The planning phase of writing is one that I find essential. Some writers will disagree and say that it stifles the creative process to plan the plot of your piece ahead of time. However, I feel that the structure of your story will be tighter if you have a map, aka outline, to follow. Now, if you are one of those writers who finds that planning your work in advance just isn’t for you that is completely okay! I recognize that the writing process is unique to each writer. I still encourage you to continue reading, because today, I will be sharing my method, which can easily be adapted to help with a scene that is giving you trouble or with loose ends that you need to tie up. Basically, this method does not only work for the plotting and planning phases, but can also help you midway through your project, or even at the end.
Before we get into how this process actually works, I have a word of caution for you. Never force yourself to stick so strictly to your outline that you allow your characters to make choices that seem unnatural. Without a doubt, you will learn more about your characters as you write, and you must be receptive of this. If that means you get to a crucial plot point where you’ve planned for your character to go right, but you think no, he’d never do that, he’d definitely go left, then don’t be afraid to scrap your original outline and start again! I know, I know, it sounds like a whole lot of work, but if you let your characters make moves that are completely unnatural to them, then your readers WILL notice. So take the time to re-outline right away instead of waiting till you’re at the end when you’ve either let your character make unrealistic decisions or you have serious inconsistencies with your plot. For this reason, I suggest using a pencil to create this outline so that changes can be made when necessary!
To demonstrate my method of outlining, I am going to use the ever so famous and always beloved children’s story “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”. If you, by some mysterious happenstance, have never heard this story, you can find it here. Make sure you are familiar with it so that you understand the many pieces of my method. I usually do this by hand, but in an attempt to make it legible, I have created a document that will show you the final version. Each step is color coded, and I will indicate those colors when I detail each step below. If an action spans across multiple columns, that means it is completed by all of those characters, and this is shown with (-) on either side of the action.
Here is the link to the example document: How I Outline-Example
So now that you know how to read the outline, let’s look at the process of how to create your own.
Step One: Characters and Story Arc
This method of outlining is a very in depth way to examine your plot. So, at the very least, you need to have an overall idea of the characters and story arc before you begin. Whether it’s a physical list or mental notes you’ve made for yourself, make sure you know the general pieces of your story. The list I made for “Goldilocks” can be seen on the first page of the document above. Now you may be looking at this list and noticing that there is a character not featured in the story. No, that is not a mistake. I will explain in a future step the purpose of including characters that do not appear in the story itself.
Step Two: Create the Physical Layout of the Outline (Green)
The physical layout should consist of a single row on top. This row should first have a column that is labeled “Time”. The purpose of this column is to map out the chronology of when events take place. You also have the opportunity to split this column in half so that the first side shows the time within the story, and the second side gives you a place to keep track of the page the event happens on, or where it occurs in the word count. Not only does this let you easily keep track of the time which your story spans, it also provides a map of the manuscript and where you can find each event. The next set of columns should have each characters’ name at the top, starting with the point of view character. This is the character through which the reader is experiencing the story or scene, usually the protagonist. Then list the other character. Try to group them next to the people they interact with the most. Under these character names, you will be writing every single physical move the character makes throughout the story. We will discuss this more in the next step. It is important to include every character who influences the story in any way. For example, I have a wolf in my outline that does not actually appear in “Goldilocks”. However, when you read the outline as a whole, you will see how his actions influence the entire plot. Without him, we wouldn’t have a story (according to my outline). The final column should be labeled notes. I reserve this column for any notes that I want to take on my outline. These could include questions that need to be answered, things that need to be established prior to the scene, or important things to remember for future parts of the project.
Step Three: Fill In the Actions of the Point of View Character (Blue)
Next we are going to focus on the first character column on the sheet. This column will most likely consist of all of the things that the reader will see happening (unless your narrator is omniscient). The goal is to write down every physical move that the character makes. Keep in mind that I said PHYSICAL MOVE. That means that you don’t write down any description, dialogue, or emotion into this outline. You are strictly mapping your characters PHYSICAL MOVEMENT. (Have I drilled this into your brain yet?) You can also write the time down the far left side of the page so that you know exactly when each move is made in relation to the next.
Step Four: Fill In the Actions of the Remaining Characters (Orangish-Redish Combo Color)
When doing this portion of the outline, I suggest using the point of view character as an anchor for the movement of each subsequent character. In other words, look at the column you have already filled in and ask, what were these remaining characters doing at the moment of a given action of the point of view character?
Step Five: Jot Down Any Notes to Remember During the Writing Process
Although you can be doing this the entire time you are creating the outline, I suggest taking a good look over it before you begin writing and make any notes to yourself that you might want to remember. As for the page or word count column, this can be filled in as you write and used as a reference point later.
Voila! You’ve got yourself an outline! Now you know exactly what your characters will be doing and when they do it. I have found that there are some serious benefits to having an outline like this as well as a few disadvantages, and I think it only fair to talk about both.
- You must have a clear idea of how your characters will change from beginning to end because that will affect the decisions they make.
- Although you could potentially adapt this format for many types of projects, I find it functions best for character-driven works.
and now some pros!
- This setup leaves a lot of room for organic story formation. Remember you don’t have any description, emotional reaction, character development, or dialogue. All you have is the physical moves each character makes, which lets all of those other elements be created during the writing process.
- You are able to see exactly what every single character is doing and how their actions off-screen affect the on-screen activities. Therefore, you as a writer have the answers to questions like, why would they leave their porridge uneaten, even if the reader doesn’t need to know. This allows you to be truly in charge of your story, which is important for more complex works that need cohesion from beginning to end.
If you decide to give this outlining method a shot, let me know how it goes! I’d love to hear any comments or ways that you adapted it to fit your purposes. As always, feel free to ask me any questions you might have, and I will be happy to clarify. Send me an email, or post in the comments below!