Adventures in Outlining

Image by Лариса Мозговая from Pixabay

I didn’t used to outline my stories, although I always did a lot of planning in advance–freewriting about my characters, my world, etc. Then I decided to give it a try on a short story that I was having trouble with. The plot was getting stuck and I didn’t know where to take it next, so I decided to stop trying to write the whole thing at once and break it down into parts and scenes.

That worked out well, so I kept up the outlining method when I started my novel. I attended a writing workshop on outlining recently, and the author (Margo Kelly, talked about a few authors’ outlining methods.

She used Janet Evanovich, Blake Snyder, and James Patterson as references, going from the shorter outlining technique to the longest. What I found most interesting is that I’ve been doing a combination of the three.

Janet Evanovich’s “Timeline” approach results in an outline only about 5 pages long. It includes basic info on the characters and their motivations, the setting and inciting incident, and an overall timeline of events (including the start and finish, and important happenings along the way).

Blake Snyder’s “Beat Sheet” method sets the timeline up closer to a 3 act story structure. The beginning part covers the initial set up and the catalyst that gets things going. Once the main character(s) commit to the story, it also covers a B Story, or the story of other characters in the book. That’s followed by a bunch of exciting (hopefully) stuff happening, after which the midpoint is reached. Then things start working to a climax as it gets progressively worse for the protagonist(s). Finally, the main story comes together with the B story, leading to a resolution.

Of course, all this stuff would happen if the Timeline approach was used as well, it’s just more broken down and written out in Snyder’s version.

Finally, James Patterson’s “Comprehensive” method is just huge. This outline is broken down by chapters, or even scenes. A brief bit is written for each scene, and it doesn’t have to be in order; it can all be shuffled around later. The outline is then gone over again, with what happens to the protagonist along the way added in. Next time over, secondary characters’ info is added. More plot details are added as well. Eventually it should pretty much detail the whole book, and the writing of the book is just filling in bits.

When I wrote my novel outline, I separated it out into sections (part 1, part 2, part 3), and wrote out the overall events/goals in those sections. Then I went back and added in more timing-specific events, like the events leading to the breaks into acts 2 and 3. This was all after figuring out my characters and the plot by freewriting, basically talking to myself in written form.

Whenever I got stuck on my novel, I went back and filled in more details on my outline, so that when I went back to the novel I had more notes to fill in. Although I never got up to the detail of James Patterson 🙂

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