Outlining Technique

It has been an inexcusably long time since my last post—which is why I’m not going to bore you with excuses. And I’m not going to make any promises, either. I don’t really expect anyone to follow me in this, given how I’ve abandoned anyone who might have been reading this blog earlier in the year, but I will gleefully welcome anyone who chooses to read along.

Because I am going to start blogging again. I feel something in me has truly changed. This is the time. This is the moment everything changes. And I’m going to start writing.

Rather than go on and on about me and the new me and the thousand things I’ve said before, I’m going to jump right in with an outlining technique that really worked for me, and is simple enough that it might work for anyone.

If you’re someone who fears jumping into a draft without adequate planning, an outline is a simple way to map out the basics of your plan. The more detailed the outline, the more assured the plan—but also the more you can be derailed and distracted by details that might be better discovered along the way. For me, the best way to look at an outline is as a guideline and a safety net to fall back on—but to know that I will follow the path that opens up to me as I write and get to know my characters better. My strongest tool setting forth is a faith in myself and in the process: that what is not good now can become good later.

With that said, I did want to have the story thought out in enough detail that I’m not worried I’ll end up wandering in the wilderness. And so I wanted a scene-by-scene outline.

I always begin with a skeleton based on the structure Larry Brooks suggests in Story Engineering. I don’t want to reproduce too much of his work here, so I highly recommend checking out his book; but just so that I don’t leave anyone who hasn’t read his book totally confused, I’ll give the basics here.

Brooks suggests dividing the story into four parts. The first part (the ‘orphan’) is the setup, where we meet the character and the world and lay the groundwork for the story to come. The second part (the ‘wanderer’) is the reaction to the conflict set up by the first part, the part where the characters flail around a bit. The third part (the ‘warrior’) is when they form a more organized plan and become proactive and more successful, but not completely. In the fourth part (the ‘martyr’) the hero puts their final plans into action to resolve the conflict one way or another.

Each part hinges on a “plot point,” which subtly or directly changes and evolves the goal. The first plot point defines the goal and the conflict; the midpoint is a moment of new knowledge or awareness that changes the context and catalyzes the action as the hero pursues his goal; and the second plot point presents the final bit of new information which gives the hero what they need to drive towards the climax. These points happen at the ¼, ½, and ¾ marks respectively, dividing the story into the four parts mentioned above.

Then there are the moments which happen between these plot points. The Inciting Incident may happen halfway between the opening and the first plot point, and begins to suggest possibilities for the story but does not yet define the goal. The first “pinch point” occurs between the first plot point and the midpoint, and shows off the antagonist (or antagonistic force) in a way that reminds the hero and the reader of the stakes and conflict at hand. The second plot point does much the same, but halfway through the midpoint and second plot point. And then the fourth part is just the climax, which should take up most of this part of the story.

If all of this is confusing, read Story Engineering—though it can be a bit dogmatic, suggesting that its idea of structure is the only acceptable structure, it has proven a simple and surprisingly universal foundation for plotting that can be applied to just about any story. I see it again and again in movies and books, once you learn to identify the signs (and looking at examples is the best way to understand the different plot points and their functions). Though my interpretation of these moments may not always live up to the standards and rules suggested by the book, it gives me a starting point to begin the hard, long slog of plotting.

Which brings me to the outlining technique that really helped me break through the block:

I always begin by laying out the points listed above as a foundational structure for the story. Sometimes the points are detailed scenes, sometimes just suggestions of what sort of conflict or information would have to go there to perform the function that is required. As I said above, I am far from good at this, so I’m sure some of my points don’t quite match up to what Larry Brooks would have in mind, but if they perform a rough match for the desired function, I consider it a win.

And this gives me roughly eight points to plot around (I include the climax as the eighth, though the fourth part is really one big climax, depending on what’s involved in it).
But I need more than just eight scenes (or setpieces of multiple scenes) to feel confident in my guide-map. Doing simple and hypothetical math figuring an average of five pages per scene, a 300 page novel would require 60 scenes—or 15 scenes per part. Because I want a cushion in case some scenes run short, or to have more than 300 pages, I count on 20 scenes per part for a total of 80 scenes. Now when I say “scenes,” I mean an entry on the outline (by dash) that could be several sequences of action or a stretch of dialogue or a montage of description or… well, you get the idea. It’s a loose definition of scene.

Sitting down and outlining 80 scenes is crazy and impossible for me. The mental games required for that kind of motivation alone is too much. So I took the eight points of the structure above, and the eight sections it suggests, and split the outline into 10 scenes each.

And I sat down and thought of nothing else but the first ten scenes. And then the next ten scenes. And the next.

Laying out a list of ten scene points is a lot more manageable than 80. I can think of ten scenes with relative ease, depending on how many scenes I can split different action moments into, or what storylines I’m working with for that section (i.e., this is the section where they fall in love, so what scenes would build to that?).

Breaking down a big ordeal like an outline into smaller sections like this proved to be the perfect solution—and I sit now with a FINISHED OUTLINE. For any who remember that outlining on even the smallest scale was an impossible task back in the spring, you might understand how amazing that is for me.

It’s not a finished draft, of course.

That comes next. 🙂

Stay tuned! I will be back soon—I promise.


About J. Sevick

Just write.
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2 Responses to Outlining Technique

  1. I can’t agree, but it’s well presented and accurately set out. If you’re writing non-fiction e.g. history, an outline can be useful. But I know someone who outlines devotedly. He can write well, but from his outline and work, there appears none of the humor which makes him a delightful person. Fiction, an outline? If you’re writing Formula, an outline is necessary. Otherwise, I believe it was Robert Penn Warren to complained, I had an outline once, and it took me two years to write myself out of it.

    • J. Sevick says:

      An outline certainly isn’t for everyone–and I would add that I intend to try to write as fluidly and openly as possible, with the outline as a simple guideline, for exactly the reasons you mention (lack of spontaneity, character, humor, etc.). But there are about as many ways to write as there are writers, so I don’t really expect anyone to use my process exactly. My main discovery was basically “big goal -> little goals = easier,” which any toddler could tell you. 🙂

      Thank you so much for your comment!

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