Build Your Dream House (how to write an effective outline)
When you build a house, you have a good idea of the outcome before you begin.
You’ve decided on a style; you know what features you want your home to include; you’ve drawn up a blueprint that you’ll utilize as a construction guide.
THE SAME PRINCIPLES CAN BE APPLIED TO YOUR WRITING PROJECT.
Before you write your first word on your first page, it’s a good idea to have some kind of roadmap to guide you through your writing. Sure, you can wing it, but your end result might look as higgledy-piggledy as someone who bought a bunch of 2X4s and started nailing them together without any idea of what they were building (that person might end up with a treehouse or sprawling mansion or a garden shed…and the structure isn’t likely to be sturdy!).
People who plow into their writing without a plan are often referred to as pantsers (as in “fly by the seat of your pants”). People who use an outline and generally stick to it are planners. And those in between? The ones who have a plan and may occasionally deviate from it? They’re sometimes called plantsers (Ugh, I’m SO not a fan of that term. Let’s call them improvisers instead).
If you are determined to be a pantser, be my guest…but this blog post isn’t for you. It’s for the people who want to understand how to build a book blueprint, even if they end up deviating from their plan.
And that’s the thing — you probably will deviate. You might start writing and realize, “Hey! I think it’d be great if I added a best friend character so my protagonist has someone with whom to mull over her ideas.” Great! Add the best friend. Your plot will probably be richer for it.
Or maybe you’ll encounter a major plot hole — like, your protagonist has skipped town and no one can find her…but she’s been using her cell phone, which has GPS, and is therefore trackable. Time to get creative and craft a solution! It may take rethinking some plot points or giving your character a techie background or adding some details to make the whole thing more plausable. And that’s okay. It’s fine to color outside the lines.
Just as you might bump into unexpected hurdles, or change your mind about a certain design aspect of a building project, so too do you have the freedom and flexibility to modify your writing plan.
Then, why bother to craft an outline in the first place?
An outline allows you to get intimate with your story before you even write a single word.
It helps you explore possibilities and hit dead ends without the anguish of scrapping 150 pages that led nowhere. It’s your aerial view of the forest before you start bushwhacking your way through the story.
Outlining helps you develop major plot points and connect the dots. It allows you to understand how your characters need to grow and evolve as they work their way toward your riveting conclusion. If you just start writing, your characters might be led on a sprawling journey in which, sure, things happen, but there’s no logic to their path and all the loose ends are not neatly tied.
My basic equation for a successful outline equals:
quiet reflection time + provocative questions + free writing/mapping + intentional planning.
Quiet Reflection Time
It’s crucial to give yourself the space and time you need to work on your outline. Carve out as much quiet time as you are able (I like to take at least an entire day, but if you can manage a few hours here and there, that’s great). Ideally, you’ve already been thinking about your story in some capacity. You have some ideas — or maybe a half-formed character — but your story doesn’t yet have a definite shape.
Reflection time is your chance to mull over the possibilities. What challenges will your characters face? What opportunities? What interesting people will you weave throughout your narrative?
It is worth noting that reflection time is essential for writing nonfiction as well. Of course, you’ll have to present the facts, but why not do that in a creative way? The most compelling nonfiction narratives are inventive, and have a strong purpose. What elements should you keep in order to support and strengthen that purpose? What elements are superfluous and can be snipped?
SIDE NOTE: Make your quiet reflection time fit you. Last year, I spent five days hiking solo on the Superior Hiking Trail. As you can imagine, there was plenty of time for reflection and mulling over ideas! But you might do better in a coffee shop, a library, a park, a cabin on a lake, or in your own home.
To guide your quiet reflection time, it’s a good idea to arm yourself with provocative questions. When we’re working with new authors, we give them several packets of different questions to answer BEFORE they start outlining. In general, you’ll want to ask yourself questions to:
-Define your purpose (what is the overall reason you want to write your story? >>MORE on this in another blog post!)
-Understand your audience
-Create a story arc
-Develop compelling characters (fiction: you’ll be inventing these characters; nonfiction: you’ll be deciding how to frame real life characters)
-Invent conflict in your narrative (nonfiction: decide which conflicts to highlight)
Continually ask yourself, “What if?” What if one of your characters is blind? What if you take your protagonist out of her comfort zone? (How would that look?) What if your characters didn’t experience love at first sight?
Nonfiction questions could include: What if I told my story from X person’s point of view instead of Y’s point of view? What if every chapter were a year…going back in time? What if I told the story in a casual, conversation way?
My favorite part of the whole outlining process is free writing and mind mapping. This is the free flowing part of your creation. It’s your chance to take wild notes, prompted by your provocative questions. Jot down anything that comes to your head without self-editing. Make notes about your characters, plot, conflicts and obstacles, interesting elements, and resolution. Don’t worry if you’re talking about your character’s pet raccoon in one line, and describing a scene in Guatemala in the next (Side note: This example may be close to home…). Free writing doesn’t demand order. It only wants to be fed.
Use your free writing to make mind maps (which can be loosely formatted). When I outline, I create mind maps reminiscent of a deranged serial killer with pieces of string and photographs. Mind maps are a way to organize your thoughts into central ideas and supporting ideas (We hope to devote a blog post entirely to mind mapping in the future; in the meantime, a quick Google search will give you the basics).
Up to this point, your pre-outlining has been pretty free-formed. You’ve created a quiet space for reflection; you’ve asked yourself provocative questions to get to the heart of why you’re writing and how you’ll write it; you’ve spent time writing whatever comes into your brain and mapping out ideas…
…Now is the time to put it all together!
Use your crazy notes to create a story arc, describe your various conflicts and resolutions, and divide your material into chapters.
There are many approaches to outlining, but we usually recommend these basic steps to our authors:
1. Give your story a working title.
2. Define your story arc (Intro, rising action (with several small conflicts — and one overarching conflict — embedded in it), climax, falling action, resolution).
3. Describe your story in one or two sentences (this could be something like a thesis statement).
4. Name your chapters.
5. Write a paragraph under each chapter heading that describes the chapter’s intent and what will be covered.
Use your outline as a skeleton for your writing — the framework of the house you will build. Some authors choose to create more detailed, robust outlines than others. Some authors rewrite their outline as they go along. As I like to say:
You do you
The only way you’ll figure out what works for you is if you dare to dive in! Start mapping out your story and see what methods stick, and which do not. It’s your dream house — how you build it is ultimately up to you.
TELL ME: What methods do you like to use when you’re outlining a story? DO you outline? What do you leave to chance?