Writing Style: Two-Part Outlines

Outlining, man.

Some writers love it. Some writers hate it. And some run screaming into the night at the thought of it.

However, outlining really isn’t that scary. I promise. It’s just another tool for your writing toolbox. You may not need to use it all the time, but it’s good to have it in there.

I’m a big believer in story structure, and without an outline, my characters jaunt off to do something stupid like buy fabric and sew a dress. Which is great if their goal is to pass a home economics class. It is considerably LESS GREAT when their goal is trying to figure out who attempted to kidnap them.

I’m not talking some super-detailed, Roman-numeral-headings-and-bullets, high school essay outline. My outlines are more guidelines than actual rules. (Go ahead, say it in Barbossa’s voice. You know you want to.)

They’re really just a way of helping me remember what the story goal is and where my characters are trying to go. Otherwise, I end up off on some rabbit trail that traps my characters in an endless argument about the world’s largest ball of twine.

Now obviously, everybody has different styles and everybody works differently. But here’s the outlining process that, so far, has worked pretty well for me.

I have two different outlines, generally: the super-loose one I use during the first draft, and the more structured one I build after I have a draft to work from.

Outline the First

Using a loose outline first gives me a little more freedom to explore the world while still staying on track. Typically, this first draft outline is the beginning scene, a scene or two in the middle, and the climax of the story.

Of these things, the beginning and the climax are all I absolutely *have* to have to start writing. If I start writing without the climax, I’ll stall out about halfway through because I have absolutely NO idea where it’s going. (Performance anxiety, perhaps?)

Each scene I have listed is rarely more than a couple of sentences long, and it’s just usually something like this:

– Mercenaries attack the palace. FMC tries to escape (out the window? Secret tunnel?). She’s captured by guards outside the wall.”

As I write the first draft, I’ll add to the outline (usually just a few scenes ahead of where I am) so that I don’t get lost or forget the “WHOA TOTALLY AWESOME” idea I had (a habit I picked up during NaNo to make starting the next day’s writing easier). But that’s about as detailed as it gets.

Outline the Second

After I finish a first draft (yay!) and set it aside for awhile, I come back armed with my trusty notecards. This is an idea I cribbed from Jack Bickham, who wrote one of my favorite writing craft books, Scene & Structure.

Notecard story outline. There are a lot of notecards.

This is the outline for the first 14 chapters or so of the novel.

On each notecard, I write the main story question at the top (“Will Bob stop the Evil Emperor from taking over the world?”). If there’s a subplot in that particular scene, I add the subplot goal (“Find the Magical Marionette Sword”).

Then, for each scene, I put (at the least) the scene goal and the disaster. Usually I’ll try to get a line or two about the scene conflict in there as well.

Notecard outline of the first 4 chapters

Click to embiggen!

In this version of the notecards (this was the first time I did it), I put the chapter numbers in the upper right corner. That ended up not being a good idea, since some of the scenes got moved around and by the end of the novel, none of the chapter numbers were accurate.

This method has helped me tremendously with pacing and keeping the stakes high. Every time I write a notecard, I’m asking myself, “How does this scene tie in with the main story? With the subplot? Is the conflict strong enough here? Is the disaster big enough?”

This particular outline took me about 2-3 days to write, but once I had it, I was able to finish the story much faster than I would have otherwise.

Do you have to outline to start writing? By all means, no. But if you find yourself struggling with where to go next, or if your pacing’s off, or your stakes aren’t high enough, an outline could help you fix those problem areas before they sink your story.

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5 thoughts on “Writing Style: Two-Part Outlines

  1. i myself don’t usually start with an outline. once i realize this story is actually worth investing in, i do make a general bell curve outline with major plot points for both the main plot and any subplots. i got the idea from jim butcher’s website – http://jimbutcher.livejournal.com/4053.html – and this one works best for me.

    although when i wrote my first mystery, i did do a more detailed, chapter by chapter outline so i could keep track of the clues, red herrings, etc. that was much more helpful in that particular case.

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