Writing

How to Outline Your Story

Image by mp-daly (used with permission)

Outlining can help storytellers plan their story, evaluate story structure, and save on revisions. If you’ve never outlined a story before, don’t fret; it’s easy to get started.

When to Outline

Most storytellers outline before they write the first draft so that they can review the story and revise it by changing their quick outline instead of rewriting whole pages. However, if you’re a discovery writer, you may not have a good feel for your story before writing your first draft. In that case, you can outline once your draft is done. Your outline will help you get a bird’s-eye view of your story and spot where it could use improvement. After you revise your outline, you can either revise your draft to match or dump your draft and write a new version based on your outline.

Outlining at Its Simplest

Simple outlines are a list of what happens in the story. Each item on the list should only summarize that event in brief so that you can glance through your outline quickly.

Compare this example of an outline and the rough story it’s for.*

Example

  • Sergeant Banks owns a deli meat shop that is going out of business because meat is falling out of the sky.
  • Banks refuses to try the meateors, even though everyone else eats them.
  • Banks tries to get a business loan to keep his shop going but is refused.
  • Banks sells all his valuables and gambles with the money, hoping to win enough to keep the shop open. He loses it all.
  • Now without the shop or his home, he has to couch surf. But he keeps getting in fights with his hosts over the meateors. He ends up on the street.
  • Out on the street, Banks gets really, really hungry. Finally he has no choice but to eat a meateor.
  • He loves the meateor, but with his extensive expertise in meat preparation, he realizes that just plain meateor isn’t as good as meateor that’s seasoned and prepared.
  • He starts cooking the meateors, and people line up. He gets a new shop that sells spices and sauces for the meateors.

The Meateor Story

Sergeant Banks’s livelihood went downhill with every meatball that splattered on the sidewalk. No one know where the persistent rain of meateors came from, but Banks was sure that someone had done it just to ruin his organic, grass-fed, hormone-free independent shop of the finest meat there ever was and ever would be.

Every day on his way to the shop, he witnessed another misguided soul eating the disgusting mix of mystery meat – right off the street! Then they had the gall to compare it to the deli meat he’d spent a lifetime perfecting. But oh no, he would not be taken in. He wouldn’t dignify it by taking a bite. Not one bite.

Banks hadn’t gone through ‘nam just to give up on the shop now. But a week after the meateors started falling, even his more devoted regulars stopped coming. He stood alone behind the counter, staring at the empty seats that had once been filled, watching his meager savings run dry.

So he put on his old plaid button-up, dusted off his leather shoes, and headed to the bank to ask for a loan. He just needed a little more time. A little more time, and everyone would realize his meat was the best meat.

But the white shirts and ties wouldn’t have it. All they would speak of was the “food revolution” and how he needed to join them.

“It’s a fad!” he told them. “Any day now, you hear me, it’ll go back to how it was!”

But they didn’t believe him. The meateor garbage didn’t stop falling, and the stupid imbeciles he’d once called friends didn’t stop eating it.

What would he do? The shop had never made him fistfuls – perfection came at a cost. Now he was almost bankrupt. He’d have to close his shop – his dream! There was one more chance. He sold his radio and his typewriter, and he even got a few bucks for that thinking machine he’d never learned to use. He put everything he had on the lotto. If there was any good in this world, surely he would win and carry on.

But again lady fortune twisted her damned knife in his gut. Not one ticket he bought got him money – not one! He didn’t have anything left to pay the mortgage on his house or the lease on his shop. He was cast out, forsaken. Sure, people let him in, gave him shelter. But then they insulted him by slurping those falling balls of rot right in front of him! He told them a thing or two about what was wrong with that, and they always answered, “Maybe you should try it,” as though that had to do with anything. Sooner or later, he left, or they pointed at the door.

His clothes grew holes, his jacket wore thin, his glasses shattered, and his hat was run over by a semi and then splattered with oil. He begged on the road for coins to get by. But whenever he asked for food, they told him to eat the falling skymeat. “I’ll die first!” he told them. But his stomach grumbled day after day, until finally even his leather shoes looked good.

“Maybe just one bite,” he said to himself. “I need something in my stomach. This filthy meat ruined me; it might as well save me now.” He shambled up to a meateor that had just fallen and grabbed a soft handful of the mushy meat. He scrunched his eyes, held his nose, and opened his mouth.

And it was… savory, tender, juicy… it was incredible! It was the best thing he’d ever tasted! Except… well, it needed something. A little spice, some tang, a little smoke. It could be seared, to give it some texture.

He grabbed all the meat he could carry and raced to the nearest park grill. There was some charcoal left over. He fired it up and cooked some meateor. It filled the park with the delicious smoke, and soon other park goers were lined up to have some. They gobbled it all so fast! But that was okay, there was more lying on the grass. He ran out of charcoal but the diners brought more. Then they brought him spices, onions, mushrooms, buns. He mixed up his own barbecue sauce, and then he mixed up more because it ran out. The sun went down and the stars came out before the park grew quiet.

