At their best, outlines can help you flesh out your most promising story ideas, avoid dead-end plot twists and pursue proper structure. And the greatest part? They save you time and prevent frustration. Sketching out your plot and characters in your first draft can take months of trial and error. Figuring out those same elements in an outline requires a fraction of the time—and then allows you to let loose and have fun in your first draft.
Let’s take a look at how to get the most out of the outlining process, beginning with the shaping of your premise and working all the way through to a complete list of scenes. (Note: Although this outlining method is one I use myself and highly recommend, keep in mind that there is no right or wrong way to outline a story. The only requirement is that you find the groove that works for you. If you start outlining and begin to feel the technique isn’t working for you, rather than denouncing outlines entirely, consider how you might adjust the process to better suit your personality and creative style.)
1. Craft your premise.
outlineYour premise is the basic idea for your story. But it’s not enough to just have an idea. “Guy saves girl in an intergalactic setting” is a premise, but it’s also far too vague to offer much solid story guidance.
This is why your outline needs to begin with a tightly crafted premise sentence that can answer the following questions:
• Who is the protagonist?
• What is the situation? What is the hero’s personal condition at the beginning? How will that condition be changed, for better or worse, by the hero himself or by the antagonistic force?
• What is the protagonist’s objective? At the beginning, what does the hero want? What moral (or immoral) choices will she have to make in her attempt to gain that objective?
• Who is the opponent? Who or what stands in the way of the hero achieving his objective?
• What will be the disaster? What misfortune will befall the hero as the result of her attempts to achieve her objective?
• What’s the conflict? What conflict will result from the hero’s reaction to the disaster? And what is the logical flow of cause and effect that will allow this conflict to continue throughout the story?
Once you’ve answered these questions, combine them into one or two sentences:
Restless farm boy (situation) Luke Skywalker (protagonist) wants nothing more than to leave home and become a starfighter pilot, so he can live up to his mysterious father (objective). But when his aunt and uncle are murdered (disaster) after purchasing renegade droids, Luke must free the droids’ beautiful owner and discover a way to stop (conflict) the evil Empire (opponent) and its apocalyptic Death Star.
2. Roughly sketch scene ideas.
Armed with a solid premise, you can now begin sketching your ideas for this story. Write a list of everything you already know about your story. You’ll probably come to this step with a handful of scenes already in mind. Even if you have no idea how these scenes will play out in the story, go ahead and add them to the list. At this point, your primary goal is to remember and record every idea you’ve had in relation to this story.
Once you’ve finished, take a moment to review your list. Whenever you encounter an idea that raises questions, highlight it. If you don’t know why your character is fighting a duel in one scene, highlight it. If you don’t know how two scenes will connect, highlight them. If you can’t picture the setting for one of the scenes, highlight that, too. By pausing to identify possible plot holes now, you’ll be able to save yourself a ton of rewriting later on.
Your next step is to address each of the highlighted portions, one by one. Write out your ideas and let your thoughts flow without censoring yourself. Because this is the most unstructured step of your outline, this will be your best opportunity to unleash your creativity and plumb the depths of your story’s potential. Ask yourself questions on the page. Talk to yourself without worrying about punctuation or spelling.
Every time you think you’ve come up with a good idea, take a moment to ask yourself, “Will the reader expect this?” If the answer is yes, write a list of alternatives your readers won’t expect.
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3. Interview your characters.
In order to craft a cast of characters that can help your plot reach its utmost potential, you’ll need to discover crucial details about them, not necessarily at the beginning of their lives but at the beginning of the story.
To do this for your protagonist, work backward from the moment in which he will become engaged in your plot (the “disaster” in your premise sentence). What events in your protagonist’s life have led him to this moment? Did something in his past cause the disaster? What events have shaped him to make him respond to the disaster in the way he does? What unresolved issues from his past can further complicate the plot’s spiral of events?
Once you have a basic idea of how your character will be invested in the main story, you can start unearthing the nitty-gritty details of his life with a character interview. You may choose to follow a preset list of questions (you can find a list of more than 100 such questions in my book Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success), or you may have better luck with a “freehand interview” in which you ask your protagonist a series of questions and allow him to answer in his own words.
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