Planning, Plotting, and Preparing – The 4 Step Outline
Not everyone is a planner. Some people prefer the thrill of seeing where the story takes them. If that sounds familiar, this article is probably not for you. This article is for my fellow planners, (and over planners) who like to know where the story is going before the narrative unfolds.
Still here? Then chances are, you are a planner, and you have an idea for a story. You know that making an outline and planning out the arc of your story is where you start. A good outline can help you develop your plot and characters, find plot holes before you get to them, push the story along, and keep you focused while writing. Unless you’re experienced with working with outlines, the prospect can seem pretty daunting. Where do you even start to make one? How much detail do you include for your plot? What about character profiles? Or world building? Can an outline be too long?
Some of these are questions that only you can answer, after all, every writer has their own process that works for them. But there are some simple easy steps you can follow for any outline that will help set you on your way.
Grab a piece of paper, or open you word processor – we’re about to get started.
Take a few minutes before anything else and write a couple short paragraphs explaining your idea. It doesn’t have to be super detailed or specific, and it doesn’t have to include all the major plot points. What is your story about? Jot down a few ideas about your story. Is it action? Science fiction? A horror story? A romantic drama? Give yourself a guide post so that you will remember what you’re trying to do. Who is your story about? Maybe list a few key features or traits of your protagonist, antagonist, and major characters. What is the motivation that will drive your characters through the plot? Is there a quest or goal associated with the plot? Try to keep it short. You’re not writing the story yet. All you need here are the main questions of narrative fiction; What, Who, and Why.
Step 1: Write 2-3 paragraphs describing the basic story.
After you have a good idea of the story you want to tell, start breaking it down, adding more specific details. You can consider these as “acts” or “parts” if that helps you. Here you’re listing out the major plot events for your story. Include the catalysts or moments that happen to your characters that move the plot along. Battles, injuries, important conversations, meetings with new characters – you want to make sure that you have the major events that create your story.
This is also your first chance to check your structure. Does the story make sense in this order? Does it drive your characters and push the plot along? Does the ending work? You can also start to look at where each act begins and ends so that your story is building on itself. Never underestimate the importance of narrative flow – the order of the major events that happen in your story can make all the difference.
Step 2: List the major events that drive your story along.
I know a lot of writers who start their outlines here. If that works for you, great. Personally, I find it helpful to know the major events beforehand so that I can use my scenes to tie it all together. In this step, you get to dive into the narrative. You already know what the action looks like. You’ve pictured it in detail dozens of times. Now write it down. Go back to your list of major events and begin adding descriptions that sum up where you want the story to go. Don’t fuss over chapter breaks or cliffhangers, you can add those later. For now, focus on the narrative and write out one or two sentences that describe the action of each scene.
Step 3: Using 1-2 sentences each, list out every scene in your story.
Once you’ve completed the first three steps, you should be able to read your story from beginning to end with all the same emotional highs and lows that will be in your final draft. You should love it now. If you don’t quite, rework it until you do. This step is where I can’t say enough good things about computers and word processors. I will copy and paste whole paragraphs and move them around as needed until it’s how I want it. If you are the kind of writer who prefers pen and paper, that’s okay. Try writing out your scenes on strips of scratch paper, sticky notes, or index cards.
If you put one scene per note, they will be portable and small enough to move around until you’re happy with the order. It is infinitely easier to edit your plot now than it will be once it’s over 50k words long. You will save yourself the trouble of multiple rewrites if you edit your outline first.
Step 4: Edit your plot structure and reorder scenes and events until you love it.
You now have a working outline for your story. This method will work for any story; novel, short story, essay, fiction, nonfiction, even narrative poetry. There is of course a secret Step 5: Writing – and that has a whole different set of challenges.