Outlining & Organizing

(Objects In The Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear)

Reading is very popular. Writing is very popular too.

While we might read the latest bestseller and think “Sheesh, a brain-dead monkey could put together a better story than that!” we know, deep down, that reading a story and giving our opinion of it is one thing. Writing a story is quite another. And once we decide that maybe we should try it anyway, we soon discover that neither we nor the brain-dead monkey will have a very easy go of it.

But writers love to write. Ask a writer why they write, and they come up with some pretty lame reasons. “I don’t know, I just have to write. I’ve got all this stuff inside me that’s just gotta come out!”


Now, I’m not making fun of writers who express such sentiments — I pretty much feel the same way — but it’s still lame. Of course, ask anyone why they want to do anything, and the reason usually sounds silly at best. I think we should just admit to ourselves “I write because I like it” and leave it at that.

Maybe a basic reason is that writing is so popular is because it’s a relatively cheap form of artistic expression — all that’s really needed is a pen, paper and a few thoughts. Computers make it all the more easier.

However, once pen is put to paper — or words input into a word processor — the writer quickly discovers this is not as easy as it looks.

Maybe you’ve seen messages posted on newsgroups or discussion boards: “I want to write — I just don’t know where to begin!” Or: “I have this great idea, but how do I get it on paper?” Or, maybe you’re halfway through your novelistic masterpiece, only to discover you’ve lost your way.

Don’t worry, there is an answer! It’s called The Outline.

If you want to write, you have to know what you want to write about. That may seem pretty obvious on the surface, yet many, many, many writers fail to make clear (at least to themselves) what they are writing about.

Basically, it’s very simple: If you’re sitting at home and you want to go someplace, you have to know where you want to go. Then, once you decide that, you have to decide how you’re going to get there. That’s what outlining is about — it is a map you make to help you get there.

Some folks don’t know where they’re going, and they don’t care. They don’t want a map. They just want to get in the car and drive. And there’s nothing wrong with that. They just don’t need to outline their writing. But I hope they don’t call me when they get lost!

So, how do you start the map? Well, you want to take it in little pieces so it doesn’t overwhelm you. How you fit the pieces together varies from person to person, but I can give you a general method and you can take what works for you, change it as you see fit, and dump the rest.

Take a general premise and start from that. For example, you might want to write a novel dealing with a movie star accused of a murder they say they didn’t commit (shades of O.J.?). That is a starting point.

Then, ask yourself, “Who is this movie star?” Begin a character outline (which we’ll get to later). Name, age, accomplishments, marital status, children, pets, tattoos.

Then ask “Who was the murder victim?”

Then ask “Who is accusing him — and why?”

The “why” relates to the evidence: What evidence is there that points to the movie star as the killer?

Then ask “Who really did kill the victim?”

You’re building the essential skeleton for your plot. But before you get too far into your plot, you’ve got something more important to do: Get to know your characters.

Characters and plot go hand-in-hand. Without plot, you don’t have a very interesting story, and without characters, you don’t have a story at all. If what you write leans more heavily on characterization than plot, you’re going to have a story that lacks purpose. If you emphasize plot over characterization, you’ll end up with something that lacks meaning.

You should have interesting people (characters) doing interesting things (plot) — or better yet, having interesting things happening to the interesting people. The main character (protagonist) should have something at stake — fear of potential danger, loss, exposure, or trauma. And maybe something to gain as well — vindication, love, peace, money. And the bad guy (antagonist) has to have something at stake. What might they gain … or lose?

In our example with the movie star, he could be faced with humiliation, a lack of freedom — being thrown in prison — and even death (as in death penalty). There are other elements involved, especially if Mr. Movie Star didn’t really off who they are accused of offing.

Think about this for a moment: What would you face if you were accused of killing someone you didn’t kill?

People would treat you differently. Some will believe you, some won’t. You might lose your job, friendships, spouse. Your reputation is in question. Your life is examined by total strangers — the police — and you’re questioned about every little thing you ever did. How would you react?

Now how would your character react?

Doesn’t that help to bring the character into better focus? Doesn’t it give some meaning to the events that are happening to him?

The character outline, on the surface, is easy: You write down everything you know about him or her. Everything from a physical description (gender, race, height, weight, eye and hair color) to mental state (down-to-earth? Wild and crazy? Manic? Happy-go-lucky?) to mannerisms (bites nails, plays with hair/beard, right eye twitches uncontrollably, laughs too loud) to favorite things (spaghetti and meat balls, prefers wine over beer, listens to country music, watches Oprah everyday, enjoys sex with blondes) to what they believe (Democrat, pro-gun, pro-abortion, believes in God but doesn’t go to church).

