The Art Of Writing: Building An Outline

In the first article of this series I spoke about the importance of structure and the four main building blocks of any story. This time I want to talk about how to take those building blocks and use them to create an effective outline, starting from a single sentence and eventually building up to a fully realised beat-by-beat breakdown of your story or novel.

Writing a good story or novel is about more than just getting the words on paper, though obviously this is a pretty important part of the process. However, before you can start adding those words, you need to know a little bit about the story you intend to tell. That’s where an outline comes in, and the better the outline, the easier it is to write the words that make up the finished manuscript.

Every good novel or story starts with a single idea, and that’s also where a good outline starts. Spend a short amount of time thinking about your idea and try and distill it down to just a single sentence. It doesn’t have to include everything you want to include in the story, just the most basic concept or theme that the story follows, and should ideally include just enough information to tell a prospective reader whether or not they want to carry on with the story. For example:

“On a distant planet a disillusioned farmboy finds himself becoming involved in a rebellion against an evil galactic empire.”

I’m sure that most people will recognise the story which that, the briefest of synopses, describes. It tells us that the story is science fiction (it’s set on a distant planet), that the main protagonist is (initially) an everyman character (a disillusioned farmboy), that the story takes place during a rebellion, and that the main antagonists are agents of an ‘evil galactic empire’. From this one simple sentence we can be pretty sure that this is almost certainly going to be a rip-roaring adventure story, with plenty of action to keep the reader entertained along the way.

All of this information comes together to help the reader decide whether or not this is a story he or she would be interested in exploring further, but it also provides a useful starting point from which the writer can then build up a working outline for her manuscript.

Once you have your one-sentence synopsis you can then move on to describing the four basic parts of your story. As you will hopefully remember from the previous article, these are the Opening, the Complication, the Crisis and the Denouement of the story, and you now need to briefly outline what each of these four sections will include. Depending on the type of story you are writing this may consist of just a single sentence per section for a short story or could run to a couple of paragraphs in the case of longer or more complicated stories. The important thing here is to get down in writing a rough idea of what details you want to include at each step of the story.

For the Opening, you should ideally include a brief description of your primary characters, the setting of the story, and if applicable some form of explanation of what has gone before. It is usually preferable to present this information through action rather than simply stating the facts as this helps draw the reader into the story early. For example, in Star Wars, the story begins with a battle between two spaceships, then shifts the focus to introduce two of the main characters (the droids) caught up in the centre of the action. It is these characters we then follow down to the surface of the planet, where we eventually meet the main protagonist, Luke Skywalker.

Once you’ve outlined your Opening you may then want to move on to the Complication stage of your story. This is where almost all of the action takes place, and it can often be tempting to jump straight in to this part. However, before you start scribbling down all of the hurdles you want to put in your protagonists way it can sometimes be useful to have a sense of how the story is going to end. For this reason I often find it easier to outline the Crisis and Denouement stages of the story before moving on to the Complication stage. Of course, not all writers will do this (and we will take a look at some other approaches to outlining later on in this article), but if you are just starting out, or are having trouble with finishing your first manuscript then I would recommend trying this approach to see if it helps.

Knowing how your story is going to end will often help you work out how the protagonist(s) and antagonist(s) get to that point. This is especially true if you have a specific showdown in mind, such as the attack on the Death Star at the end of Star Wars. Knowing that the protagonist (Luke) would be the one to destroy the Empire’s super weapon, the writer now knows that he/she has to somehow guide both the protagonist and the reader to the rebel base on Yavin, introducing various conflicts along the way in order to give the protagonist the necessary emotional impetus to want to defeat the Empire.

Once you’ve outlined your final conflict (the Crisis) and the ending of your story (the Denouement) you can then get down to the nuts and bolts of the story. Outlining the Complication stage is mainly an exercise in describing the various (growing) conflicts that the protagonists go through. While it’s not absolutely necessary to cover the characters’ emotional or intellectual development at this stage, if you already know how the characters are going to grow then this is the place to mention it. It’s also worth remembering that each conflict the protagonists encounter should be more perilous than the last, with higher stakes if they fail. This helps to increase the dramatic tension for the reader and makes the final resolution of the story all the more satisfying if the good guys win.

At this point you should have a brief outline for your entire story. If you’re only working on a short story then this should be enough for you to start work on your first draft, though if you’re working on something with a bit more weight, such as a novella or a novel you may still have a little work to do.

A chapter-by-chapter breakdown of your novel is always a good idea if there’s a lot going on in your narrative, especially if there are multiple protagonists and/or antagonists. I usually start with a short one- or two sentence description of each chapter based on my existing outline. For some writers each chapter may represent a single scene within their narrative, while for others the final manuscript may not have chapters at all. For our purposes we’re going to assume the former case, with each scene encapsulated within it’s own chapter within the novel. How many chapters (or scenes) you have in your novel will depend in part on the length of the story you’re telling but mainly it will be determined by the story itself. You can always remove or reorganise chapter breaks once you’ve finished your manuscript if you need to.

Once you’ve completed your chapter-by-chapter breakdown, you can then go back and expand on each chapter to flesh out more detail, exploring how each scene affects the main characters and what (if anything) they learn from their experiences. You may also want to include notes about what additional information you want the reader to learn from the narrative, or highlight what you want the subtext of the scene to say. Anything that’s important to the narrative needs to be slotted into the outline at this stage.

By the time you’ve done all this you’ve pretty much done. You should now be able to start the task of writing your manuscript, using your individual chapter outlines to steer you along. It’s important to note that as you write your first draft you may find that some of the scenes you’ve outlined don’t work as well as you’d hoped, or don’t fit the narrative as you have them. It’s perfectly fine to go back and rewrite parts of your outline if you need to, as long as you keep track of any changes you’ve made in case you need to revert or refer to an earlier version. With a strong and effective outline you should be able to produce a first draft manuscript reasonably quickly, and from there it’s just a case of polishing off the edges and turning your rough draft into a finely crafted work of art. But we’ll talk about that at some other time.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that not all writers use outlines, and even those who do may not always prepare a full outline prior to putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard). Essentially how much work you do before you start actually writing your first draft becomes a matter of personal preference, and with time you may find a technique different to the one I describe above that works better for you. That said, if you’re new to the art of writing then  knowing how to create an effective story outline is a useful skill to have.

For other approaches to outlining (or the absence of outlining), you may find the following articles of interest:

Next time in The Art Of Writing I will be looking at character development, specifically how to build a character sketch and how to present the character within the narrative. Until then, have fun developing your outline.


2 thoughts on “The Art Of Writing: Building An Outline”

  1. Nice post, Naomi. I was just about to add that not everybody uses outlines, but it looks like you have it covered! I find outlines incredibly useful. I can’t write a novel without one. I usually have to write what events happen in each chapter. But as in everything, things always change. Like, I’m going to have three new chapters I hadn’t envisioned when I made the outline, and other structural things changed. But it’s a good starting point regardless. Can’t wait for your next article!

    1. If I’m being honest my own approach to outlining tends to fall somewhere between the method discussed in the article and none at all, depending on what it is I’m writing. For my current work-in-progress I wrote the first five thousand or so words before I finally got the full outline worked out, though I have also written up outlines of varying levels of completion for the other five books in the series simply to keep track of all the foreshadowing and clever writerly-type stuff I’m hoping to include alone the way.

      The next article should be along sometime this weekend, barring any unforeseen alien invasions, apocalyptic happenings or other sources of unnecessary distraction. 🙂

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