Writers who don’t outline are often very loud online. They will say outlines kills creativity. They may even go so far as to claim an outline is a ‘straightjacket’ and that writers who use them are ‘less interesting’.
The case for outlines …
- It’s faster. If you use an outline, you’re much more likely to finish your novel in months (sometimes weeks!), than years. This will also enable you to write more.
- You won’t get lost. Lots of writers end up blocked and frustrated when drafting without an outline. This in turn gives you confidence.
- You’re less likely to screw up. Writing is hard, which means we can end up writing ‘the wrong stuff’ (whatever that means). Far better to write the wrong stuff in an outline than write many thousands of words you then have to cut altogether or pick apart.
- Outline = smoother draft generally. Outlines allow you to explore stuff like tropes, genre conventions, storyworld and other thematic elements upfront. This means writers can see what works and what doesn’t, tweaking and refining. So far from being a ‘straightjacket’ or ‘killing creativity’, it actively ADDS to it.
The thing with the outline is you can do it any way you want. Really! It can be as detailed or as loose as you like. You can create your outline using software; you can draw it by hand, or you can use Post-It notes or index cards … or a combo of all of these! Check out these tips for more outline approaches … good luck!
- Write A Treatment
In the screenwriting world, a treatment is a blow-by-blow account of every event inn your screenplay. Producers will often want these, before they commit to a draft from a screenwriter. They’re usually somewhere between 3 and 10 pages, though you may see longer.
When novelists talk about outlines, they’re usually thinking of treatments. They can be quite dry to write, which is why many writers believe they don’t work. However there are lots of alternatives to the treatment as you will see below. MORE: 5 Questions To Help You Write A Killer Treatment
- Story Maps
Many writers hate to write outlines … so my advice is, DON’T write them! Instead, create what I call a story map.
I like to use post-it notes for this in the first instance, though you can also use index cards. Here in my pic below the various colours refer to various character arcs, though other authors like to colour-code specific plot points. There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do it.
- Use A Worksheet
I created the free B2W Plotting worksheet that takes in various plotting visuals, which you can download HERE. Alternatively, you can DRAW your story map instead freehand if you prefer.
When plotting using a story map, I like to start with the ending, so I can plot backwards and ‘find’ my beginning. This means I don’t have to worry about ‘info dumps’ at the start of my story.
BONUS TOOL: One Stop for Writers’ Story Map
- Use the Three Acts
The three acts refers to the beginning, middle and end of a story – nothing more, nothing less! As you will see from the pic below, there are many ‘increments’ to the Three Acts that add up to create dramatic satisfaction.
However, there are many other ways to break down The Three Acts, though the most popular and well-used is probably The Hero’s Journey. That plotting archetype has a number of steps writers must use, so using index cards to do this is probably your best bet.
If you want to check out other plotting archetypes to write your outline, I recommend the book The Seven Basic Stories by Christopher Booker.
- Draft Zero
Some of my ‘Bang2writers’ like to splurge notes and plans in whatever order they like, as it comes to them. This differs from ‘pantsing’ because the writer doesn’t just write the book, they may have pictures in there, bullet points, notes to self and various other stuff you would never see in a finished book. One of my writers got to 55K doing this, almost a whole draft! Then he went back and re-arranged, refined, tweaked and filled in chunks of prose.
- Freytag’s Pyramid
Freytag’s Pyramid is a paradigm of dramatic structure outlining the seven key steps in successful storytelling: exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution, and denouement. Those who are familiar with three act structure will note it’s rather similar but adds the notion of ‘escalation’ to it. Check out the visual representation below.
Every book needs a synopsis when it goes out on submission, but some authors like to START with this. It helps focus them, especially as traditional synopses will have details of the beginning, middle and end. However, some writers may prefer to write what B2W calls a One Page Pitch – this carries just the beginning and ending. Sometimes this is enough to keep writers focused too. MORE: 10 Quick Tips On Writing A Killer One Pager
- The Snowflake Method
I will be honest and say I never really ‘got’ what this was until I read this great post from Jericho Writers. In it, they explain how The Snowflake Method breaks down …
- Write your story in one sentence
- Decide on your protagonist
- Write a paragraph on settings
- Add a beginning, middle and end to your story description
- Write short character summaries
- Expand your story description to 2 pages
- Keep adding details until you’re ready to write
This hit home for me because I recognised I had been doing this all along! In the screenwriting world, writers are often asked to come up with a logline first when drafting. (A logline is basically one sentence describing your story, as per step 1 above). Screenwriters are also expected to doing prep material such as settings, character summaries and some plot details in advance too.
So if you have already written screenplays, The Snowflake Method will probably suit you down to the ground … Even if you haven’t, it can still create a great foundation for your novel.
MORE: Free Cheat Sheet On How To Write A Logline
Lucy V. Hay is a script editor, author and blogger who helps writers. She’s been the script editor and advisor on numerous UK features and shorts & has also been a script reader for 20 years, providing coverage for indie prodcos, investors, screen agencies, producers, directors and individual writers. She’s also an author, publishing as both LV Hay and Lizzie Fry. Lizzie’s latest, a serial killer thriller titled The Good Mother is out now with Joffe Books, with her sixth thriller out in 2024. Lucy’s site at www.bang2write.com has appeared in Top 100 round-ups for Writer’s Digest & The Write Life, as well as a UK Blog Awards Finalist and Feedspot’s #1 Screenwriting blog in the UK (ninth in the world.). She is also the author of the bestselling non-fiction book, Writing & Selling Thriller Screenplays: From TV Pilot To Feature Film (Creative Essentials), which she updated for the streaming age for its tenth anniversary in 2023.