How to Pick a Story Outlining Method
Updated: Nov 5, 2021
Tons of articles explain the different story outlining methods, but not many articles help you pick one. I hope to remedy that.
One of the biggest things I wish I knew a lot sooner as a writer is the importance of knowing your own brainstorming, outlining, and writing process.
For instance, I once heard someone say you should write your first book not to write a great book but to learn your process as a writer.
This seemed like such a waste to me! To spend so much time and energy on an entire novel, knowing it’s meant for the digital trash bin rather than readers seemed like such a colossal waste of time.
But I understand better what they mean now.
It’s not that you should spend time writing an entire novel only to throw it away. Rather, don’t give up on your first novel when it’s hard because you’ll learn invaluable things about your own writing process.
After all, trial and error is one of the best ways to perfect a practice.
I hope to help make this trial and error process go a little smoother so you can find your groove as a writer a little sooner.
Figure out what kind of planner you are.
Look at other aspects of your life, outside of writing, where planning is involved. Your preferred planning methods outside of writing will most likely reflect how you would want to plan and outline in writing as well.
Many writers like to spend lots of time planning and outlining their stories before they really get writing. But there are writers who don’t outline at all. The different types of writers are called pantsers, plotters, and planters.
Are you a Pantser?
Pantsers get their name because they like to write “by the seat of their pants.” Meaning they don’t plan before writing. Instead, they just get straight to writing. They might start with a character or an idea and just write to see what happens.
Are you a Plotter?
Plotters get their name because they like to plot, plan, and organize before they write. If you’re a plotter, you like to make an outline that will guide you as you write the story.
Are you a Planter?
Planters are someone who is both. Maybe for longer stories you do plot, but for shorter ones you don’t. Or maybe you do a little bit of plotting beforehand but not extensively.
What kind of planner are you? Do you like to fly by the seat of your pants and let spontaneity be your guide? Or do you like to think things through before you get to them? Or maybe you like to have some general ideas, but don’t like to overthink things before getting down to business.
Once you know what kind of plotter you are you can pick a method below for figuring out what kind of outline resonates with your writing process the most.
Method #1: Research Story Outlining Methods
The first technique is to learn about different story outlining methods and see which ones feel familiar.
While you’re learning about different story outlining methods that other writers use, one might resonate with you. Then you can use that one. Some writers are very self-aware, making it easier for them to know their preferred outline when they see it.
There are a couple of popular outlining methods that great authors who have gone before us use. Take a quick perusal over each one to see if any of them sound like a good fit for you.
The 8-Point Arc Outline
Point 1 - Stasis: Set the scene. For now, everything is calm and normal. Here is where you introduce the setting, the main characters, and how they live their everyday lives.
Point 2 - Trigger: Something happens. This is the triggering incident that leads the main character to go on a quest.
Point 3 - Quest: Every main character needs some kind of quest, journey, mission, project, or job. They have to put forth some kind of effort or struggle to overcome something or accomplish a goal.
Point 4 - Surprise: Every journey has conflicts. You might even have several conflicts or small hiccups in the journey or quest. But many stories have at least one major or main conflict that the story centers around.
Point 5 - Critical Choice: Your characters have to make choices throughout the story and all of those choices have consequences. Often there is a major choice that seriously affects the whole trajectory of the story.
Point 6 - Climax: usually the climax comes as a direct result of whatever choice the character made in the critical choice segment. This is where everything comes to a head. This is like the main event of the story that all the parts before now were leading up to.
Point 7 - Reversal: as a result of both the critical choice and the climax, some kind of change takes place. This might be a good or bad change, or a mixed bag. Here is where everyone starts experiencing the consequences of their choices and the end results of the journey for better or worse.
Point 8 - Resolution: now it’s time to reintroduce the new stasis after everything everyone has been through. Their home might be changed, they themselves might be changed. Here is when we reintroduce the new normal.
This is a great outline choice for very visual people.
You can make a web, a vision board, or even an actual map, especially if your story involves many different settings.
Mindmeister lets you easily create mental maps for your story, but some large pieces of paper will also do.
Synopsis or Summary Outlines
Synopsis outlines are all about making many summaries that thread together to make a completed story.
I actually really like this method. I like to start with a very small summary that basically consistuites my initial story idea. Then, I expand this summary to include the beginning, middle and ends of the story.
Many writers like to keep their summary outline about 2 to 3 pages long so they can easily go back to it over and over again as they write the actual draft.
Other writers like to use their summary outline as a kind of first draft that they then expand upon until their short summary becomes a complete novel.
Beat Sheet Outlines
Beat sheets are like summaries in bullet point form. Make bullet points for each individual moment in the story.
Bullet points are great for outlining because you can have endless amounts of sub-bullet points. If your story tends to include lots of subplots or minor moments within bigger moments then a bullet point outline is probably good for you.
This is like a summary outline without as many words. Instead of summarizing your story in a few paragraphs, summaraize your story in a few phrases. It’s almost like you’re outlining the story by writing the chapter titles first.
This is great because it doesnt restrict you with too many details. This form of outlining makes you more free to change things once you actually start writing.
Character based outlining is all about letting your characters arcs lead the story. Focus on creating your characters first and then let your character development guide the story.
The entire plot is driven by character development instead of events. This is a great outlining method for people who like to plan a little, but want to leave plenty of room for spontaneity.
It’s also a great way to make sure your character’s actions make sense throughout the story. This is because you won’t have to force them to act out of character later when you need an event to happen.
