Writing Advice

Outlining Your Story

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I want to talk about outlining a story. That process some of us love, some of us hate, and some of us don’t even do.

I’m part of a creative writing critique group and recently we discussed outlining and the process of “starting” your story. I was surprised at how many members struggled with the process. Personally, that’s always been one of the easiest parts for me. I think of it as creating the bones of story – a road map to help me lay down muscle and sinew and skin – the meat of the story!

So I’d like to share some tips for people that do struggle with outlining a story. These are things that work for me, and hopefully something might make the whole journey easier for you as well.

FIRST – Figure out your characters 

  • Flesh our your protagonist. Who are they? What motivates them? What path do you want them to take – or what do you want them to have learned from the beginning to end of the book?
  • Whose the antagonist? Is there a specific antagonist? If there is how will they relate or interact with the protagonist? What motivates them?
  • Any important side characters you want or need to help move the story along?
  • I never have ALL my characters figured out. A lot of times when you’re writing a character just comes to life. You have to allow yourself creative space for that to happen.

SECOND – World building

  • Where does your story take place? What city? What country? Research the areas – whether in person or through Google. Find out facts about the weather, geography, etc.
  • Does your story take place on another world? In another galaxy? That’s when things really get fun. Let your imagination play. What do you definitely want this world to portray. Is it post-apocalyptic, similar to Earth, or completely different. Outlining this can be a blast!

THIRD – Quotes and character interaction

  • This is something I like to do because it gives me a better feel for my characters.
  • If there’s an interaction between characters or quote you want in your story – perhaps something you can’t get out of your head. Or something you feel would help develop a certain character in a way you want to take them, WRITE IT DOWN. Even if you don’t end up using it, at least you have it written down. The quote may even change or interaction evolve.

FOURTH – Specific scenes

  • A lot of writers have written entire books off of an idea they had of a single scene.
  • I usually keep my scenes in order by highlighter. One color for every different part of my story. In all I use about 10 colors. It ends up looking like a neon rainbow, but it works for me.

FIFTH – Your actual outline

  • This part can be different for everyone. I know some authors whose story outlines look like actual books themselves. For me, I like to keep it succinct. I keep 5 separate folders on my laptop. One for exposition. One for rising action. One for climax. One for falling action. And one for resolution. My definition of the meaning of those folder titles are not always written in stone. I also try to keep each folder no longer than 2500 words. Otherwise, I personally feel like I’m expelling too much energy on my outline. But everyone has a different technique that works for them.

I hope these tips have helped any struggling outliners just a little. It’s also important to remember that YOU DON’T HAVE TO WRITE AN OUTLINE. For me, I need to. It helps corral all the crazy ideas dancing around my brain. But don’t feel obligated. If it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work, and that’s perfectly okay.

Another more detailed post that may help you with outlining – Steps to Creating a Flexible Outline

And a post that explains why some authors prefer not to have an outline – Outline Free is the Way for Me




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