Try These 3 Methods of Outlining to Better Organize Your Story, and Make Your Writing Easier to Navigate
Want to start outlining your story, but don’t really know where to start?
Do you have a bunch of ideas, but you need help organizing them a bit?
Are you unsure if you even WANT to use an outline, and wanna see if it’s right for you?
Well, today I’m gonna talk about 3 methods of outlining that can help you organize and navigate your writing!
We’re going to discuss what outlining is, how to use some methods, and why you might want to use an outline.
Let’s start by answering the 2 most important questions.
What is outline, and do you need one?
What is an outline?
In simple terms, outlining (or plotting) is the process of writing all the events of your story in chronological order.
There are a variety of methods and formats you can follow, but that’s the basic idea.
Some methods have the lines between brainstorming and outlining get a little blurred.
My impression is that outlining has two basic stages:
- Compiling ideas
- Putting ideas in order
I think the main distinction is:
- Brainstorming is coming up with the ideas.
- Outlining is putting them in a single space.
Although, to be honest, I come up with ideas as I’m compiling them.
So I suppose the lines will always blur to some extent.
Regardless, they’re like notes to help you both understand and track what’s happening as you write.
This way, you don’t have to think of ideas while you’re writing, and you can have a bird’s-eye view of your whole story.
It also allows time to weed out plotholes early in the writing process.
This gives you a chance to look at what you’re writing before you write it, and maybe save you some time later in the writing process.
Do I need an outline?
This is a debated topic, but it really comes down to what helps you write your story.
If outlining helps, more power to ya’.
But if you find yourself frustrated using an outline: you don’t have to do it.
Outlining isn’t a requirement, it’s a tool to make writing easier.
If the tool doesn’t help, you don’t gotta use it.
It’s as simple as that.
I remember a long time ago when I was but a wee worm, I would read a blog by R.J. Blain on writing tips.
She wrote a blog post on her experience of both outlining and not outlining her books.
She found that both ways worked, it was just a matter of whether you spent more time editing or outlining.
At least, that’s what I remember.
Unfortunately, that blog post doesn’t exist anymore, but she still has a blog where you can find posts about creative writing!
But I digress.
However you choose to write should be what works best for you.
Okay, let’s talk about different methods of outlining.
Methods of Outlining
So outlining isn’t complicated.
It’s not easy, but it’s not rocket science.
It’s kinda like a large writing to-do list, or a very detailed summary of your entire story.
Or a semester’s worth of notes, but the only subject is what happens in your story.
Similar to lists and notes, there are many methods and formats you can use.
Some help your plot hit story beats, and others are purely for organization.
Today, I’m going to focus on the organization.
I’m not going into TOO much detail about plot, I’ll be doing a blog post on that next week.
With that said, how do we organize your story?
Well, there are plenty of methods.
Since outlining is just organizing your story’s information, you don’t have to follow any strict organization method.
Make one up, use parts of the methods below, or don’t use one at all.
Again, these are tools to help your writing process.
But as an example, I’ll talk about 3 methods that I’ve learned in my creative writing journey.
Let’s have a look.
Classic Writing Outline
Ah, the classic outline format.
Yes, I know that doesn’t make sense, but roll with it anyway.
It’s essentially a format that breaks your story up into several sections.
There will be the main idea, with supporting ideas beneath.
If you’ve ever outlined an essay for school, you might’ve seen it before.
It looks like this:
1. (main idea)
2. (main idea)
3. (main idea)
You could put an entire chapter in the “main idea” section, and all the scenes that happen in that chapter in the “details/support” section.
Or the “main idea” could be each scene, and the “details/support” could be specifics about the scene or notes to keep in mind.
It entirely depends on how detailed you want your outline.
To start the process, grab all your brainstormed ideas and compile them into a single document (paper or digital).
Then start plugging ideas into the outline where you feel they work.
If you wanna get fancy and use the 3-act structure, you can find the three key turning points (or acts) in your idea compilation and format it like this:
Now, you don’t specifically have to use the 3-act structure in your story, this is just an example.
