Outlining Your Story: A Complete Guide

Some writers like to keep it spontaneous – they start a story with just a blank page and a single idea in their head. Others make a truckload of notes prior to the draft, often extensive enough to be archived in their own right as notes (as with Joyce Carol Oates). I’ve tried it both ways, and multiple times for each. And whether it’s my ADHD brain that needs the extra planning and plotting or simply the part of me that’s satisfied by structure, starting out with an outline and a set of notes won every. Single. Time.

Of course, everyone has their own style, but I’ve found that the best way to prep for a short story is to make a detailed, step-by-step outline of how the story goes. It helps me see what the story is about and iron out any plot elements that aren’t working – and also decide on the best way to narrate this story (from which character’s perspective, one flowing narrative vs divided into little sections, etc). Plus, it’s easy to do and super-flexible – another win for the ADHD brain.

So, for every writer out there sick of ideas that go in every direction except the one you want them to go in, here’s my top-notch, tried-and-tested guide to making outlines that get you way closer to your final draft from the get-go.

Use a notebook with blank sheets

Ruled pages tend to be more restrictive, especially the unspoken need to “stay within the lines”. Blank pages let you put things down wherever you want to and leave enough space for comments later. And while you’re at it, get a notebook with a pretty cover. You’ll be that much more motivated to use it.

Use the flow chart style

Arrows that indicate the direction in which your plot is moving helps you to think of things in sequence as well – so if two consecutive points don’t quite flow well, you’ll know you need to either change one of them or to put one of them at a different point in the outline.

Be as granular as possible

You can keep each individual point simple, such as ‘mother picks up the phone’, but have lots of them. Remember that every little thing matters in a short story! So after the mother takes the call, maybe she’s numbed for a while. Write that down! Her immediate response to the call will determine what she looks like or what she does when her child walks in on her – a child will respond to a crying mother differently from a completely blank-faced mother.

Include thoughts, realisations and description

This is one of the most important things I’ve realised over the last year. Short stories are rarely a series of he did this, she did that. There are pieces of internal monologue, people making observations about other people, descriptions, moments of truth – and those keep the story moving as much as incidents do. So, treat them as part of the flow as much as the events themselves. I’ve often started a story based on an emotional moment that I wanted a character to feel – such as, say, a young girl’s profound disillusionment about sex after walking in on her older sister doing it with her boyfriend – only to realise that the sequence of events leading up to or following that moment didn’t make sense. And I could only see that once I had the description of that moment written down along with the other stuff.

Read it out loud

Once you’ve finished drafting your outline, read it out to yourself, as though you were reading the summary of someone else’s story online. This will give you clarity on how each of the parts work together. Does the plot make sense? Do the characters behave consistently? Are the emotional responses commensurate with the things that happen? How well do “accessories” like description, observation or conversation fit in with the general scheme of things? By the time you finish, you’ll likely have spotted several changes you’d like to make. The next three tips cover how to tackle those.

Add comments that ask questions

When you go back and reread your outline, you’ll likely have extra stuff to add. A good way to weed out things that obviously don’t make sense is to ask “why”. If you don’t quite know why someone says something, or why a certain piece of furniture is described, flag it. You’ll know what to focus on first when you’re reviewing.

Reorder things

I know that the first instinct when you come across a false note in your outline is to just cut it out. Sometimes, though, it sounds false only because it’s out of sequence. Try and see if things make sense ordered a different way. Maybe your protagonist’s observation about his mother’s obesity belongs earlier in the story? Maybe the incident where he steals from the shop window could be the inciting event, rather than a response to something else? One tip you could use to easily reorder things is to draw “boxes” for each point and give them a number, and then just relist the new order by number rather than scratching stuff out and making a mess (I’ve always found that looking at too many scratched-out lines reduces my motivation to do anything with the piece.) You could also use sticky notes that you can reposition as needed (while bearing in mind that there’s a limit to their stickiness, so you might want some backups).

Write down a list of questions about the story

Another thing you’ll likely notice once you read out your outline is that some points just don’t come together fully yet, or that some emotions you want to evoke are missing. Rather than trying to redo your outline straightaway, write down a set of questions that you want your story to answer. Such as – what motivates the sister to bully the brother? Why does the presence of the fruit bowl on the table matter? What do I want the brother to feel at the end? What is the role of grief in this story? Your questions can be as specific or as broad as you like, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish with your story. Once you have those down, reevaluate the outline and make notes on how you can best answer those questions. Maybe a few extra scenes are called for, or maybe a character needs to go entirely. Make those changes, and then see how the new version answers your core questions.

Obviously, once you start actually writing the story there’ll be a zillion more changes you’ll make. What the process of outlining does is to give you a clear idea of the what and why of your story. Once you have that down, you can focus on the how – the language, the turns of phrase, the types of description and dialogue, all that cool writerly stuff – without having to worry quite as much that you’re investing in scenes and descriptions that won’t make it to your final draft. And that, as you can imagine, is pretty liberating.

What did you think of this outlining guide? What would you do differently? Are you an outliner, or do you write your best when it’s just you and a blank page on Day One? Over to you.

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