I’ve written about discovery writers and how they can improve on their writing processes, but being a pantser isn’t for everyone. Some people need a plan of attack before they can start working on a story. Outliners (or as some authors call them, architects) need order before they can move forward. But what should be noted is that there are many many ways to outline a story. In this article I’m going to be listing several that I’ve either used personally or have come across while researching the topic.
The Three Act Structure
I’m putting the three act structure first on the list since it is the most well known and classic of outline designs. Some would say that all (good) stories fall into this structure, even if the author doesn’t specifically set out with it in mind.
However, there are authors who will build their outlines around the three acts. Screen writers use this structure all the time, and many novelists have adopted it. For others it is more of a guideline that can be imposed on other methods of outlining.
There are several formulas to writing stories that can be followed as well. The Hero’s Journey (featured above) is one of the most famous, but if you look around, I’m sure you can find many more.
While “formula” is a four letter word for many creative types, I don’t think that following a story formula is necessarily bad, especially if your focus is writing popular mass market fiction. Why not follow along with a structure that has proven success? It’s your characters and perhaps setting that readers are going to want to hang around for anyway.
High School Style
Yes, ye olde traditional high school outlining style. You can use the classic Roman numerals and little letters to bring order to your fictional work as well. If this was something you found helpful during your schooling years, then maybe it’s worth trying it again for your fiction writing.
The Beat Sheet
Give a brief description of every scene or every beat of action throughout the story. I think this style is particularly useful for thriller stories since it allows the writer to really get a sense of the plot and how it evolves, and thrillers tend to be more plot heavy than other styles. This method may not work as well for stories that are heavily character driven and have less in the way of plot or action.
The Tent Pole Method
This is a much looser version of the Beat Sheet wherein you simply write out all of the major plot points, action sequences, or emotional high points that you want to touch on. Once all of the cool stuff in the story is down on paper, you can start putting together some ideas of how those moments might link together. Or you can just discovery write your way between each of the points, using the poles more as a road map for your creativity.
This is generally the outlining method that I use because I’m closer to a discovery writer than an architect, but I find that I still need to know where I’m going in a scene in order to get rolling.
The first step in this process is creating the plot arcs for the primary plot as well as all of the subplots in the story. Following that, the author can then break up the plots across chapters, making sure that all of them develop evenly and appropriately over the entire course of the narrative. Jenna Moreci provides a great example of this (video above) in which she uses color coded index cards to track the different plots. This could be done on a cork board or whiteboard as well.
J.K. Rowling used a similar sort of method when writing the Harry Potter series, but she ended up putting all of the developing plot lines into a sort of excel spreadsheet that has become a famous example of outlining around the web.
Unlike the Beat Sheet, writing an outline based on character arcs lets you follow the events of your story through the development of your characters as they progress through the tale. While stories like mysteries or thrillers often require specific kinds of events to unfold (collecting evidence,finding out who the murderer is, etc), other genres are focused more on character evolution, and this can be a great way to capture that in outline form.
Kim Chance provides an example of how this can work in the video above. She creates something of a flow chart based on character motivations, showing how the characters’ motivations change and how that affects their responses to certain events. I think this could be an especially helpful outlining method if you find that your characters are often slaves to your plot and end up feeling flat.
The Snowflake Method
Randy Ingermanson, also known as “The Snowflake Guy”, came to internet fame for designing a writing style known as the Snowflake Method. Inspired by a mathematics fractal problem, the method has authors start by creating the elevator pitch line that describes their stories and then slowly building on that to create a full back story, cast of characters, and finally an outline.
This is the most in-depth version of outlining here, I think, since it includes pre-writing in its process. It’s also somewhere between discovery writing and outlining. The idea is to organically develop an outline by discovery writing through that process to create one rather than sitting down and trying to methodically plot out all of the elements in a story in sequence.
If discovery writing isn’t your thing, or you’ve found your personal outlining methods lacking, perhaps trying one of these new approaches will jump start your productivity. Just remember that there are a variety of ways to outline a story and the only one that is truly correct is the one that works for you.
So which outlining methods are your favorite? Are there any you hadn’t known about that you think sound interesting? Or are there any that I didn’t mention that you’ve found work for you?
Let me know, and I hope you found this article helpful!
Author Chuck Wendig wrote a blog post that details many different methods of outlining. There are several here that I didn’t list in my own article above because I either don’t know enough about them, feel like their addition would be redundant, or don’t feel that they are really outlining methods (dialogue run through, I’m looking at you).
That being said, if you’re looking for more outlining methods or more ideas on ways to approach getting your plot together, then I think his list is pretty exhaustive and certainly worth a read.