TTT – How To Outline

I thought I’d kick off Top Tip Tuesday with a look at outlining.

As I discussed in a previous post, we writers tend to fall into one of two categories – Outliners or Pantsers. It’s a matter of personal preference as to which technique is right for you, but something I hear a lot from pantsers and those just starting out – what is outlining and how do I do it?

I don’t profess to be an expert on outlining (far from it). These techniques are all based on what I’ve picked up through trial and error or through my own research, but are in no way comprehensive.

What is outlining?

Outlining is a process for plotting out the key points and major events of your book, usually from start to finish. Although typically used for non-fiction writing, it does have its uses in fiction especially where there’s a need to juggle plot twists or multiple story lines. Outlines can be detailed, multi-page documents, or simple guidelines that serve as a road map through your novel’s plot, drafted onto index cards or sticky notes.

How to Outline

All these techniques assume you already have an idea for your book/story. If not, you may benefit from a brain storming session.

Using Index Cards/Sticky Notes

Image from www.sxc.hu
Image from http://www.sxc.hu

Until recently, this was my main method for outlining (more on this later). I’ll mostly be discussing index cards but this applies to sticky notes too. You need a few items before you can begin:

  • Index cards of a size to suit your needs (I use 3 by 5 inch cards (76.2 by 127.0 mm))
  • Coloured pens or stickers
  • Corkboard, index card box, or large floor
  1. On one side of a index card, write a single sentence summarising each of your story’s main plot points or scenes, ignore any subplots for now. Use a new card for each point and leave the other side blank.
  2. Number each card in sequence. This doesn’t mean you’re tied to the sequence but it’ll help if you drop or mix up the cards (trust me on this).
  3. When you’ve finished your main plot, do the same with your subplots. I tend to use a different colour pen (or sticker) here to help distinguish plot threads.
  4. Once you have worked through all your plot lines, arrange the cards out on the corkboard/floor.
  5. You can now move the cards around at your leisure and experiment with the sequencing/pacing of your story. Cards can also be grouped into rough chapter outlines.
  6. Use the rear of each card to further expand on the scenes, adding detail and snippets of text as it comes to you.
  7. Write your story

Text Document

This method is based on Microsoft Word package for Windows and Mac, although most wordprocessor programs have templates for outlines available for use. It’s less flexible than other methods as plot points can only really be moved through cutting and pasting text (although Office 2013, now allows you to drag and drop headings and associated text around).

I haven’t outlined using this method and so, rather than making a fool of myself, I thought I’d let Saikat Basu of www.makeuseof.com show you how it’s done.

Remember: each header should be a one-sentence summary of the key plot points of your story.

Scrivener

Scrivener's corkboard feature
Scrivener’s corkboard feature

Scrivener is a recent discovery for me but is fast becoming my go-to program when it comes to outlining and plotting. Just like a real corkboard and index cards, the built-in corkboard feature allows for the creation of virtual cards which can be colour-coded in much the same way as the ones I described above.

Scrivener also has a separate outlining feature which gives a more traditional look to the outline (similar to the one created by MS Word). I intend to do a full review of Scrivener in the coming weeks but I just want to highlight that the software is available for both Windows and Mac operating systems and comes with a free trial download.

An index card is added to the corkboard automatically, whenever a new document is created and can be used as per the method above. I use the main face of the card to summarise a description of the scene, expanding on it in the document notes section (bottom right of the image).

So that’s about it from me, but before I go I want to mention a few things that you should considered when using outlines:

  1. The layout and format of an outline is a matter of personal preference – use one that suits you
  2. Outlines should never get in the way of the story – if the plot or pacing benefits from a change of direction then alter the outline, not the story
  3. Outlines should be organic, evolving as the story does – use it as a guide only.

Well, I hope this helps. If you have any questions, feel free to post them in the comments below or make use of the contact form to drop me a line. I’d also like to hear any tips you might have when it comes to outlining.

Other outlining resources

12 thoughts on “TTT – How To Outline

  1. I find it amusing that you’re posting this now. I was looking at scrievner a few weeks ago but I couldn’t decide if it would work for me. Corkboards hurt my head. I have an outlining method that is probably going to break your brain. I’ve been trying to get a complete outline done to use as an example all month.

    1. What’s funny is that I had to cancel a scheduled post on writing goals because you posted about it yesterday 🙂

      If you’re interested in Scrivener, I’d suggest downloading the free trial. Plus, I’d like to hear your method of outlining, or at least the cliff notes version.

      1. Oops!…Actually, the reason I haven’t finished is because when I got done, I realized the story didn’t work. I guess I could still use it as an example anyway.

      1. I’ve done a little research and it appears that it’s only available on iOS which is a shame for us android/windows/blackberry users. It does look like a useful app through and similar to the Scrivener layout.

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