BUILDING A WORKING OUTLINE
A couple of years ago in a blog series I had titled Back Yard Guerrillas, I was asked for advice from several people who had great story ideas but terrible luck in getting them down on paper. I discussed getting your story written down. Forgetting for the moment things like spelling and grammar, sentence structure, etc... Just get it written. The idea is to just get the premise of your story down on paper so that you will have something tangible to look at. I can have thousands of good ideas a day, but it is only the ones that get onto paper that I will ever have a chance of actually working on. As a human being my memory is fallible and I forget things. I have been known to say “If it wasn’t written down you never told me.” As you begin writing down your idea more details of the story will come to you. The first step is simply sitting down and putting that story idea to ink and paper.
When you look at your written idea, add any additional information that comes to you about your story. Information like who your story is about. Where does your story happen? Why does it happen? Is there any one certain line you hear your character saying? Etc... No matter how big the idea may be, or even how small. Record it on that paper.
If you have done the above step then you should now have a written premise for your story. This is just your first of many drafts. The fact is most novels go through 5 to 10 drafts and sometimes more before they are ready to be published.
So if you look through your premise and you say to yourself “PeeeYewww! This stinks” Don't worry you’re in good company. A lot of authors reach this stage and give up. The task ahead may seem daunting, but step 2 will help you to accomplish the work ahead much easier.
Step 2 is turning that premise into a working outline. You may be wondering why we didn't start with an outline from the very beginning. Well we could have. In fact the author of Erragon, Christopher Paolini actually did just that. For most people though this can turn out to be too constrictive. By starting with an outline they find themselves unable to follow the natural ebb and flow of the story as they try to contain it within the constraints of their outline.
If you wish to follow the (outline first) approach let me offer this advice. Make your outline flexible. In other words if you find your story wanting to take a more creative route be willing to change the outline to fit the story. Remember your outline is Not your story. It is a guide and a tool to help you get your story across.
In my own writing my outlines change and change and change again. With each draft comes a completely new outline.
If your outline must be so flexible and constantly changes why have one at all? In answer here are just some of the reasons I like to work with one.
1. My outline lets me at a glance see what I have accomplished, where I still need to go and it holds my good ideas till I can get to them.
2. It shows me where I am lacking sufficient content and where maybe I should trim some.
3. It helps me to move people, places and events around to make my story clearer, more believable, and more exciting.
So how do we turn a rough draft into an outline? There are varied ways to approach your outline. We will focus on three.
The first is to approach your outline from the view of the storyline. In this type of outline we are mainly concerned with events. What happens at this particular time in the time line? This type of outline can be useful to make sure things happen chronologically in order. Starting at chapter 1 and working your way through each subsequent chapter you outline each event in the story.
Ex. 1 The Story Line Approach
1. Discovery of the body.
a. An unusual method of murder.
b. Discovery of the first link to suspects and plot/motive.
2. Introduction of main character.
a. Learn of main characters connection with the victim.
The time-line method looks at your story from a purely time-line and cause and effect perspective. Most all of your entries have to do with moving the story from point (A) to point (B).
The second style involves characters and their actions or connections. As you move through each chapter you make a list of the characters and what they are doing in that particular chapter.
Ex. 2 The Character Approach
1. (Blake Powers) (the body).
a. Blake has been stabbed in the temple with the probe of a thermometer.
b. Blake is supposed to be off duty from his nursing job today. Why is he here? Who killed him? Why?
2. (John Cowell detective) Investigating the murder of Blake Powers.
a. Blake is the nephew of (Eric Waters).
b. John arrested Eric Waters for murder 2 years prior. There is bad blood with the Waters family.
c. John threatened to kill Blake for making harassing phone calls to (Julia Dickson) Johns ex-fiancé while John was at work.
d. Everyone knows that John blames the harassment for Julia eventually leaving him.
Which method is better? That is for you the author to decide. I personally prefer a combination of the two. I have a story to tell and I need to keep progressing towards the end. At the same time I realize that I need my characters to make it happen. So I try to balance the two. I note both my events and the characters involved in them as well as other information I feel important to the story.
There are of course other methods but these are my favorites. Whichever method you find to be most comfortable I have found one additional thing to be most invaluable.
