Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Outlining: The Simple Version

There are typically two types of writers: outliners and pantsers. I'm both, though I tend to favor the former over the latter, more so the older I get.

An outline is a tool, a very valuable tool, especially if you want to finish a story or revise one. You pull back from your intimate perspective of the story and contemplate the big picture. Today, I'd like to share a very easy and basic outline (there are several different ways to outline so this is by no means the only way to go.) It came in handy for me for National Novel Writing Month a couple of years ago, and is easy enough, yet vague enough, for a pantser to use. You may have heard of it before or some variation of it. I compiled suggestions from three other writers to come up with this. Bear in mind, this primarily works for genre fiction.

1) Write down in one or two sentences what the main plot or storyline is. Whether it's a thread of romance, a mystery, a goal, a natural disaster, an internal or external conflict. What is the main story of the book?
2) Write down in a sentence or two what the subplot(s) is/are.
3) Follow the outline guidelines for each plot thread. Put a star by parts where one or more of these threads join or boomerang off each other. (Hint: these are your nodes of conjunction, powerful places in the story that give readers an “A-ha!” moment.)

Title the outline: Main Plot, Subplot A, Subplot B, etc.
Part I or Act I:
1) Write down the inciting event of that plotline briefly. What gets this plotline moving?
     a) What's the problem?
     b) How is the protagonist embarking on change?
2) Write down the protagonist's first attempt to fix the problem or achieve his goal.
     a) Failure & consequences.
     b) What new insights does the protagonist gain?
     c) What is his new plan to tackle the problem or goal?
     d) Create a doorway of no return to the way he was at the beginning.
Part II or Act II:
1) Write down the protagonist's second attempt to fix the problem or achieve his goal.
     a) Failure & consequences.
     b) What new insights does the protagonist gain?
2) The Worst Happens.
     a) Reaction & inner development.
     b) What is his new plan to tackle the problem or goal?
     c) Create another doorway of no return with ultimate stakes involved.
Part III or Act III:
1) Climax--third attempt to fix the problem or achieve the protagonist's goal.
2) Resolution--the change in the protagonist is completed and promises are fulfilled. They've either reached their goal and solved the problem or found a way to deal with not having done so.

What I think this outline does best is give some direction to the story, helps keep a focus on the key beats of the story, and yet leaves plenty wide open for new developments, surprises, and all the other little things that may creep in that make the story unique and fresh. Taking an hour or so to write out this simple outline adds focus to the writing process. One thing to always keep in mind with an outline: it's not set in stone. If you reach a point and find something doesn't work, rip it out, or put something new in. An outline is a basic set of directions aimed at getting you, the writer, to the end of the story without missing any of the key happenings or developments. Outlines help stories reach conclusions and not get filed away in the Started But Didn't Finish File.

Also of note, you may add extra sections if the story is more complex. If there is more than one doorway of no return, or more than one major development in any Part/Act of the story. Specific genres do have certain formulas or beats to follow, and readers expect these. How you write the story, the voice, and the unpredictability of plot twists are some of the ways you can stand out from predictable formulaic fiction.

I have plenty more types of outlines to share in the future. This one is the simplest and in some ways the most straight-to-the-heart of them all.


  1. I'm a pantser, but I think I can benefit from outlines. Thanks for the tips! I bet outlines also help when making the dreaded synopsis.

  2. This is awesome, Clip! I'm always on the lookout for outlining tips - I can't seem to find that happy medium between planning and pantsing... :P

  3. Thanks cherie and Riley. I'm glad you found it helpful. It was the easiest outlining format for me to use too.

  4. I am so bookmarking this page for when I'm outlining the next one!!! THANKS!!