I’ll most likely cover the 3-act structure more in-depth in the plot blog post next week.
But for now, let’s look at the bakery story from last week’s brainstorming post as an example.
1. The Thief has a life-long dream to open a bakery (instead of stealin’ and scammin’), and then they find the tastiest muffins at a new local bakery.
They want these legendary muffins for their own bakery success.
a. The opening scene is the thief attempting (and failing) their latest scam.
b. After a frustrating day of not getting takers, the thief enters a new bakery that opened recently.
c. They get the muffins because it makes them nostalgic for childhood, and the first bite reminds the thief of their dream to own a bakery. d. The thief asks for the recipe, but the baker says it’s a family secret. The thief decides then and there that they’re going to steal this muffin recipe, and open their own bakery brimming with these legendary muffins.
2. The thief comes up with a plan to steal the muffin recipe.
They also swing by the bakery every day for muffins, and end up getting to know the baker better. The thief feels reluctance to robbing the bakery, but is desperate for their dream to come true. They continue with their planning.
a. The thief spends the next few weeks making plans and buying muffins.
b. The thief ends up talking to the baker more and more, learning a bit about the baker’s life.
c. One day, the baker even offers to teach the thief how to make some of the recipes (not the secret family muffin recipe). The baker ends up explaining the importance of the muffin recipe They’ve become friends.
d. The thief has conflicting feelings about stealing the recipe and betraying his new friend, but feels desperate for their dream to come true. The thief can’t see themselves as anything more than a thief. So they decide to go through with it.
3. With the plan in place, the thief breaks in. With a guilty conscious and a moment’s hesitation, they end up caught. But the baker decides to show mercy and ask if they’d like to also work at the bakery. The thief accepts, and they became best friends who bake the tastiest muffins together. The end.
a. The thief lockpicks the back door that leads straight into the kitchen. From previously being in the kitchen, they know that there’s no security system. But after one of their many conversations, the thief does know that the recipe is in the basement vault.
b. The thief opens the basement door, taking each step slowly and quietly. They find many ingredients, a couple of broken chairs, and (under sacks of flour) the vault. As they stand in front of it, they think about their friend and their story.
c. While they hesitate, the baker suddenly speaks to them from behind. The baker says they figured this would happen, and wanted to see if the thief would hesitate. The thief apologized and the baker forgave them and offered them a job at the bakery. The thief accepts.
d. The baker and the thief are now close friends, and they’ve been running the bakery for years together. The thief still doesn’t know the muffin recipe, and they prefer it like that. They got something so much more important than muffins. The end.
Now, this is by no means an incredibly detailed or perfect outline. I just wanted to give you an idea of how to put one together.
You can put as many or as few details as you’d like.
Remember, you’re working on a first draft, and changes will inevitably happen as you write.
Again, outlining is a tool.
So don’t feel like you’re outlining “wrong.”
As long as your tool helps you write, that’s all that matters.
Sticky Note/Note Card Method
This method has a couple of iterations, but the idea is basically the same:
Write all your brainstorming ideas on sticky note/note cards, and then organize them in some sort of coherent fashion.
Pretty simple, right?
I learned this method from both “Your First Novel” by Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb, and Jenna Moreci’s video on outlining.
So these will be what I’m referencing while I discuss this method.
But please go check out both of them!
They’ve both been greatly informative for learning about writing, and deserve a lot of love.
I recently found out that they’ve republished “Your First Novel” with updated, expanded information. So check that out if you get a chance.
But enough of all that, let’s talk about how this works.
Whether your ideas are from long brainstorming sessions, a bunch of scattered notes, or an idea notebook:
You wanna start your outline by organizing all those ideas.
Take all those ideas, and transfer them onto sticky notes or note cards.
Then you want to spread them out on the floor, a table, or hang them up on the wall.
Just don’t do it on a bed.
Both Laura Whitcomb and Jenna Moreci have mentioned that it can end with your notes thrown about or knocked down.
