The Best Tips and Tricks for Outlining.
by Maren MacPhail
What’s the importance of outlining, you may ask? There comes a point when, even if you “pants” your story, making it up as you go doesn’t fly. The story will eventually demand to be told in a certain way, or you might write yourself into a corner. You may eventually need an outline to sell a book on proposal, or maybe your agent wants to get a feel for your story arc before you start writing. Planning, even if just a little bit, can never hurt!
The truth is, many of us outline without even realizing it. Some of us know exactly where we want our story to end, while others know how they might want the next few chapters to go. Many writers take quick notes of scenes they want to write before drafting or have spent time brainstorming the story as a whole, as I’m sure many of us do. You’ll find that it’s surprisingly easy to take these little nuggets of ideas and flesh them out into a substantial outline.
Without further ado, I’m going to share how I personally outline. I’ve used this method consistently for years, so I’m hopeful that my system will help some of you. Although I won’t get into the nitty gritty of structure in this post, it’s helpful to know those story beats as you brainstorm.
Nuggets. So, you probably have a lot of “nuggets” floating around in your head. What’s a nugget? That’s my term for those little ideas that really “pop” in your head. They’re the scenes you’re super excited to write. Maybe it’s a climactic moment or a big romance scene. Maybe it’s a smaller moment that you still see vividly in your head. As you brainstorm, keep a list of them. It doesn’t have to be in order. The main goal here is to simply compile them.
Put in Order. This is when you’ll probably want to break out Word or Scrivener and start that formal “outline” doc. Put your nuggets in order according how you want them to happen in the story, bullet by bullet. I might refer to the 3-act structure and the typical plot beats here. I often deviate from them, but it’s nice to use it as a guidepost if I need help. Sometimes it helps to work backwards to determine how you want your characters to get to a certain point, foreshadowing, etc. That being said, know your ending. It’s a big motivator and helps you keep your eye on the finish line.
Build Connective Tissue. So you’ve got the major plot points down in chronological order. Now, it’s time to build the “connective tissue” between those big nugget moments. Where do there need to be transition scenes, or moments of character reflection? Fill them in here. This is really where you get into the nitty gritty of plotting and fleshing out the story. You should have a beefed up, bulleted list at this point.
Chapter by Chapter. Now that you have down all the plot points and connective tissue, it’s time to start placing them into chapters. Create a “Chapter 1” heading and beneath it, include a short synopsis of what happens in that chapter. It can be as detailed or as minimal as you want—whatever will give you enough guidance to write that chapter. This is a good place to note whose POV it is (if you have multiple), the date/time if it’s important to your story, or any notes that you need as a writer. If there are scene breaks in your chapter (those places where you might see this: ***), note those transitions. Rinse and repeat until you get to the end. Keep in mind that you can rearrange and alter as you go.
Be Flexible. This may seem counterintuitive to everything above, but it’s important to stay flexible. This chapter-by-chapter outline may stay the same from beginning to end, but I’m willing to bet that you might want to adjust it along the way. If anything, that’s a good thing. It means your characters and plot are guiding the story and intrinsically directing it in the way it needs to go. If this happens, go back to the drawing board and shift the outline around as necessary. Then you’ll have a refreshed plan moving forward!
When all is said and done, you should have something that looks a little like this. I’ve blurred out some plot points for convenience’s sake, but you get the idea.
There you have it! Thank you so much for reading! I’m so glad I got to share my thoughts and wish you all the best of luck on your outlining journeys!
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