Three Ways to Outline Fiction

Three Ways to Outline Fiction
Whether you’re a plotter or a pantster, the more you write the more likely you are to outline at some point. Outlining before, during or after your draft is finished can show you your story’s strengths and spot flaws.
Writing Tip for Today: Here are three ways to use outlining in your writing process:
The Pre-Outline
OK this is the same method you used in writing those dreaded high school papers, but with a twist. Think of your story as a beginning, a middle and an end. Where is your character at the onset? Using either chapter or scene divisions, plan out how you’ll move your character and story to the next major story event. Do this for the entire story before you write or opt to plan out one chapter at a time. The popular program Scrivener is a fancier version of this method.
The goal here is to help you move your story. What does this mean? Your character’s goal is far off at the opening. Think of a board game—you must move your hero closer to the goal with every square (scene or chapter). Without this kind of outline, you may waste time writing scenes that don’t move your story, are too digressive or just belong to another story altogether.
Please note that this PRE-Outline can and should change as you write, getting to know your characters, obstacles and story goals/motivations in depth.
The In-Progress Outline
Once I write about a third to one half of my story, I use this method to check my pacing and be sure subplots are represented in a pleasing ratio. If I’ve written too many scenes on the same event, my pace will feel slow. If I’ve zipped past important scenes, the pace will seem too fast. This type of outlining is often called storyboarding.
One easy way to do this type of outline is with a pile of sticky notes. Write one sentence summaries of your scenes on each note. Assemble them in order and step back. You’ll be surprised at how different your story looks now. You may spot redundant scenes, missing scenes, scenes with the wrong timeline or scenes that “march in place.” You can see at a glance how far toward the goal your character has come and compare it to the standard three-act structure.
Use a different color note for each subplot or point of view, and you can see places where you’ve overloaded these changes or skipped too far without bringing them in. Remember, readers crave patterns.
The Post-outline
After your draft has cooled off for a few weeks, go through your manuscript again, matching those sticky note scene summaries to your chronological story order. Use different colors for different aspects such as subplots, character arcs or plot points.
One nifty way to do this is with a tri-fold stand-up poster—like a science project display board. Use the three sections to map out scenes for Act I, Act II and Act III. If your story unfolds in a classic way, the middle section should contain the most notes.
Outlining for fiction isn’t every writer’s cup of tea, but even for us pantsters, an outline can help us speed up our revisions—and keep us from wandering down quite so many rabbit holes as we write.

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

2 comments on “Three Ways to Outline Fiction

  1. Linda, one of your best writing advice posts. Invariably when I’m about half way through I have to stop and start plotting. Thanks for your continual string of writing tips.

    Randy Hill

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