Writing Tip of the Week: Outlines – A Roadmap to “The End”

To outline, or not to outline? It’s an interesting question. Do you just have an idea for a story and then dive in and let your creativity drive you forward? Or, do you take some time outlining where the story is likely to go (at least in its primary iteration)? These are more commonly known as being a panster (someone who writes by the seat of their pants) versus being a planner (obviously, someone who plans ahead).  

Today, we’re going to talk about being a planner, so let’s get to it.

Where Do I Go?

As writers, we’ve all had dozens if not hundreds of ideas. But not all ideas evolve into cohesive and complete stories. One of the reasons many ideas tend to fizzle is that people have the idea, jump into writing it, then have no idea what happens next. While it’s great for the reader or viewer to be in the dark about what’s to come, the writer should have some idea where the story is going.

Having a plan, even a basic idea, of where the story is headed can help you stay on track since you’ll have a rudimentary framework. Even if you change things along the way, knowing you have an endpoint to move toward can help you get the story done.

How should you map things out?

Using Story Structure

In screenwriting structure, a story’s major events are broken down as follows:

• Inciting Incident

• Turning Point One

• Mid-Point

• Turning Point Two

• Climax

• Resolution

These represent the big moments or turning points in the story where big things happen that cause the main character to change course and move in a new direction. Whether you are writing a screenplay, novel, or play, these can be helpful events to write down in sentence form to create a basic outline for your story.

Using Big Moments

Perhaps you’re writing action, sci-fi, or fantasy, and you know several big sequences or events are taking place throughout the story. Take the time to write them down in the order they happen and include what characters are involved.  

These big events will likely coincide with the inciting incident, turning points, or climax mentioned in the previous section. Writing down the big action sequences can also help motivate you to craft a compelling narrative that links these big events.

A Story Problem-Solver

The goal of creating an outline is to help you not lose steam ten, fifteen, or twenty pages into your story. It can also help you see any big story problems before you’re 50,000 words into the story and find you have to cut 10,000 words because one of your plot elements hit a dead end.

Taking the time to outline can help you unravel story problems, fix any confusing elements, and ensure that your story has logic and coherence throughout. Even if you are writing a story meant to keep the reader guessing, you, as the writer, need to know what will happen.

Keep the reader in the dark, not yourself.

Like A Road Trip

Most people wouldn’t go on a road trip without some basic idea of where they’re going, where to get gas and food, and maybe some places to stop along the way. In the old days, people would have a paper map to draw their route from start to finish, perhaps highlighting or starring the points of interest.

Think of a story outline from the same perspective as planning a road trip. You have your starting point, points of interest, and your final destination. Will it go 100% according to plan? Probably not, but you can make the necessary adjustments and changes along the way in both situations.

Both situations take you on a journey that can lead to self-discovery, learning to deal with stressful situations and the satisfaction of getting to the end of the trip.  

Taking Detours

An outline is not an iron-clad document that is immune to change. If you want to take your story in a new direction, go for it. But take the time to map out the basics of where the story is headed with the new changes.  

This also allows you to play “choose your own adventure” repeatedly without having to write thousands of words, only to discover that the direction you chose doesn’t work.

Final Thoughts

A story outline in any form is a helpful and valuable tool for us to use when developing a coherent and solid narrative. By taking the time to map out where your story is headed, you can rest easy knowing that you have a plan to get from “Once upon a time” to “and they lived happily ever after.”  

Whether basic or detailed, story outlines are a must for any writer’s toolbox.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!