How Do I Outline?

Posted June 19, 2014 by Amanda Shofner in Writing / 2 Comments


During the previous The Writing Sidekick, someone asked this question (or one very similar to it) and it’s one worth exploring, especially with another TWS on the horizon.

Let’s set aside the pantser versus plotter debate. Outlining isn’t necessarily plotting

It’s like the whole square and rectangle issue. A square (plotting) is always a rectangle (outlining), but a rectangle (outlining) isn’t always a square (plotting). Whether you’re a pantser or plotter, you’ll benefit from a little story and character preparation.

You don’t need to know about your story or character before you write, but not knowing when you start means more work during edits as you work to piece everything together coherently.

With that in mind, here are two rudimentary ways to outline:

Outline, version 1: the story synopsis

Yeah. That thing you read at the back of the book? That’s a good rough outline. To make it thorough, write down everything—even the ending. Just don’t show it to anyone.

Points to include are characters, setting, the major problem. More information is better; the synopsis is for you, not potential readers, so spoilers don’t matter.

Outline, version 2: individual character bios

If you’ve read Wired for Story, you’ll know I’m pulling the example here. Because stories are driven by characters, knowing what motivates and drives your character provides a framework for how the characters interact with each other.

This usually means you must know the event (or events) in their past that affects how they react—because their reactions shape the plot.

[Bonus] Outline, version 3: a mash-up of both versions

I have a mystery idea where the main character returns to his hometown years after he’s acquitted of murdering his wife. I’ve written an overall story synopsis, character bios—and an account of the original murder.

The murder, though it happened years before the story takes place, influences everything my character does in his story. Keeping a record of those important events helps me tackle the story.

How do you outline?

Tags: , ,

2 responses to “How Do I Outline?

  1. I love the square/rectangle comparison! That’s got to be the best way I’ve heard it said before. I always struggled with how to explain to writers that they didn’t need to know every single plot point, but having a plan is always a good idea. Now I can just send them here. 🙂

    • Success! I’ve used the square/rectangle comparison with other topics before, but never has it worked so well. And I think once people realize that an outline isn’t plotting, the whole idea of preparing your story becomes less awful.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.