If you want them in a neat and moveable way, Jenna Moreci took a bunch of sticky notes, and put them on a poster board.
When I had attempted this method, I got one of those tri-fold display boards.
That way I can fold it all up, and put it away.
And yes, it can screw up your notes with folding and bending if you place them on the seams.
Use at your own risk.
If you want to do the same with note cards, you can use some tape.
Or if you have a cork bulletin board, you can just use tacks or push pins to hold the notes in place.
Once you’ve gathered all your sticky notes, you’ll want to start thinking about how your story looks so far.
With an overview of your story, you have an opportunity to see where you need more details, to rearrange scenes, or to change something that doesn’t work.
You wanna fix those now before you move on to writing your full outline.
Once you’ve worked out all the issues in your story, it’s finally time to outline!
Take all your ideas and write them down chronologically (or not, if you feel adventurous) in either a writing document or onto paper.
I personally like to write everything down on loose leaf ruled paper, but do whatever works for you.
I also use bullet points so I can make notes underneath a paragraph. That way I can always know how everything relates, or maybe have a small thought that I should keep in mind later.
But again, write down your outline in whatever format you like.
If at any point in creating an outline you find more issues, that’s fine!
Leave a small note on the side, or if it’s a bigger problem, go back to earlier parts of the process and redo them to make your outline work.
This is part of why it’s better to make an outline on your computer: it’s not hard to move those changes around.
After all that, you’re finally done!
You are now the proud owner of an outline.
You may go forth into the world to write your first draft.
The Map Method (My Own Method)
Finally, the time has come for my own method of outlining!
I have previously talked about this method in my brainstorming post last week.
And I’d like to talk about it again from the angle of creating an outline.
The basic idea is to draw a map, then add sticky notes to the parts of the map where the character(s) are and what they’re doing.
And make sure to number the sticky notes!
I made that mistake after I had many sticky notes stacked in an area, and realized that it would really help to know the order.
After a while, my map kinda starts looking like I’m planning a heist.
When I have my ideas on sticky notes, I start trying to figure out how my story plays out.
Once I have my story figured out, I can then compile all the information onto separate sheets of paper.
And boom, outline done!
Now, I’m sure I’m not the first person who’s done something like this.
I just started outlining like this recently ’cause it’s what I needed for my writing.
While writing this post, I tried looking into others who might outline like this, but I can’t find anything in terms of outlining a story.
I’ve found that when talking about “mapping” or a “story/book map,” it means something else.
Although, this post briefly mentions something similar under the “Setting” section.
The closest I could find was actually a guide on how to build a world for DnD.
I have never played DnD, but I thought that was interesting.
If you ever find yourself struggling with other methods of outlining a novel, maybe try looking up DnD character/world-building methods.
It’s another form of storytelling, so I can see it being helpful.
If anyone knows other map-drawing styles of outlining, let me know in the comments! I’d like to continue researching it.
But getting back to the method, it’s time to draw a map!
Draw a rough map of the places your characters will go.
It doesn’t have to look pretty, you can use simple shapes like squares, circles, and triangles.
Here’s an example of one from my Brainstorming blog post:
Your map can be as big or small as you’d like, but I’d say start with a smaller simpler one.
This is in case you need to move objects or buildings around as you learn about your story.
If or when you want a bigger map, I would recommend taping several pieces of printing paper together, or cutting off a large piece from a roll of banner paper.
Don’t do what I did and STAPLE the printing paper together.
It wasn’t a disaster . . . but it’s uncomfortable and weird to fold up.
Now, similar to the sticky note/note card method, you can write all your ideas down and place them on the map where the idea or scene is happening.
But I personally use the map to brainstorm and help me ask questions by visually seeing all the possibilities.
As you learn about your story, you’re most likely going to rewrite the ideas until you have a flow that works.
That’s fine and normal!
Your story will change and evolve as you learn more about what does and doesn’t work.
That’s why I like using sticky notes.
They’re not difficult to rewrite and re-arrange over and over again.
