Story & Characters · Writing Insight

Writing Insights – How to Outline

I do a plan. I plan, I really plan quite meticulously. I know it is sometimes quite boring because when people say to me, “I write stories at school and what advice would you give me to make my stories better?” And I always say ­­ and people’s face often fall when I say ­­ “You have to plan,” and they say “Oh, I prefer just writing and seeing where it takes me”. Sometimes writing and seeing where it takes you will lead you to some really good ideas but I would say nearly always it won’t be as good as if you sat down first and thought: Where do I want to go, what end am I working towards, what would be good, a good start? – J.K. Rowling

As I mentioned in an earlier post, outlining (a basic form of planning) is one of the elements of craft. Granted, you don’t have to have a detailed, polished outline before you start drafting your story, but I believe J. K. Rowling has a point: usually better-crafted stories are ones that were planned.

Outlining 101
Every outline will be different for every writer but some aspects do stay the same. These similarities include asking three big questions:
How does the story begin?
Where does it go?
How does it end?

These questions reflect the traditional three-act structure: Act I is the starting point, Act II is the middle, and Act III is the finale. This is the most basic, yet most important, initial structuring you can do for your story. So from the start, it’s a good idea to jot down your story’s generalized beginning, middle, and end. It doesn’t have to be in-depth but it’s a good way to start conceptualizing an idea in your head.

Outlines can be as sparse or as detailed as you want. If you prefer to plot out big chunks of action and break them down as you write them, that’s fine. If you prefer to pinpoint every action, from large to small, then do so. You can even make use of visuals (such as bullet points) or compose an outline in regular full-text form. There is no right or wrong way to compose an outline, so follow your organizational inclinations.

Lastly, don’t necessarily start at the beginning. In many cases, story ideas begin as isolated scenes in your head; so write these initial portions first so you don’t forget them. You can rearrange them later in terms of where and when events should unfold. Once you have these scenes down, fill them in with smaller scenes and define your “bookends” (the opening and closing scenes) so everything ties together in a loose cohesive unit. But, again, this will probably change once you start to write.

Assets to Outlining
There are at least three good reasons why every story should, at some point, be outlined. The first is so you can determine the story’s destination, from start to finish. While events are likely to change (since some ideas sound workable on paper but do not pan out in the  overall story), you have a good idea of where you ultimately want to go in terms of the big picture.

Secondly, outlining enables you to identify your characters and establish their roles. Who is the protagonist and why? Where will this person end up by the end of the story? Who are this person’s friends or allies? Who is the antagonist? Why is this person pitted against the hero/heroine and what will be the final outcome? Naturally, there are other questions that will arise but these are good starting points when it comes to placing characters within your story’s world.

Lastly, an outline may indicate plot holes or areas needing revision prior to starting your story. Naturally, it’s hard to determine the exact course of your story before you write it. But seeing a story from start to finish can help you pinpoint missing scenes (especially those bridging major events), additional/unimportant scenes, and weak spots. So if anything jumps out at you while you’re reviewing your outline that seems  underdeveloped or unnecessary, pay attention to it – it just might be an issue you’ll have to iron out or omit when you’re actually writing.

Sample Outline: The Seven C’s
If you have a hard time just writing anything down, try this exercise. Consider your main character’s journey and break down the major events that occur to him or her, which I like to call the Seven C’s: Calling, Confinement, Commencement, Commitment, Catastrophe, Climax, and Cessation.

Granted, not every story follows this pattern but most do. (For purposes of example, I’m going to breakdown Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.)

Calling – The hero moves from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Internally he feels he no longer belongs in his (ordinary) world and receives a revelation that – surprise! – he actually belongs elsewhere.

Calling in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: Harry Potter doesn’t fit in with his Muggle (non-magical) relatives, the Dursleys. In time, he is approached by Hagrid, groundskeeper for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, who reveals that Harry is a wizard and has been invited to go to Hogwarts to study and refine his magical skills.

Confinement – The hero does not immediately begin his journey thanks to obstacles constructed by either himself or others. But he is being psychologically prepared.

Confinement in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: Harry isn’t immediately taken to Hogwarts by Hagrid. Instead, he journeys to Diagon Alley to collect his school things, then returns to the Dursleys until it’s time for him to leave. All the while, he’s being prepared to fully enter the wizarding world.

Commencement – The hero begins the journey. Along the way, he meet supplemental heroes and mentors and gets his first taste of the villain.

Commencement in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: Harry heads off to Hogwarts and meets his professors (with Albus Dumbledore and Hagrid established as mentor figures), makes friends (Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger), and acquires immediate “enemies” (Draco Malfoy and his cronies). But the haunting memories of Lord Voldemort, the chief villain, overshadow the story.

Commitment – The hero’s evolution continued and consists of training, testing, and/or advice. During this time, bonds with supplemental heroes and/or mentors become concrete as the villain comes closer.

Commitment in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: Harry is trained, tested, and receives advise not only in his magical studies but also in life, courage, and friendship. His bonds with Ron and Herimone strengthen as they get to know each other. But suspicions surface regarding who is trying to steal the Philosopher’s Stone, which is hidden  in the castle. Several failed attempts are made and Harry and his friends try to piece together who is responsible and why.

Catastrophe – The hero’s world is blown apart by an unforeseen danger as the villain moves in and one of the hero’s “team” dies or something valuable becomes lost (such as a physical object or something intangible like a sense of peace or security). In any case, it’s a time of do or die for the hero.

Catastrophe in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: Harry is convinced that Professor Snape is trying to bully timid Professor Quirrell into fetching the Stone. When Harry learns Dumbledore has left the castle, he knows he must act to stop Snape. He, Ron, and Hermione venture into the school’s bowels to catch Snape and face numerous magical obstacles along the way. But in the end, only Harry can go forward to face the thief alone, thus he loses the physical support of his friends.

Climax – The hero and the villain battle with the hero being victorious. What was lost is restored and the hero can rest for the moment.

Climax in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: Harry discovers that
[SPOILER WARNING!!!!] Professor Snape is not the thief! Instead, Professor Quirrell, under the direct influence of Lord Voldemort, is trying to obtain the Stone to bring Voldemort back to full power. Harry then faces his greatest foe and defeats him (for now). Harry saves the Stone from Voldemort’s clutches and is later reunited with his friends.

Cessation – The climax either serves as a gateway to a new journey – another heroic cycle – or it is a scene where the hero finds solace in a satisfying payoff since any immediate danger has passed.

Cessation in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: Harry’s adventures end as he leaves Hogwarts to spend the summer with his dreadful relatives. While the threat of Lord Voldemort lingers, the characters get a reprieve for the time being.

I hope this discussion regarding outlining has been helpful and maybe even inspired you to start jotting ideas down. What are your preferred methods of outlining? Feel free to share them in the Comments below!

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