Outline your story scene by scene. When creating a scene-based outline, think of a movie and how a movie is a series of scenes. Use this set up to plot out each scene and then write them.
So if you’re a writer whose inspiration for stories comes mostly from envisioning different scenes and events, this story outlining method is probably right for you. Once you have all your scenes in mind, you can work on stringing them together effectively.
Tent Pole Outline
This is like a type of skeleton summary but with an extra step. Create your skeleton outline, and then add more details under each main plot point or “tent pole.”
The major plot points of your story are the tent poles that hold up the whole book. Then you add the rest of the tent through adding the rest of the details inbetween each tent pole.
This outlining method is similar to the Skeleton or Beat Sheet methods. It focuses on outlining the main plot points of the story first.
In a way, many of these popular outlining methods fall under two categories: outlines that start small and expand, and outlines that start big and trickle down. Some outlines focus on the major plot points and then fill in the rest while other outlines focus on the details first and let this build the rest of the story.
Chronological or linear outlines are when you focus on outlining your story in chronological order. If you love timelines, this outline method is for you.
Some stories are also more timeline heavy than others. Especially if different timelines are involved and need to be kept straight in order to avoid plot holes while you write.
The idea of the snowflake method is to start small and then build to something bigger. For instance, you might start with a small summary that’s only a sentence long. Then build that summary to be a page long. Then expand each section of your single page to be 5 pages, then 10 pages, then 20 pages, and so on until you have a whole book.
3 Act Outlines
This outline is really good for screenwriting. It is often used to outline movies and episodes of TV shows.
Act One has the very beginning of the story, the first inciting incident that gets our story going, and the story's first climax. Act one is the set up for the rest of the story. Here is when you’ll introduce important characters and aspects of the setting and universe.
Act Two is when real confrontation starts taking place. There are obstacles, ascending action, the middle point of the story, the big twist in the story, and the second climax. Here is where the action really commences and the characters struggle the most.
Act Three is the resolution to the story. There is the descending action, the wrap up, the resolution, the end in the third act. Here is when characters will either win or lose and experience the after effects of what happened and the choices they made in act two.
Method #2: Try Several Story Outlining Method
If none of these methods speaks to you then you might need to try a different method for choosing your ideal writing process.
Try writing a short story, nothing serious or extensive, with each outline type. By using each outline method you’ll quickly learn which ones you do and don’t like.
You might also discover your own hybrid way of planning and outlining a story.
Method #3: Make Your Own Story Outlining Method
Make up your own writing and outlining process! As you practice writing you’ll start to modify your process as you go.
You might find that you like using a giant sheet of paper to create a map of your world first, and then using the beat sheet method to outline the plot. Or maybe you like to start with an initial idea like in the snowball or summary method, but you like to also use the character-based outline to help your story be focused on good character development. It’s up to you!
My Story Outlining Method
It also helps to get ideas from fellow writers about their overall writing process. This is the best way to get really unique ideas on how to tackle writing and everything involved in making a finished book. Here is my current writing process (because I fully expect it to continue to change and evolve):
1. Initial Idea
First I have an initial idea. Sometimes these initial ideas will go in a Google Keep note, a page in my OneNote notebook, or a Google doc I have titled “Ideas.”
Once I’m ready to tackle a specific idea, I’ll take it out of where I first jot it down, and move it to its own Google doc.
2. Build the Introductory Set Up
Now it’s time to flesh out the initial idea to include some important parts. Here is where I’ll start making a comprehensive list of all the characters and their most distinguishing characteristics. Here is also where I’ll start thinking about the world they live in.
In this phase of writing, I’m mostly building the introductory set up for the novel. These are important elements that I need to have figured out before I can continue brainstorming the rest of the story.
3. Create Headings
I like to start with a bit of a skeleton outline first. I’ll make headings for sections of the story or main events in the plot.
I try to keep these headings as short as possible, much like chapter titles. They won’t necessarily end up being the beginnings of each chapter, but they help me as the writer know where each scene in the story is located in the manual.
4. Add Detailed Summaries
Now that I have the main pillars of my story set up, like the characters, setting, and major events, I can start expanding into the details.
As I work on this first draft I don’t worry too much about writing well at all. Instead I mostly focus on getting the story down in summary form, like the synopsis outline method describes.
5. The Second Draft
By the time I’ve finished writing a detailed summary of my entire book, I usually have around 20,000 words written. Much of this first draft might be summarizations, but for me it is easier to rewrite over a summary to make it read more like a book than it is to write well the first time around.
My writing motto is that editing is easier than writing, so give yourself something to edit. It’s much easier to edit bad writing than it is to write perfectly the first time. If you put that kind of pressure on yourself for a first draft, then you’ll end up not writing at all, which is a problem I struggled with for much too long.
When I’m ready to start my second draft, I like to change all of the text color to a different color, like green. Then, as I go through the first draft, making each paragraph sound better and read more like a real story, I change the font color back again. This is just an easy and fun way to keep track of my place as I transform my first draft into my second draft.
I then repeat this final step over and over again until I am happy with the story and have met my word count goals of 50,000 to 70,000 words.
What does your writing process look like? Do you use a specific story outlining method or do you have an outlining method of your own?
From one writer to another, I’d love for you to let me know!
Whatever story outlining method you use, you'll probably end up making your own tweaks to create your very own story outlining method and writing process. The creative process is a complex mysterious adventure that you get to journey on yourself. Have fun with the journey and never be afraid to modify your process whenever you need to!