Outlining - examples

Anthony Johnson in my thread Suffle, Shuffle…hop mentioned he was an inveerate outliner. Something I’m not very good at. Broad brushstrokes, generally.

Would anyone be willing to share examples of outlining (from their published work, perhaps), or tell us more about how you go about it and what’s successful.

Who? :wink:

I’ll see if I can dig anything worthwhile out. Most of my outlines are indecipherable to anyone but me…


For me, the point of outlining is economy - to save time and effort, to prevent me lurching up narrative cul-de-sacs and to help me to be clear.

When I made scripted TV programmes and was up against serious time constraints, it became my strong belief, nurtured over years of script-writing, that every programme, movie or written narrative should start with a simple idea, or better (when converted to words) a statement, or even better still, a question. Themeless writing didn’t work; over-complicated ideas didn’t work either, or acted as covers for confusion. At least that was my view.

The statement or question had be no more than that, possibly including a subordinate clause. Often such a theme written down could look pretty uninteresting when exposed so baldly to the cold light of day - and that was of course a prompt to look again at the basic idea. Also, of course, it helped you to think through roughly where you were going and how the programme would climax.

The next step was to expand that single sentence or question into a paragraph. Then the paragraph could be expanded into a page, and the page into an outline. Here each twist and turn in the narrative itself became a sentence or more (again for economy, I favoured no more than a sentence including a subordinate clause, to reflect conflict and movement). At every stage the outline was reviewed, inspected from every angle and “tested for strength”. Finally the outline was expanded into the script of the programme, with each sentence becoming the equivalent of a scene in a movie or book.

It was a method that seemed to work even when the object of the writing was not to drive a plot or present an argument - even when the point was merely to provide a “washing line” on which to hang evocative words or pretty moving pictures.

That was more than twenty years go. Since then I’ve seen all sorts of writers who behave much more like some sculptors are supposed to do (although I’m sceptical that this is actually the way most sculptors work). They start anywhere, add a piece there, take it off here, trying by trial and error to find the true form beneath the narrative clay. And they’re often very successful. But that’s not for me. It would be too wasteful and time-consuming. I’m still an outliner.

(For a similar but more worked-through version of my type of outlining, see Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake method:http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/art/snowflake.php)


Very helpful so far, thanks. Hugh, I’s seen the snowflake method before, but I will revisit it.

I wrote my first (published) novel with a broad - very broad - outline, a few key story anchors and turns, but I got three quarters through and ground to a halt initially. Because I had no idea how to end it and how to tie up some plot threads.

Now, the second one is coming along faster, though I have some key issues to iron out - I’ve written the last scene and the first quarter of the book. But I plan to take your advice to work out the rest in a bit more detail, so I don’t get lost again.

Good stuff, John.

Of course, an outline can also help with the writing of the synopsis. (Which, being a selling document, is not the same as the outline - but having been through the publication process, I imagine you’re familiar with all that.)

P.S. I don’t think the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote an outline… :confused: :slight_smile:

Been there, bought several t-shirts. This is precisely why I’m so religious about outlining - I literally don’t have time to scrap half a book and start again, not when I have four or five books/series/whatever on the go at once.

That sort of pressure is different for a full-time novelist who only works on one book at a time, I’m sure… but really, how many are there like that?! :slight_smile:

Well, being the intellectual he is, he may well have written an outline. Trouble was, he flatly refused to listen to his editorial team. Too assured of his own rightness, possibly.

I find a narrative outline (aka synopsis) more useful because there’s a storyteller quality built into the form that helps me see the flow of the work. For me, a step-outline, while useful for chapters, scenes, etc., seems to encourage an episodic quality that has a sing-song feel to it: this happens, then that happens, then this happens, then that happens…

I like feeling the narrative ‘engine’ at work, pulling me through a story. Causality doesn’t get lost, but rather becomes more organic, enhancing the narrative - when the story works, of course.

With the narrative outline, I can feel when it works on an intuitive level (and when it doesn’t). With a step-outline, the ‘not-working’ part tends to be more intellectual and less intuitive, and therefore - for me, at least - less ‘whole’.

I wouldn’t disagree with that. With a scripted TV show, especially a factual one, where every minute of running time is precious and you have to calibrate your resource requirements at an early stage, there are excuses for a dogged kind of 1-2-3 outline. But in an outline for a novel, you wouldn’t want the bones to stick out too obviously.

I always know what the end of the book is like, and write towards it, and while one can lose their way, their is a destination that I can keep as Magnetic North.

