Do you outline your work before you sit down to write? Many people do. Many very accomplished writers do. In a recent interview, Paula Hawkins, author of Girl on a Train, was asked whether she had the plot completely worked out before she sat down to write the novel. She said she did, because she didn’t have enough confidence in her abilities to plot on the fly. She was afraid she’d “get lost.”
So there is nothing wrong with outlining. For many writers it is a solid tool they can use to keep them focused on the story. Without an outline, it’s too easy to be drawn off into a tangent that has nothing to do with the real story. (Personal note. I don’t usually work with an outline and often find myself stuck in a narrative dead end. It is much less efficient. I end up going back and re-writing more than necessary. But it’s comfortable for me. I feel it fires my creativity more than an outline would.)
Okay, you’ve decided you like the structure of writing with an outline. Good. Now you need to decide what type of outline to use, because there are more than one.
Most of us are familiar with the traditional alphanumerical outline, the one we learned in secondary school. One strength of the traditional method is its flexibility. You can divide your work any way you want: chapters, plot points, whatever. You can use a notebook with a page for each section, or use index cards. You can even set up a separate file for each section.
The traditional approach can also be helpful by allowing you to plan the approximate length of each section.
In a synopsis, you basically write out the plot in summary form. It differs from the traditional outline in that you are not worried so much about sections, such as chapters, as just getting the story right. Writers who struggle with breaking a novel or story down into units, may feel more comfortable with the synopsis because it feels more like just telling a story.
An added advantage is that, if you’re writing a novel and planning to submit it to publishers, you will have to have a synopsis anyway. In that case you’ve already written a prototype.
Writing a synopsis can feel a lot like freewriting and for some writers that can be essential to letting their creativity flow.
The Snowflake Method
The snowflake method, invented by Randy Ingermanson, is basically to begin with a one-sentence summary of your proposed work, followed by a paragraph-long summary. Next, summarize each of the main characters by listing their names, storyline, goal, conflict, and epiphany. Each sentence of the one-paragraph plot summary is then expanded into its own paragraph. Then, each paragraph is expanded into a scene. And so forth.
This method is particularly useful if you prefer to do extensive planning before you begin writing.
The Three-Act Structure
This is one of the best approaches for authors who are as concerned with the structure of their narratives as with their plots. It is based on screenplay structure and can be manipulated to be as detailed—or not—as the writer wishes.
In this structure, the first quarter of the work is the first act, the middle half is act two; and the final quarter is act three.
The first act requires three primary elements:
- The opening scene establishes the main character, the setting, and the problem.
- The inciting incident happens early and sets the main character on the path to the main conflict.
- The main conflict or first turning point is introduced at the end of the first act. Also known as the point of no return.
The second act must have the action rise to a climactic midpoint, also called “the reversal” because it changes everything. The second act ends with the second turning point.
The third act rises to a climax and ends in resolution.
You can plan specific plot points along this structure and use it as an outline.
The Hero’s Journey
This is based on the writings of scholar Joseph Campbell who argued that all human mythology included similar, universal elements. Though there can be as many as seventeen steps, they can be broken up into three sections, much like the three act structure.
In the first section, the protagonist receives a call to action, but refuses it. The character then encounters a mentor and crosses a threshold into a different world.
The second section describes the character as she undergoes a series of trials and temptations. She almost dies, but survives and receives a great reward.
In the final section, the character returns to the ordinary world. They may be pursued there, but triumphs in the end.
One of the great pop culture examples of The Hero’s Journey is George Lucas’ Star Wars. Just as Lucas did, writers can use or ignore the various elements as their story requires.
Some writers simply do not want to or are uncomfortable working with an outline. (I raise my virtual hand here: “Me! Me!”) However, even writers who prefer to work by the seat of their pants have a kind of plot outline they can find useful.
Some writers find they are able to trick themselves into creating a kind of outline by writing what they call a “zero” or “discovery” draft. This is too rough and unstructured to be even called a “rough” draft, but it is far more detailed and extensive that the other outlines above. But ideally, this draft is written quickly and the author often skips over great swathes of the story with little but a note to indicate “something happens to change her mind.”
The discovery draft can be a boon to writers who have struggled with outlines but lack the confidence—or patience—to work without the outline’s safety net.
From methods based in rigorous structural analysis to approaches that encourage writers to brainstorm as they create, plot outlines can be as versatile and useful as writers want. And can be more useful than many realize.
Find the one that works the best for you or combine several to meet your individual needs and run with it.