So with all that in mind, let’s go over an example of how the map works.
Say you have a story with a knight, and they stop at a small, abandoned farm amid their travels.
They heard there may be a connection between this farm and their quest.
So they begin poking around.
So you draw the map of this farm. It has a house, fields of dead crops, a barn, and a shed.
When looking at the map, you may start asking more specific questions.
Such as, what are the important clues related to their quest, and where would they find them?
Does the knight find a lock box in the barn, but can’t find the key? Do they leave the barn to check in the shed, and find the key there with a note? What does it say, and what’s in the lockbox that the knight needs so badly?
Or could you just have the lockbox in a crate full of other junk? The knight searches further in the crate, and they find it along with other trinkets (like a journal, or maybe a coin from another kingdom). Why are these things important, and what meaning do they have to the overall story or the knight themself?
Although, maybe the first idea works, too.
This story could be a horror, and you want to build suspense.
Maybe after searching the barn and entering the shed, the knight finds the body of the farmer holding the key and a note.
It kinda depends on what type of story you’re telling.
To me, having a map helps me see where important objects are, where I can make discoveries, and what connects to the rest of the story.
So give it a try!
Look at your map, and ask as many questions as you can.
Write them down on your sticky notes, and place them where they belong.
Once you’re happy with all the notes you have placed around the map, and how the story is playing out, you can finally write the outline!
This part is simple, and again, similar to the sticky note/note card method.
Write everything in chronological order, either on paper or on your computer is fine.
Again, put it in whatever format works for you. I think bullet points are pretty simple if you’re unsure.
The classic outline format I have listed first in this blog post is another format you can use.
Remember, your story might STILL need adjusting as you write up your outline.
That’s, once again, fine and very normal.
Adjust your outline as much as you can stand, and move on to writing your first draft.
Chances are, your first draft is still gonna need some revising.
You don’t have to make the perfect outline here, it just needs to be enough to start writing the story.
Outlines are there to help you, not another hurdle in the perfectionism Olympics of writing.
If you get to a point in outlining where you’re happy with what you have, go ahead and dive into the first draft.
As long as it’s serving you, that’s all that matters.
Why Should I Use an Outline?
Outlines are a great way to keep you on track, better understand your story, and make writing easier to navigate.
They help me have goals to work towards, and think creatively as I’m plotting my story.
In saying that, I’ll reiterate this once more: you don’t NEED an outline.
Let’s pause for a sec and talk about plotting vs. pantsing.
If you’ve done research on creative writing, you might’ve come across the plotting vs. pantsing debate.
If you’re unaware of what those things are, I’ll give you a quick explanation.
I might do a fuller post on it someday, but put simply:
Plotting: outlining your entire story’s plot before writing the first draft.
Pantsing: writing with little to no plan, and seeing what happens (a.k.a. “writing by the seat of your pants”).
The debate, to me, is kinda pointless.
An interesting conversation, but there’s no need to say one is better than the other.
‘Cause here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter which way you write your story.
Writing a story, no matter the length, is incredibly difficult.
If writing out the entire plot helps you finish your story, do that.
If writing the plot as you go helps you finish your story, do that.
The only difference is where you spend more time during the writing process.
And if one way works better for you, then that’s all that matters.
As I said in the beginning, an outline is a tool.
The tool CAN benefit you, but if it doesn’t, then don’t worry about it.
I like outlining.
I like planning, and knowing where I’m going before I jump into writing.
Otherwise, I get stuck or bored or quit if I don’t have a plan.
And maybe having a plan gives you the same problems.
I remember I used to get stuck a lot when I either just jumped in without a plan, didn’t fully understand how to plan, or plain ol’ didn’t believe in myself to make a good plan.
I’d rather other writers not feel the same, or at least have one more push in THEIR personal right direction.
So whether you found tools that can help you with your writing, or you’ve realized that they don’t work for you, I hope you got something out of this post.
May your future writing endeavors be a little easier.
Thanks for reading, and happy writing!
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