An Outline About Outlining. Meta!

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So you’ve got this great book idea.

It’s filling up your every spare moment with visions of epic scenes, character development brilliance, and astonishment at your own ingenuity. But…sitting down to write the thing? That feels terrifying. How are you supposed to get all of your ideas out of your head in a way that makes any sense?

It might not sound like fun, but the answer, my darlings, is outlining.

I know, I know. If you’re an older millennial like me, you’re probably flashing back to your middle school experience, where you had to remember what Roman numeral follows which Arabic numeral at what outline level, getting nervous sweats just from thinking about it. But never fear! Technology has made outlines easy to create. That leaves your brain open to focus on organizing your thoughts in a way that helps you instead of overwhelming you.

And here’s the thing: Outlines aren’t the rigid taskmasters they can sometimes feel like. In fact, the reason outlines are shaped the way they are is that they’re meant to be flexible. That means that, no matter where you are in the planning process, you can always go back in and fiddle around, remove or add parts, and get more detailed as you go. I know I’m mixing metaphors here, but think of your outline as the skeleton for your story: The basic structure that the book will be built around. And because it’s so bare-bones (hah!), it’s your opportunity to look for flaws in the design. The outline’s layout makes it easy to find and fix plot holes, portions that you need to do more planning on, or inconsistencies. And you want to work out those kinks before the connective tissue is tying details together.

Once you’ve gotten the kinks worked out and started writing, refer back to your outline for inspiration, reminders about where things go, and cold, hard facts about your story’s shape.

In the meantime, here are some helpful tips, tricks, and resources about outlining…in a handy outline format! Meta, right?
  1. The purpose of an outline is twofold:
    1. The first purpose is to create an abbreviated, visually concise structure that you can refer to easily as you work
    2. The second purpose is to show you the places where you need to do more development
  2. For the above reasons, it’s best to start out BIG:
    1. Mark down the biggest, boldest, most important moments of your story
    2. Then fill in the smaller moments that support and/or lead up to those moments
    3. Keep doing the same thing until, eventually, you have a scene-by-scene playbook for your entire story!
      1. For each scene, ask yourself the following:
        1. Is this moving the story forward and/or revealing something important about a character?
          1. There may be room in your story for extras that aren’t absolutely, completely necessary to your story…but they should be kept to a minimum.
          2. If your outline includes moments, scenes, or character arcs that don’t fulfill an important purpose for the larger story…they should probably go!
        2. If this scene is moving your story forward: What is its role?
        3. What are the goals of each of the characters in the scene?
        4. Is there a conflict that happens here?
          1. If so, identify it!
          2. If not…do you really need this scene?
        5. How do the characters leave this scene closer or further from their ultimate goal?
        6. How does this scene build toward the next scene, and/or the larger climax that’s brewing?
  3. Tips, tricks, & hints:
    1. If you’re stuck somewhere and can’t answer any of the questions above, skip ahead to a different part and work backward.
    2. If you’ve got a big gaping hole in your plot, it will be easier to spot in the outline than in running text! It’s a good idea to read over your outline between work sessions to look for these.
    3. Since outlines are made to be easily deconstructed, changed, etc., this is a great time to move scenes around if you’re not certain of the order.
    4. Outlines are also great places to store your thoughts, questions, and notes for your future self when writing!
    5. If you need inspiration during the writing process, consider this: It can be immensely encouraging to be able to see your whole book laid out in one relatively short document—the outline will remind you that you know where you’re going and how to get there!
  4. Resources
    1. Written advice
      1. 7 Steps to Creating a Flexible Outline for Any Story
        1. A detailed breakdown of planning and outlining processes
        2. Very encouraging!
      2. Book Outline: How to Write an Outline with 11 Major Steps for Success
        1. Links to some outlining & planning resources
        2. Covers (and shows) several different types of outlining strategies
      3. How to Structure Your Story’s Outline
        1. Breaks down each part of each act in detail
        2. Part of a larger series for NaNoWriMo
      4. How To Create An Outline for Your Book
        1. Friendly advice from an author
        2. Links to her actual book outline!
      5. The Three Types of Outlines to Use on Your Novel
        1. Actually offers four ideas
        2. And breaks those ideas down
      6. The Snowflake Method For Designing A Novel
        1. If you’re into supergenius fractal theory in your novel writing…you’ll love this!
        2. Visually oriented folks may find this extra helpful.
      7. SEVEN TYPES OF OUTLINES
        1. Lots of choices!
        2. And actual pictures of famous authors’ outlining methods!
    2. Videos
      1. How to Write an Outline for Your Book
        1. Outlining…for folks who hate outlining
      2. How to outline your novel
        1. Tips on outlining from a horror enthusiast
      3. How To Outline Your Novel Using The Snowflake Method
        1. More on that wild snowflake method
      4. How To Outline Your Novel: The Beat Sheet Method
        1. As illustrated by the first Harry Potter book
      5. How to Outline Your Novel Using Index Cards
        1. For folks who like to be hands-on about planning

Now get out there and do some outlining, folks!


If you’re interested in finding help with your own writing process—any kind of editing or even one-on-one accountability buddying, coaching, or advice—let me know! I’m a certified, trained editor with years of experience, and I’m always looking to help!

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