have been running from someone. So maybe for the plot I could have that person catch up with the MC. Maybe she moved to the new town under a false name to escape this mysterious person. Whoa, there’s a good idea! I found tension to pepper into my plot. From there, start asking further questions, and start thinking of obstacles to put into the MC’s way. You can create mind maps for almost any part of the story, from plot and setting to plot twists and characters. Much like any other outline, the big point of the Mind Map is to ask that wonderful writer question of WHY. Don’t settle for saying the MC is moving to a new town, ask questions and find the best answer for your plot.
But while this outline can be used for any novel, I will say I tend to use this one when I only get an idea for a character. Basically I find this to be the most helpful when you don’t know the current story, only a back story.
#2- Scene cards
On a different note, how many writers have gotten a snippet of a scene in their head? I know I have. I’ve had this beautiful scene play out in my head, no idea on the scenes before, or even the scenes after. I don’t know about the characters, the plot, or even how this scene relates to the rest of the story. When this happens, I use the simple outlining method of grabbing a large flashcards and write down the scene. So to give you an example using our earlier MC the first card may look something like this:
MC opens the door to find the sheriff there. Her spine stiffens as she looks at his scowling face. Their earlier run in makes her even more nervous around him. The sheriff asks “Mind telling me why your name doesn’t pull up anything prior to three months ago?” Shit. Shit, this was what she was so worried about. What did she say now? She couldn’t let her cover be blown already. “Why’d you run my name officer. Ain’t that illegal?” “You got a lot to learn about this town little girl”
Ok, not a blockbuster yet, but it’s a start. The most important thing about scene cards is, if you get those flashes, you get to write them down. There is no forgetting about a scene you created. That can be a huge relief. One of the stories I’m working on literally originated from just a snippet of a scene. I was sitting around one day when I had an idea, saw a scene playing out. I saw a side character (SC) escaping from a kidnapping situation. I saw her running through the woods, desperately pushing herself to make it to help. She makes it to a road, where she saw headlights… only to be struck moments before freedom.
When I was done, I felt the rush of emotion, and I realized I had the turning point of a story. This death changed the whole story dynamic, and now I needed to know how. Once that scene was written down I asked tons of a questions. If she wasn’t the MC, how was she connected to the MC? How did her death happen? What happened after her death? I kept asking these questions, writing down new scenes as they began to build. I shuffled a couple around to produce the most tension and continue to raise the stakes.
I continued to use flashcards to write down the different settings present and the characters. Eventually I had a good handle of the different elements that I would need to get everything in place. So then, it was up to me to begin writing.
#3- Snowflake method
This wonderful method was developed by writer Randy Ingermanson. If you find that this method is one you would like further details on or experiment with, I would check out his website. Or his book ‘How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method’. The book is both informative and humorous, presented not just as a how to book, but in story form. What a better way to teach writers! But I’ll give you a very brief overview of the steps used for this method.
While this method can be used for any novel, I’ve found the most success when I use this for big picture ideas. What I mean by this is best explained by a personal example. I had an idea for a story involving a woman discovering that she had repressed powers (I won’t reveal too much because this is still a story I’m working on). I knew the theme I wanted to go for, the major characters, and a vague idea of the direction I wanted to go. What I didn’t know was the major plot points. So I used the snowflake method to discover those major plot points to form a story. So I used the snowflake method to discover those major plot points to form a story. Here is the breakdown of the ten steps of the snowflake method:
1.Write a one sentence summary of your novel
2. Expand that sentence to a full paragraph describing the story set up, major disasters, and ending.
3. Write a one page summary sheet for each major character
B. One sentence summary of story line
C. Character’s motivation
D. Character’s goals
E. Character conflict
F. Character epiphany
G. One paragraph summary of story line
4. Expand each sentence of the summary to a paragraph each
5. One page description of each major character, and a half page for minor characters
6. Expand each paragraph summary to a page each
7. Expand one page character descriptions to full character sheets
8. List all scenes
9. Expand scene list (optional)
10. Write the first draft
For a great in depth look into how each of these are accomplished I would check out the website that gives a really great look. Still confused? The book breaks down the system to very easy steps and covers many questions that an author might have.
#4- K.M. Weiland’s method
K.M. Weiland is one of my writing heroes. Seriously, this woman is an incredible author and also an incredible educator for other writers. Her book ‘How to Outline’ revolutionized my writing. It was the book that first got me to started with outlining and it is still the most frequent system I use. She has a line of books covering character arcs, story structure, and writers block. Even better, she provides a lot of helpful articles through her website Helping Writers Become Authors.
While I love her whole method and it is all incredibly helpful there are two powerful tools that I use for ANY book. Those two methods are:
The “What if” questions
This sounds so simple and straightforward. Writers are always asking the question WHY. But books are built too on the question “What if”.
*What if the MC moved to the new town to get away from an abusive relationship?
*What if the MC is paranoid in the new town?
*What if the MC’s sketchy behavior catches the attention of the hard nosed sheriff?
And then just keep going. Chase down all those rabbit holes, don’t be worried to follow the most outlandish ideas. Not everything will end up in your novel. But this method of chasing everything in a giant list with no demanding structure allows you to find the most impact in your story. You’re able to raise all the stakes, by just asking the right question.
#2- Scene list
Now this section is where I do a few different things. I do stick with K.M. Weiland’s idea of changing the what if’s into a actual scene list breakdown. But I personally like to create rough chapter breaks. I like to already get an idea of how long the book is based on where I end the chapters. With this, I get the benefit of beginning to see the flow of the novel. For the current book I’m working on, the first book in my Peace Seeker series this helped me greatly. By the time I got to the end of the first part of the what if’s and started to break it up into chapters, I realized the book was too long. I wasn’t even done with the book and I had over twenty-seven chapters. It was then that I decided the book needed to be split up, and eventually that is how the Peace Seeker trilogy was born.
But the great thing about a scene list is it is simple. So from the few questions we originally had above the scene list could look like this:
*The MC is running from her abusive ex. He nearly killed her when she broke up and she had to spend a week in the hospital. The day she got out her mother pulled her aside and told her it was time to leave. With her emergency bag that her mother had created when she was younger, the MC stole away at night.
* Once the MC arrives in Small Town USA, she cannot shake the feeling that her ex is closing in on her. It makes her jumpy. Sometimes she will be out in town and jump at the slightest of noise.
*This will catch the eye of the local sheriff. He is a hard nosed cop who retired to this town from a big city. He knows when someone is acting dodgy. He suspects that there is something going on with the MC, and he is determined to find out about it.
These are the two sections of that method that I use most often. I really encourage you to check out the full method through K.M. Weiland’s book “How to outline”. Not only will it help you a lot with outlining, but I found her to have such a positive outlook that I was encouraged as well.
And those are the 4 outlines that will save your life! If you’ve never tried outlining, I would say give it a go. It may not be your thing in the end, but at least when the two sides go to war you can confidently take one side knowing you gave both a try! I hope you enjoyed the post covering my personal choices for outlines.
Next week I’m going to go over a few books I think are worth reading for the Library pass! These are going to include both fiction and nonfiction, particularly for writing.
Do you have a different outlining method you prefer? Or do you prefer just busting out a novel with no outline? I’d love to hear about your preference?