8 Stellar Outlining Techniques for the Smart Writer


Outlining might not be for you. Freewriting may also not be for you. You may exist somewhere in-between or outside of both. By learning what’s out there, you’ll be closer to finding what works for you or what can help sharpen your current system.

Have a writing system already in place? Tell me about it. What works for you? What do you want to change?

You can call outlining and plotting your story whatever you want. Sometimes when I’m plotting, I call it storyboarding or playtesting. What terms you assign to your process are all you.

I’ve included a video about screenwriters and their processes for outlining their stories. A lot of their ways vary and yet they all produce, arguably, well-crafted stories. I share this video as a way of showcasing that not a lot of creators know a shore-fired way to outline or plot a story. They just go with what works for them.

You should, too.


How Professional Screenwriters Outline by Behind the Curtain

Outlining Techniques

We’ll go over several ways writers can approach outlining their stories that go beyond simple summaries or three-act structures. No method is better or more superior than the next. These are just different ways we as writers can approach our stories to make it easier on us.

In a recent tutorial, we went over ways to outline a story based on its scenes. This time around, we’ll focus less on the scene-type outlines and more on overall story outlines; outlines you might create when you don’t have all the parts of your story worked out.

A lot of the resources I’ll share say novel, but I’ve used outlines for short stories, poems, articles, editorial calendars, pretty much any written content. Using fiction outlines and other craft elements has always enhanced and layered my nonfiction and poetry and vice versa. Just because someone says this is for fiction or this is for poetry, doesn’t mean you can’t blend them and create a dynamic piece.

Spreadsheet

I’m a big believer in the spreadsheet outline of a story. To spreadsheet a piece, you can use graph paper or Excel, or any other gridded spreadsheet system that allows you to make sections at the top or side. These sections you’ll use to fill in elements of your story like character, plot point, subplots, etc. Pretty much anything you’d want to keep in mind while plotting your story.

For me, I include word count, setting, conflict, complication, resolution, questions brought up, answers given, plot points, characters in and out of the scene, and any important details I need to keep in mind for later in the story like if some important item is broken, lost, stolen, etc. Other writers go more in-depth and have full chapter breakdowns of what they want to have happen in their stories. I use spreadsheets throughout my planning and revision process just because they’re so neat and a great place to keep everything about my story condensed and easily digestible.

Here are some examples of different spreadsheets writers use to outline their stories.

Paragraph Breakdown

A paragraph breakdown is a really simple outlining method that calls for you to write out, in paragraphs, what happens throughout the story. You can get as detailed as you want or do broad strokes.

This is my go-to method of outlining if I’m short on time or wanting to do a plotting session while out and about. I just write what feels natural and exciting or right for the story and try and make it be more than just beginning, middle, and end. Though sometimes, that’s all I got.

Foolscap Method

The Foolscap outline method is from the Story Grid, which I highly recommend. It’s an all-around outlining and story breakdown methodology that has helped me understand so many things about story, reader expectations, and genre. Using a piece of paper or a document — originally a piece of Foolscap or legal paper — you write out the beats of your story.

It’s a bit of a detailed method, so if you want to try it out, I suggest reading over Story Grid’s tutorial and breakdown of it. There are also downloads for both fiction and nonfiction versions of the method so you can test it out on your own stories or others to see how your favorite writers craft their pieces.

Synopsis

This is by far the easiest method of outlining your story. It’s also really helpful when it comes to explaining your story to other people. The synopsis for your piece is the summary of what you are trying to convey and how you plan on doing it.

For poems, when I write a synopsis, I focus on what I mean to say or what I’m working through with the poem. I write down what images, themes, and symbols I want to use. It helps direct my writing with the piece and allows me to see a clear path to a finished copy.

Snowflake Method

This method always takes me back to high school where it was first introduced to me as the go-to method of outlining. In a way, it combines many forms of outlining to create a big and detailed outline. Here’s a thorough breakdown of the method from Reedsy that’s really helpful at understanding it if you are unfamiliar.

First, you start by writing a one-sentence summary of your story, then you write a paragraph summary. Using those two, you build off from there and start expanding by writing down summaries for the characters. Now, you take this smaller summary and create a detailed one-page summary from it where you blend the characters, subplots, and plot points into the mix. From there, you keep building on until you have a fully fleshed-out idea and outline for your story and world.

Chapter or Section Breakdown

Doing a chapter or section breakdown is another favorite outlining method of mine. I usually use it for my articles and other nonfiction content. You can use it on any piece by sectioning out your story into subheadings, chapters, or any other marker you choose.

For this method, I like to use index cards that way I can move story sections around to see what flows better. And I do it in acts or sequences where my first couple of cards, depending on how big the story is, cover the major events of the first part of my story. I do that for every act or section until the end.

Backward Outline

Instead of outlining from beginning to end, you outline from end to beginning in a backward outline. This helps you keep your story moving in a logical and satisfying way to the end. I find this helpful in longer form works where it’s easy to get lost in the middle.

Further Reading

Author and artist Kim Yoon Mi is compiling a list of various story structures from around the world. These structures can be used to plot a story. There are also more outline processes and structures out there than I could cover here. So, keep learning and exploring stories, finding new methods and systems.


Exercises

This week, I’m going to have you:

Perform a reverse outline on a story or piece that you find to be well-written, artfully handled, or a type of story that you’d like to be able to write someday.

A reverse outline is when you plot or outline an already completed story. You can use any of the above outlining techniques to chart any story or piece of your choosing whether it be a book, article, poem, movie, game, whatever.

If it’s a story, you can reverse outline it.

By performing the reverse outline on a piece, you’ll be able to see how the story was stitched together by the writer. That’ll give you an idea of how to build and construct stories that resonate with your readers.


Aigner Loren Wilson’s work has appeared in Better Humans, Tordotcom, The Writing Cooperative, and more. Subscribe for access to her novel writing masterclass course that teaches writers how to write a novel without getting lost in the weeds.

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