Outlining your story is easily one of the most important parts of the process, and one that can sometimes be overlooked. For years, I thought I could get away with having a general idea and then jump into writing it and letting it evolve as I went along. It’s maybe no surprise to those who are avid outliners that I didn’t get very far with this method; I always seemed to lose traction and not know where to take things.
It seems like a simple revelation now, but when I finally realized how much an outline could (and would) help me fully realize and get my stories down, it was a game changer.
Even for short stories, outlines can be essential. They allow you to play around with the plot beats, move things around, and rework the story until it all makes sense and you’re happy with it. It saves you from scripting, editing, scrapping the whole thing, rewriting, editing, editing, editing, and editing some more. Most stories, short or long, will require edits and numerous drafts, but at least with an outline, you have a better skeleton to get your story off to a solid start.
Everyone’s outlining stage looks different but here’s what I do for my outlining process:
BROAD STORY DESCRIPTION
Once I have an idea that I want to develop further, I write out a plot description in a very loose format that tells me the general gist of the story. Kind of like what you’d see on the back of a book. I like having a broad sense of what the main story is, what the conflict will be, and the hook to readers.
This isn’t necessarily for everyone, but this is what I do.
From here, I like to use a good ol’ notebook and pen to jot down story ideas that will happen throughout the book. They may not be in “order” yet but I try to think about the characters, what I want to do with the story, and fill in gaps that will be inserted into the more detailed outline. Sometimes I come up with a great lead-in to the ending so I write it down so that I can add it in when I get to that part.
Once I have a better sense of what I want to do, and before I get to the outline, I like to write down questions that I still need to answer to tell a complete story. Things like, “How does my protagonist solve this conflict?” or “What is so-and-so’s main motivation?” or “How do I drive up the conflict and stakes within the story?” etc.
Having an idea of things that I still need to work on and address in early stages helps me to think about what the story is lacking and try to add more substance to it. Sometimes it’s simpler things like exploring what makes a character who they are, and how to build on it, but the more questions we ask ourselves, the stronger our outline (and eventually story) will be.
One thing that I do for long-form writing is breakdown my stories into chapters. I have ADHD so trying to think about my stories as one big chunk is really hard for me. I can’t remember bits and pieces and where everything fits together when it’s presented to me that way, so I break things down into digestible chapters. The chapters themselves may not make it into the final product but being able to pinpoint specific areas for each part of my story makes it exponentially easier for me.
This also makes it easier for me when I edit and work on a new draft of a story, but that’s an article for another time.
I try to think of my story and then break it down into the major beats that will form the skeleton of the story. Those will be the chapters.
This is the bread and butter of each story I write. I put together an outline that is just for me and includes what more or less works out to a plot point per 1-5 pages. It varies in level of detail; sometimes I know exactly what I want to happen in that particular section, including bits of dialogue, while other times I can leave it pretty vague because what I’m writing gives me a good enough sense of what needs to go there.
Your bullet point count can vary and include much broader strokes if you work better with less structure, but for me, doing a really extensive outline allows me to write my scripts pretty quick since most of the work on the structure has already been done.
For a 250-300 page YA project that I’m currently working on, I have an 8-page bullet point outline that’s over 4500 words long. It’s probably my longest outline to date, but after having a more bare bones one, I went back in and added additional plot beats to work in some early editorial notes.
PROFESSIONAL PITCH OUTLINE
Once I have the detailed outline, I use it to build a more professional plot synopsis for my agent or an editor to read. This goes into detail about everything that’s going to happen in the chapter but in a back-of-the-book kind of way. There’s more detail than what you’d see there and includes spoilers (editors want to know what’s going to happen, not the juicy version meant to entice readers) but with my extensive bullet point plot beats, this version of the outline is a piece of cake. Or at least easier than it would be without it.
As you can hopefully tell, outlining is extremely important to building a solid story foundation and being able to tell a cohesive story. Everyone’s process is different, but hopefully this helps give you a sense of what goes into at least one writer’s outlines and what each step entails.
There are lots of other steps that can come before or after the outline stage (ie. worldbuilding, character concepts and descriptions, settings, etc.) but this particular piece is focused solely on the outline part, which should at the very least be firmly before your scripting stage. Everything else is up to you!
How do you outline your stories? Leave a comment below or feel free to email us at email@example.com.
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2 thoughts on “How to Outline a Story”
really helpful advice. Thank you.
This is an interesting & detailed process! Thank you for sharing Stephanie! I’m always interested in how other writers outline their stories. I’m a first time comic book creator and for our 40+ page YA project (prologue & issue 1) our outline process for the first 20 pages (prologue) looked something like this:
1. STORY WORLD: I’m in the architecture field so starting with a setting made me feel very comfortable. It set the parameters for what I could do in our story. I see the story world as our foundation and the outline as our structure. A few months were spent just on world building and concept art sketches.
2. LOG LINE: I wrote as many log lines as possible that told our story in one unique sentence to hook the reader. For this project I wrote 30+ log lines of the same story idea. The log line changed throughout the process, and might still change slightly as our story evolves!
3. BRAINSTORMING NOTES/SKETCHES: I did a lot of loose ideas and sketches of characters, plot, dialogue, etc. The notes were written down on google docs and the sketches were drawn on my I-pad.
4. PLOTTING/STORY DIAGRAMS: I experimented with sketching and writing out plot diagrams, 3 act structure diagrams, story circle diagrams, rising action diagrams, etc. just to get some quick scenes, endings, and beginnings out of my head.
5. DOUBLE PAGE SPREAD TITLE OUTLINES: I organized our story in double page spreads and I wrote 3-6 words describing the main idea of each spread. I wrote many variations of these outlines. Sometimes I copied and pasted a part and then changed the ending. Sometimes I started with the ending and worked my way backwards.
6. DOUBLE PAGE SPREAD SENTENCE OUTLINES: I wrote 3-5 sentences that explain what’s happening on the spread.
7. THUMBNAIL/LAYOUT OUTLINE: For this project I sketched thumbnails and then the layout artist drew the layouts. I took the layouts and arranged them in a row on my I-pad. Then I experimented with shifting around pages to see how it would affect the flow of the story. I drew in extra pages and cut out layouts that didn’t make sense any more.
8. PITCH OUTLINE: Revisited the log line, updated it again, wrote down the main themes, conflicts, and a synopsis of the story in one paragraph.
NOTE: The Brainstorming is always happening on the side, especially with character goals and dialogue. But I’m keeping the dialogue separate for now until I feel more comfortable with how the story starts, progresses, and ends. Now I’m trying out a different outlining process for the next 20 pages that’s similar to your story breakdown but instead of chapters it focuses on scenes.