The next day the bankers in the white shirts and ties gave him a loan for his own grill and line of sauces. “Welcome to the food revolution!” they said.

If this is your first time outlining, you don’t need to make the process more complicated than that. But in case you’re ready for more, I’ll list some additional techniques you can use.

Including More Information

Sometimes, an ordered list of which character does what just can’t hold all the information you need for your story. Additional information could include:

  • Notes on things that are mere details in the scene but are still important. Foreshadowing is a common example. If you don’t put these down, you might forget them when it’s time to write the scene.
  • Snippets of ideas for embellishing the event. Perhaps you’ve imagined the scene ahead, and the perfect line of dialogue came to you. Jot it down next to that event so you can include it at the right time.
  • Some analysis of the event to help you see which points might need to be strengthened. For instance, if you were using my When to Cut That Scene criteria, you might ask whether the event has conflict, if the viewpoint character will remember it in ten years, and if the events after it would be different if it was removed.

Here’s what the items in your outline might look like with more information added.

Example

  • Sergeant Banks owns a deli meat shop that is going out of business because meateors are falling out of the sky.
    • Notes: To make the conflict feel important, make it clear he’s had the shop his whole life and takes a lot of pride in it.
    • Snippets: “organic grass-fed hormone-free independent”
  • Banks refuses to try the meateors, even though everyone else eats them.
    • Notes: His motivation is that he’s a meat snob, and he’s offended when meat lying on the ground is compared to his handiwork.
    • Eval: This event has conflict, and it’s necessary for the rest of the story. Is it memorable enough?
  • Banks tries to get a business loan to keep his shop going but is refused.
    • Notes: The potential investors should tell him he has to adapt, setting up for later.
    • Snippets: Call it the “food revolution.”
    • Eval: This scene has conflict, and Banks will definitely remember the event. Nothing will be different if it’s removed though.

This is just a sample of the information you might include in your outline. You can add whatever you need to write more productively.

Adding Structure

If you want your story to follow a specific framework such as the hero’s or heroine’s journey, outlining can help you accomplish that. Just divide your list of events into the different stages of your structure.

As an example, I’ll show the meateor story outlined using my seven-step short story framework.

Example

The Problem

The deli meat shop is going out of business because meat now falls from the sky.

Who Has This Problem?

Sergeant Banks, the owner of the shop and a war veteran. He’s a meat snob.

Why Does the Problem Matter to This Person?

Banks has had the shop for a long time and takes great pride in it.

What Holds Him Back from Solving the Problem?

Because the free meat threatens to make his work obsolete, he resentfully refuses to try it or otherwise adapt to his changing circumstances.

Attempt #1 to Solve Problem

He tries to get a business loan but is turned down.

Attempt #2 to Solve Problem

He bets all his money gambling but loses it all.

Critical Turning Point

Living homeless on the street, he finally gets hungry enough to try the meat.

The Resolution

He loves the meat but decides it needs more spice and texture. His preparation of the meat is really popular, and he gets a new business doing that.

This format makes it easy to benchmark your story against the structure you’re working with and see if it fits. If you have lots of events under one headline and no events under another, it might be time to revise.

Creating More Layers

If you have a very long story like a novel, a flat list can grow to an unwieldy size. Plus, good novel structure usually includes story arcs at multiple levels. You could have a primary conflict for each scene, for each chapter those scenes are in, and for the entire book. Giving your list primary items and sub-items can help you represent this complex hierarchical structure.

Example

Sergeant Banks’s meat business is made obsolete when free meat falls from the sky. After refusing to change his ways, he finally tries the new meat, likes it, and adapts his business.

  • Sergeant Banks’s meat shop is threatened when free meat falls from the sky. He tries to ignore it, but his shop slowly goes out of business.
    • He refuses to even try the meateors, even though everyone else eats them.
    • He stays open as long as he can, thinking people will come back, but his coffers run dry.
  • Banks tries to get more funds to keep the shop open, but instead he just loses all this money, and with it the shop and his home.
    • He applies for a business loan to keep his shop going but is refused.
    • He sells all his valuables and gambles with the money, hoping to win enough to keep the shop open. He loses it all.
  • Destitute and out on the street, he is finally forced to try the meateors. He really likes them.
    • Now without the shop or his home, he has to couch surf. But he keeps getting in fights with his hosts over the meateors. He ends up on the street.
    • Out on the street, Banks gets really really hungry. Finally he has no choice but to eat a meateor.
    • He loves the meateor, but with his extensive expertise in meat preparation, he realizes that just plain meateor isn’t as good as meateor that’s prepared.
  • Banks starts a new business preparing the meat.
    • He starts cooking with the meateors, and people line up.
    • He gets a new shop that sells spices and sauces for the meateors.

