Outlining Your Story

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Outlining Your Story

One of the most daunting tasks a writer ever faces is to outline their work. We’ve spent so much time creating the fictive dream, developing our characters, crafting dialogue and description, that to reduce it all to a play-by-play, point-by-point overview of plot can seem an overwhelming challenge.

Somehow it hurts to boil it all down. And, let’s be honest, with everything going on in your story, it’s hard to know what to include and what not to.

Ya Gotta Do It

Still, outlining is necessary. Agents and Editors will thank you for a good chapter outline. It helps them give you notes, and sell your story to others. You’ll need a clear, tight synopsis when you’re querying agents and editors, too, and without an outline, you’ll be stuck weeding through your text page by page.

So, fellow novelists, let’s roll up our sleeves and learn how to outline.

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Outlining Methods

A Quick Method for Outlining

  • Put each story element on file cards
  • put them in the order you want
  • go through and tell the story to several people. Voila—story feedback without having written one word of prose! (From Robert McKee’s book Story)

Snowflake Method

Source: Randy Ingermannson at http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/

If you have a limited amount of time and need an outline before you write, this is a great method. I used it myself before my first NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).

In 10 steps, The Snowflake Method will give you a wide array of useful tools once you’re done. You’ll have an elevator pitch in the form of a one-sentence log line. You’ll have a full page synopsis. You’ll tackle character description, three-act structure, and you’ll really get to know your characters, including your villains, super-quick. Check out Randy’s website above. He also has a full-length book on The Snowflake Method.

Dan Wells’ 7 Points Method

Dan Wells, (author of the John Cleaver series), along with Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, and Howard Tayler, has a FANTASTIC PODCAST CALLED “WRITING EXCUSES.” He also has a useful method for outlining. You can find it on YouTube here. Using a Star Trek Role Playing game manual, Dan worked out how to outline any storyline in 7 points.

I love this one because it’s relatively easy to remember what the 7 points are, and how they work. It gets complicated when you realize that each of the story lines in your novel should have its own 7-point arc.

Dan Wells 7 Points Genres
Dan Wells 7-points applied to various genres

A Brief Breakdown of Dan Wells’ 7-Point Method

Here are the 7 Points:

  1. Hook – The hero has a sad boring life.
  2. Plot Turn 1 – Hero becomes a NEW ROLE.
  3. Pinch 1 – Bad Guy attacks.
  4. Midpoint – Hero learns the truth about SOMETHING and swears to defeat the VILLAIN/ANTAGONIST.
  5. Pinch 2 – Companions fail the Hero, and Hero is left alone.
  6. Plot Turn 2 – Facing VILLAIN, the Hero discovers the power is within him.
  7. Resolution – Hero defeats VILLAIN

Here are the 7 points, using Stars Wars: A New Hope as an example:

  1. Hook – Luke is misunderstood farm boy who longs to be a star pilot and have adventures.
  2. Plot Turn 1 – R2D2 plays Princess Leia’s distress signal to Luke. Luke brings the ‘droid to see Obi-Wan Kenobi, who gives him his father’s light saber and offers to teach him to become a Jedi. The Force is strong with him, and Luke is now a Jedi in training.
  3. Pinch 1 – Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are killed by Imperial Troops.
  4. Midpoint – Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are dead; Luke decides he wants to rescue the princess and join the rebellion and become a Jedi like his father.
  5. Pinch 2 – Obi-Wan Kenobi is killed in a duel with Vader.
  6. Plot Turn 2 – Luke turns off his targeting computer and uses the Force to drop the proton torpedo into the ventilation shaft and destroy the Death Star. The power is within him.
  7. Resolution – Death Star is destroyed. Rebel base is safe. Time to hand out some medals!

Wait, Didn’t A Lot More Stuff Happen in Star Wars?

Now, obviously, there is a lot more going on in Star Wars, A New Hope than the 7 points listed above. There’s Han Solo needing to escape Jabba the Hut. There’s the ‘Droids plot line as they squabble with each other and try to survive on Tatooine, being captured by the Jawas and sold to Luke’s Uncle Owen. There’s the plot line of the Rebels, and the stolen plans for the Death Star. There’s Princess Leia’s plot line in which she is captured and tries her best to save her home planet, but to no avail. Darth Vader even has a plot line of his own, in conflict with the more modern approach to evil represented by Governor Tarkin. Obi-Wan Kenobi’s plot line is important as he faces Darth Vader in an old school sword battle. He represents the entire world of the Jedi Knights. Star Wars was planned by Lucas to be an epic, so its plot lines are sprawling. But you get the idea.

A Fancy Spreadsheet For You!

I have used Dan Wells’ 7 points to create a Google Sheet. In it you’ll find the 7 points for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Star Wars: A New Hope, The Wizard of Oz (the movie), Pride and Prejudice, Othello, and The Telltale Heart. This shows how the 7 points can work for all genres. The only major genres missing here are Mystery and Suspense. At some point I’ll add those in.

Download the Spreadsheet HERE.

Chapter Outline Technique from the Editor of Harry Potter!

The chapter outline is a useful tool for when you are submitting a final manuscript to an editor. It will help them track all kinds of information in your story, from ages, to dates, to conflicts, to plot points. It will make the editor and the copyeditor your friend. You can also use it as a tool to refine and polish your manuscript before submission.

Plot like this on a spreadsheet:

Column headers:

  • Name of Chapter
  • POV Character – only one.
  • Location
  • Day, Date and Time
  • Conflict
  • One-line synopsis
  • Chapter Question – what question keeps the reader turning pages?
  • Key Plot Points Revealed

Fill in each of these for your chapters, one chapter per row, or, if you have complex chapters, one row per scene. Then go back through. It’s going to be easy to see if you don’t have enough conflict going in a chapter or scene. If you don’t, think about summarizing that section of the story, and saving the scene for the more dramatic moments.

For more on this method, see Arthur A. Levine Books Harry Potter editor Cheryl Klein’s Second Sight and her podcast (with knowledgeable screenwriter James Monoghan), the Narrative Breakdown. Cheryl is a rock star editor, and this podcast has wonderful stuff on all aspects of storytelling.

Best of luck plotting your stories! Do you have Outlining methods you recommend? Share them in the comments below!

Happy reading and writing!

–Margaret