Of course, this can get to be quite a list, and 90% of it might not even get in your story. So why do you need to know? Because it allows you to know the character, and knowing the character is going to be (for you, the writer) more important than anything else.

“Ah, but I just want to write. I don’t want to do all this listing. What does it matter if my character is left-handed or right-handed, or that he has a tattoo of a snake on his butt?”

Maybe it doesn’t matter. But I assure you that as you write, you’re going to have to make choices for your character, and you’re going to have to decide how your character will react. And if you don’t know how your character will react and why they react that way, you’re going to have a character without much character.

For example, let’s say your movie star is a woman, and shortly after she’s arrested for this murder she supposedly didn’t do, she discovers she’s pregnant. What will her reaction be?

You need to know!

You may be wondering “How many of these character outlines do I do? I might end up with dozens of major and minor characters!”

Yes, you might. So the rule is this: If the character, major or minor, has any bearing on the plot, a character outline is probably needed. Whether it’s a detailed character outline, or a simple one is up to you. You can get into every little thing, or just write a brief paragraph about the character.

So now you may be asking “Wouldn’t all characters have a bearing on the plot?” Frankly, no. Some might just be interesting figures you added for color. Others might pop into your story by chance — the movie star’s attorney’s secretary, for example. We really don’t need to know she likes snowboarding and plays chess over the Internet with a guy named Sven. It has nothing to do with your plot of the movie star — the secretary’s just there to answer the phone and greet visitors.

Basically, you’re starting with character outlines of all your major characters. Minor character outlines can be done as they come along (unless, again, they have a direct bearing on the plot).

Speaking of the plot, what is going on with these characters? In other words: What happens?

You can start with a very general synopsis — murder victim is found, movie star is arrested, police case gets shaky, movie star is released from jail, movie star receives threatening messages, police write threats off as something the movie star created, movie star is followed, new murder victim is found …

You get the idea. You just give yourself the headlines. It’s like saying “From Miami, I’ll go to Atlanta, then Memphis, then St. Louis, then Chicago …”

Once you connect those dots all the way to your final destination, you can work out the details of how you’re going to travel to each place.

Next, you can plow into a more detailed scene description. There’s the murder victim being found. This could be your opening, your first scene. Who finds the murder victim? Where was he found? How was he killed? What evidence is found?

Scene One: In Las Vegas, a maid finds the body of a man his hotel room, shot in the head. She screams and runs off.

Scene Two: Detective Vince DeMaggio arrives and looks over the scene. He plucks the dead man’s wallet from the corpse’s expensive suit and determines the victim is Maurice Bronk, an entertainment lawyer from New York. Several beer bottles are found in the room, and samples of fingerprints are taken.

Scene Three: DeMaggio is on the phone, talking to his 10 year old son, saying he is excited about attending that evening’s soccer game in which his son plays forward. While on the phone, a file is placed on his desk. Fingerprint analysis of the Maurice Bronk hotel room links Stone Colorado, the famous movie actor, to two of the beer bottles.

Scene Four: Stone Colorado walks out of his trailer and onto the set of his new motion picture ‘The Set-Up.’ …

You can get even more detailed than that, if you want.

There are different methods for getting this stuff down. You can do so by writing each character and/or scene out on a 3" x 5" index card. Or, you can do so in your word processor, writing it out much like I just did. Some folks even use spreadsheets to list the characters, a timeline of events, where each character was during each event, and other related things.

You may think: “Do I really have to do all that?”

The answer is: No, you don’t have to. But I can assure you that once you’re deep into your story, you’re going to start losing track of things. Clues. People. Alibis. Character relationships and their nuances will be lost. You’ll start having to juggle all this in your head, and some of it will get dropped.

If you can keep track of all this in your head, more power to you. Some folks can. But if you’re like everyone else who has trouble remembering where they left their car keys, much less the name of the movie star’s attorney’s secretary, then you may need help keeping track.

Writing is a lot of work, isn’t it? It’s not just “Once upon a time …”

So here’s a quick overview of outlining and organizing:

Write a General Premise — A movie star is accused of murder.

Create a Character Outline — Richly detailed, or a sketch to jog your memory.

Write a General Plot Synopsis — Murder victim is found, movie star is arrested, police case gets shaky, movie star is released from jail …

Create a Detailed Scene Description — A blow-by-blow account of the major plot points and twists, and the characters involved in them. Paint it as little or as much as you want. (I’ve heard of some detailed outlines that are longer than the actual finished product.)

Make a Clue and Alibi List — What are the clues? What are the alibis?

Create a character / plot timeline — Who was where when what happened?

And that’s it in a nutshell. Like I said, outlines are not for everybody, but it certainly won’t hurt if you try it — especially if, for some reason, you have to stop writing for a period of time and might lose track of what you were trying to do.

So, Happy Outlining!

Eric Dalen

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