Creative Writing 101,  Tips,  Writing World

Outlining 101

Outlining can sound SO scary sometimes! After all, we know how long it takes us to write a book and what it all entails. It can be super intimidating jotting down all the plot points beforehand. We don’t always know where the story is going sometimes, and we don’t want to force it. But my theory has always been, the story is already in our heads. We’re writing to get it out so we don’t go crazy.

Outlining doesn’t have to be scary or intimidating. I’m going to list some ways you can outline, from the baby outlines to the ones you can finish in an hour to the longer, super in-depth ones. ^_^

Outline #1 – The List Outline
This is where you you make a list of all the major plot points and character arcs that you’re going to cover. For example, let’s look at Twilight (which I’m using because I haven’t read the book, so excuse the details I’m sure to muck up).

-Bella moves from somewhere dry to somewhere super duper wetsy.

-Bella sees Edward in the cafeteria and instantly feels drawn to and intrigued by him.

-Edward treats Bella like shiz by pretending she disgusts him.

-Edwards saves Bella from getting hit by a car by stopping it with his bare hands!

-Bella finds out Edward is a shiny vampire! cough

-Body turns up drained of blood and Bella is afraid Edward did it!

Okay, you get the point.

Outline #2 – The Plot Summary Outline
This is when you take only the MOST important things and spell them out. Taking Twilight again, it would look something like this:

Edward saves Bella life – spell out how – and after this he starts being super nice to her.

Dead body turns up and Bella finds out when she and pop are on their way home from the diner and he, being a cop, gets a radio call to come check out the body.

Bella in turmoil because Edward is pushing her away again because he’s worried for her safety because some sexy vamps want a taste of that super tasty blood she has.

Yeah, you get it.

Outline #3 – The Baby Outline
This is when you take the story chapter by chapter (which is what I normally do), and write a brief 1 to 3 sentence summary of what happens in each chapter with maybe a bit or two of dialogue thrown in if you happen to feel so inspired. That looks something like this:

Chapter 1
Bella moves from dry land to wet land. She gets a rusty new truck and gets reaquainted with Jacob!

Chapter 2
Bella goes to school and gets acquainted with some possible friends (Tom, Suzy, and Pica – totally made up, I know!). Edwards comes in with his “siblings” and Bella is all intrigued and is all like, “OMG, who is that super hunky pasty guy!” And Suzy is like, “Don’t bother. He doesn’t like anyone. They’re all so posh.” Then Bella goes to chemistry class and sees Edward and she’s so excited, but he shuns her, and she goes home feeling bad about herself.

I know this isn’t the actual chapter 1 and 2, but again, you get where I’m going. Then you do this for each chapter.

Outline #4 – The Detailed Outline
This is actually just like outline #3 only you expand even more, like this:

Chapter 1
Bella is in the car with her mum trying not to complain about having to move because she understand mom is getting a new start with her new baseball player husband and she would just be dead weight. Outside she sees the dry desert and cacti pass her by, and she’s going to miss them because there are not cacti where she’s going. Then she meets up with her dad and they have a super awkward convo in the car because it’s been way too long since they’ve hung out. They go and eat some food and Bella watches it rain. Then they get to his house and he shows her the rusty red truck he bought for her from Jacob’s dad. He asks if she remembers Jacobs and she says, “Yeah, kind of, he would be about 15 right?” Then Jacob and papa stop by and papa is in a wheel chair and he wasn’t last time she saw him. Jacob is a lot taller! But it’s kind of awkward because she hasn’t seen in so long and she barely recognizes him. Jacob offers his help in case she ever has any problems with the truck because he’s good at stuff like that and asks if she wants to hang out at the beach that weekend, and she says, sure, because what else is she going to do in this tiny, tiny town.

end scene (I know this isn’t accurate!)

Outline #5 – The Detailed Outline on Steroids aka The Rock Star Outline
This is where you take your detailed outline and spell out stuff until you can’t spell out anything anymore. Where #4 might take up half a page or less per chapter, this one takes up a page or two per chapter. Now, honestly, I have never done one of these, not entirely. I have had chapters go on for a page or a little more, but the entire story? No. I can imagine how long it would take, and I would only do this if the muse insisted, but thankfully, the detailed outline serves me quite well.

I won’t subject to an example. 🙂

Anywho, hopefully this makes sense. Outlining is actually a lot of fun and helpful. You get to see your plot holes before you start. You get to see places where the story might drag. And you can see where to add or take away. This saves you a LOT of time by helping you write AND edit faster and more efficiently.