Make a clear record of every new character as they enter your story. If you choose to do so in your outline then find a way to highlight them. Look at example 2 above. As each character enters the story I put their name in parenthesis and capitalize them while making the text bold. This makes them stand out when I need to search for them. Personally I like to keep a list in my writing binder. As I introduce a new character or creature I add them to the list. (NOTE: Even minor characters get added.) Then as soon as possible I return to the list and add details about the characters. This gives me a quick reference when I can’t recall a name. It also gives me an idea of their personality. I now have an idea of how they will react to events in my story.
There are two other reasons to keep your character list that I think are critical. The first is I have found that I personally have a tendency to like names that begin with certain letters. Halfway through my first story I realized that everyone in the book had different names but the same initials. They were a JD or a JT or JP etc... This may seem silly to you but trust me, the larger the number of characters in your story the greater the propensity to give them familiar initialed names. Keeping the list allowed me to break things up throughout the alphabet and made it easier to name new characters.
The second thing is that if you fail to follow this step chances are you are going to find some characters have changed names by the end of your book. As well as names they may change personalities, or physical attributes, occupations, etc... In Harmony one of my main characters went from being Major John Addison in early chapters to Major Tom Addison in later chapters, and I introduced a character as Sharron early on only to have them show up as Shannon later. This happens most often in characters that don't appear in every chapter. Sometimes a change in your character if intentional can be good. But if it happens as an oversight it will confuse your readers.
Okay. So I have now shown you my three favorite approach to building your outline. The next question is how do we use it?
Firstly. Rather than going back and rereading and rereading your rough draft, study your outline. Why? The main reason is if you begin rereading now, (unless you wrote a perfect story the first try), you will begin to pick it apart. You will end up working yourself into a corner that is very hard to get out of. Secondly if you have made your outline you can look at it and see what you need to add or even take away. Thirdly and very importantly, you can see if the ending actually connects to the beginning the middle and etc... Believe it or not it is very easy as your story evolves to find your first premise has changed and you may need to change the beginning of your story to reflect the change. Your outline will help you evaluate that objectively.
You outline also helps you to keep tabs on your characters. In chapter 17 you may need a supporting character. But by looking at your outline you can see that you left them hanging in chapter 8. Between chapters 8 and 17 you need to resolve something to be able to bring that character back into your story or else find another character to fill the spot. For example. In my book Harmony I started on earth with the discovery of another planet and another solar system. My objective was to get my characters from Earth to the new planet. So I created a huge ship to take them there. After my rough draft I realized that I had relayed very little information about the ship and the 4 month long journey to this new planet to my readers. I used my outline to go back and fix these omissions by adding two new chapters. My outline helped me to see the events that needed to happen and the players that needed to be involved. Along the way I met new characters and discovered new things that would have been over looked or lost originally.
Another way to use your outline is to record great ideas. As I write I will have an idea that I can’t use for one or more chapters. I note the idea on my outline and then as I get to that point in my story I have important information that I can then weave into the fabric of my story. So here is an important note. (Leave blank spaces and lines.)
So there are just some of the basics for developing and using your outline. You will undoubtedly develop more as you go.
Be willing to change and revise your outline as often as needed.
Record (any) information and ideas important to your story right in your outline.
Study your outline. Not only is it faster to reference your outline rather than thumbing through countless pages of your story for information. It will keep you from getting caught up reading the story rather than focusing on where you are at.
Use it! Every day before you begin writing on your story reference your outline. It helps to see where you left off and where you need to go, and it also serves to pull you back into the story and the adventure.
Oh, and keep it with you always. I have seen many authors refer to the writing process as similar to birthing a baby. Well if that is true you wouldn’t leave a new born sitting at home alone. Take it with you. If an idea comes to you, whip out that outline and record it before you forget it.
Just like Step 1 the most important thing is DO IT! Get started. As you work on your outline you will see it grow and evolve. Remember this. The best start to any journey is to take the first step. So step up, or step out. Just take a step and begin the adventure.
I hope you like my tips. As always I welcome your input and ideas. Please leave a comment on this page or send us an email. At firstname.lastname@example.org
See you next time.