Once you have enough layers, a bulleted list in a normal word processor can be hard to read. I recommend Workflowy for this type of outlining. It’s free, you can use it online or offline, and it allows you to expand or collapse the sub-list under each bullet.

Showing Multiple Plot Threads

Novel-sized works usually have more than one plot strand woven together. Secondary plotlines can include:

By default, events that fall under different plot threads will all be mixed together. That makes it difficult to examine your character arc or romance line without everything else in the way.

To view different threads, you can alter your outline in several different ways:

  • Workflowy allows you to add hashtags simply by typing them into an item in your list. Then if you click on a hashtag, it will filter your list to show only items with that hashtag, plus their parent items if your outline has multiple levels.
  • You can use notecards, putting each event on one notecard. Number and label these notecards as needed so you can tell the order of their occurrence in the story and which threads they belong to. Then when you need to isolate a specific thread for examination, just grab the notecards for it.
  • If you’re wedded to your usual text editor, you can at least color code them. Then you can scan for say, all the list items that are blue and read them in succession. But this doesn’t work well for events that are part of multiple threads.

For my Meateor story example, I’ll say that I want to track elements that reoccur throughout the story, such as the events that encourage Banks to try the new meat.

Example

  • Sergeant Banks owns a deli meat shop that is going out of business because meat is falling out of the sky. #meatexpertise
  • Banks refuses to try the meateors, even though everyone else eats them. #tryit
  • Banks tries to get a business loan to keep his shop going but is refused. #money
  • Banks sells all his valuables and gambles with the money, hoping to win enough to keep the shop open. He loses it all. #money
  • Now without the shop or his home, he has to couch surf. But he keeps getting in fights with his hosts over the meateors. He ends up on the street. #tryit
  • Out on the street, Banks gets really, really hungry. Finally he has no choice but to eat a meateor. #tryit
  • He loves the meateor, but with his extensive expertise in meat preparation, he realizes that just plain meateor isn’t as good as meateor that’s seasoned and prepared. #meatexpertise
  • He starts cooking the meateors, and people line up. He gets a new shop that sells spices and sauces for the meateors. #money

Establishing Scenes

If you’re writing a longer work and still getting used to pacing your narrative, it can be helpful to block scenes in your outline. Go through your events and decide which ones are important enough to be shown in a scene that unfolds in real time and which ones should be merely summarized. Then mark that in your outline.

For our example, I’ll say that I’m planning to expand the meateor story. Here’s what the first two scenes would look like blocked out.

Example

Sergeant Banks Learns About the Meateors

One days Sergeant Banks is proudly getting his shop ready to open. He finally flips the open sign. Then huge meatballs start falling from the sky. His regulars come in splattered by the meat. One of them tastes it, and says it’s delicious. Banks refuses to try it but the rest of his regulars do. They all run out of the shop to eat more, without buying anything.

Summary: His shop empty, Banks stands firm. He is sure everyone will get tired of the new meat and come back to his superior product. But weeks pass and his shop is still empty. He realizes this if something isn’t done, he’ll have to close his doors.

Sergeant Banks Visits the Bank

Banks talks to a loan officer. He tries to convince the officer that the meat shop has run into some temporary trouble, and if he just gets a loan it will all get better. The loan officer tells Banks the meateors are the way of the future, and to stay in business, he needs to join the food revolution. Angry, Banks storms out, determined to get the money he needs another way.

Summary: Banks goes through all his possessions, grabbing and selling anything he can spare that’s worth money. It’s still not enough to keep the shop in business for long.

With a more fleshed-out format such as this one, it’s also easy to include other items like reminders and snippets.


Outlines exist to support a writer’s work process, and every writer works a little differently. That’s why outlines come in so many forms. If you use an outlining technique that isn’t mentioned here, tell me about it in the comments.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

Read more about

 

Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    I seem to be a hybrid of sorts myself. I tried out doing detailed outlines, but found I couldn’t actually finish stories then – I need the discovery of the story as I write it. But I don’t start out with nothing but an idea, either.

    When I have an idea for a new story, I usually turn it over in my head for a while. Once I have a basic idea how it will run (or how the beginning will run), I open up a new document in Word, put up the chapters (simply by putting in ‘One,’ ‘Two,’ and so on with a page break between them), and write one line under each chapter, just a few words with the content I want to get into that chapter. It’s stuff like ‘going rogue’ or ‘assassination attempt’ or ‘killing the dog,’ just something I can work with, because I know how it fits into the story.

    Usually, I end up moving chapter content around before it gets written, as the story takes shape. I end up adding more chapters, I end up adding more content or not write something I put up at first, but those few words per chapter give me a basic idea where I am going without ruining the writing process for me.

Leave a Comment

By submitting a comment, you confirm that you have read and agree to our comments policy.