I read somewhere once that outlining can take the magic out of it for some people. As someone who has pantsed novels AND outlined novels, I can say that 100% of the time when I wrote without an outline, I wish I had one because it took me 2x longer to edit. And 100% when I wrote with one, I still discovered the story along the way, and it was still super exciting and magical. As detailed as the outline might be, it doesn’t have everything you need. It’s your roadmap, your GPS. It tells you where to go, but it doesn’t give you the scenery and rich conversation that you’ll have along the way.

Also keep in mind (because I had this problem once), just like a real map, if you want to detour from the outline, YOU CAN! If you’re writing and realize that a scene you were going to include isn’t going to work anymore, take it out. If you’re jogging along and realize that you need to add a scene between this one and the next, add it! The outline is there to guide you so you don’t get lost, get stuck in the middle, or lose sight of your original vision.

Also, I’ve read in many, many places that when you get published, your editor will often ask you for the synopsis of a story you may not have even started writing yet! So it really pays to know how to tap into that part of your brain that knows what you’re doing and be able to organize it in some way. Again, you are always free to make needed changes, but they may want to know where you’re going with the idea, and it never hurts to know yourself, as well.

I may have mentioned before, but outlining has saved me from wasting my time with a story that’s going to turn into a hot mess. We have all had stories just fall apart in our hands. Outlining fixes that, no matter what kind of outline you do. Which is why I often start with (and often only do) a baby outline. It’s not a huge time commitment, and it helps me see where the story is going.

Outline & Prosper! ^_^


  • Michelle A (@SunflowerRei)

    Outlining is so useful, really. I’ve realized that while I feel okay pansting a scene, I don’t want to pants an entire story. This time around, I’m doing your outline #3. “Victoria does this and that,” “Nicole is being snarky again.” It gives me wiggle room to take things a different direction if I want to, but it also gives me an event or something to bring it back around to so the story can move forward.

    • krystal jane

      #3 is my favorite way to outline for exactly the reasons you listed. It’s quick and it keeps me on track. It’s also really easy to tweak things as you go because it’s not super detailed. This current story I’m on, I did a #4 outline because everyone was just super chatty like that, but it took quite a bit of time!

  • sandiedocker

    I don’t tend to outline. Not in the beginning. I might list a few bullet points of things I think might happen in the story, but that’s about it. It’s only once I’m fully into the story that I then outline – or more accurately summarize – and figure out my plot holes etc.

    Love your Bella examples 🙂

    • krystal jane

      Lol! I do, too! ^_^
      I tend to go off the deep end without some kind of outline. Lol! I’ll get to the middle of a story and do something completely crazy. Every once in a while it’s gold though. 😉

  • Crystal Collier

    Wahoo! What a great spell-it-out for people who are afraid of outlining! I started by just plotting out a couple action sequences ahead of where I was in the story, but my current outlines are a combination of character arc, plot arc, side characters, and plot points. The chapter by chapter thing has always been too rigid for me. My creative brain rebels. =)

    Unleashing the Dreamworld

    • krystal jane

      I forget about character arcs when I’m outlining sometimes. Lol! I’ll get a few chapters in and think, “oh no, I forgot about so and so and that one thing!” The good thing, of course, is I can go back and add it. The search function in my word document is a well used commodity.

  • Jodi (@perkjo)

    I do the baby outline Krystal–I never realized there were other options! But reading over all of the different types of outlines, I’m pretty sure I’m going to stick with that one. I like scratching down a few sentences for each chapter, because I feel like it creates the bare bones of my story–then all the flesh and stuff can come in later. Okay, my analogy is gross…let’s go with yours. I loved how you put it when you said the outline is “your roadmap, your GPS. It tells you where to go, but it doesn’t give you the scenery and rich conversation that you’ll have along the way.” I completely agree, and just like any roadmap, I have made MANY scenic detours away from my outline. But it’s there, waiting for me when I’m ready to return, to get me back on track.

    • krystal jane

      The baby outline is definitely my favorite! Lol! I started comparing writing to building a house because all the bones and skin and stuff were distracting me. Lol!

      I love ending a chapter and knowing exactly where to go next. ^_^

  • Tonja Drecker

    Yeah, outlines! Love your terms 🙂 I usually start with the simple one…and later move up and up until it gets complex. Yep, I keep outlining and re-outlining during the entire process (even edits after the 1st draft). My current WIP totally jumps this form though and is being winged. (each story is different 😉 ) but I bet come revisions, it will get outlined too.

    • krystal jane

      I bet all the outlining helps you keep things organized! Each story is definitely different. Sometimes I can start a few chapters and then start outlining. Last time I pantsed a baby outline as I wrote, but this time I’m working off a more detailed outline that I finshed a month ago. Makes new projects that much more exciting! ^_^

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