I do sometimes get to the end, and realize it’s not the end. But that’s not a bug, that’s a feature.

I have 2/3rd of a novel I’m working on right now because I got to the end, realized it wasn’t the end, and dumped about a third because I had to make room for the real end.

So right now I’m outlining the real ending.

None of the third is really wasted. The really good stuff can be pulled out and shuffled around. I have marked nine index cards for events that I know what must happen in the ending, and I add more as one event leads to another.

Whatever I have that I don’t want to give up gets made into little documents and dropped into the index cards (which then turn into folders.)

Then I go around and see what develops when I try to hook them together.

I can’t outline with nothing else. I always begin with a scene and branch out from it.

Haven’t investigated snowflake method yet, will do so…

Very interesting discussion.

I animate for living, but recently started writing and researching scripts, too.

Outlining has many similarities to the two fundamentals of animation: ‘pose to pose’ and ‘straight ahead’.

The first method being with a series of single ‘Keyframe’ drawings that broadly define the motion, attitude and intent of the character.

Do that right, and everything else is (comparatively) easy ‘in-betweening’.

Straight ahead is just that. Starting from a single frame and slogging towards a standstill. Sometimes with glorious results - more often not.

So, coming back to writing, that kind of workflow is hard-wired into my brain.

Anyone looking for inspiration about structure vs freeform might care to read the profoundly amazing: The Animator’s Survival Guide, by Richard Williams. It’s beautifully written, inspiring and applicable to any creative pursuit.

An animation guide helpful to other creative endeavours, including novel writing, presumably? That’s a first, but have to say doesn’t sound too off the wall. For example, a great book called Zen Guitar taught me not to be afraid of my guitar and to be more playful and to feel more confident about learning. So why not learning how to be an animator as a personal-development tool for novelists?

I’ve had a think about this, and come to the conclusion that there really isn’t anything worthwhile I can share here in terms of ‘real’ outlines. My method (ha ha) is, frankly, a complete mess. But at the end of it all you have is a long narrative style outline, which isn’t exactly earth-shattering.

I start with a scene, a phrase, a ‘dramatic question’, whatever. Then I just grab a notepad and start scribbling ideas that come to mind from it. I keep doing this, writing out multiple branching possibilities, until I can’t think of any more ideas, or until one particular branch is so strong that it’s obviously the way to go. I prefer to do this in one big long session where possible, over multiple days if necessary, so that I can keep it all in my head. (I rarely work on anything for more than a week uninterrupted, so this is the only chance I have to get it all “in the brains” and keep it there. On reflection, this might be why I’m such a stalwart outliner in the first place.)

Then I take those notes and use them as reference to draft a narrative outline. This outline itself is altered, changed, revised and filled with placeholders as I go along. When I reach the end, I go right back to the start and amend it all over again. And again, and again, generally making it longer each time, until I have an almost-full outline.

I then put it away somewhere and don’t think about it for a while. If any ideas, whether for the placeholders or revisions to the main story, come to mind in this period, I note them down and append them to the outline document.

Eventually, I have a full outline. Sometimes it’ll still have placeholders, but only for small events.

Then (assuming I’ve already pitched it successfully somewhere) I start writing.

(At this point, now that I use Scriv, I make a copy of the narrative outline document and split it into multiple documents as appropriate, normally one per scene, and use them as my index card base while drafting the actual story.)

The one thing to remember when using an outline, even detailed ones like mine, is that it’s a guide, not a bible. If one of your characters does something that changes a future event, a scene plays out differently to how you expected, or even if you just suddenly get a better idea, then make the changes and deal with the consequences later. I haven’t written a single story where the finished product was exactly the same as the original outline, and they’re all better for it.

I should probably emphasise that the above scenario is, of course, only for those stories which work. If it doesn’t work, something’s missing, or it’s just a plain old bad idea, that normally becomes apparent during the “narrative expansion” section. If it makes it past that part of the process, it’ll work.

Here is a good outline for the beginning of a good “Cop Novel”
(murder mystery)

hehehe :slight_smile:

We believe the motive was jealousy, Sir!

kerb crawler meets london bus - nasty

serves him right…dirty bugger :open_mouth:

Hugh, thanks for the Snowflake link. I found it enormously sensible and helpful. I’ve just spend the afternoon translating his ideas about spreadsheets into Scriverneese, using a text document(i.e. index card in the corkboard view) for each line of his suggested Spreadsheet outline. The combination of the two methods is as good as any sour martini. :laughing:

As ADD as I am, I cherish all methods that will somehow contain my madness. Thanks again, to you AND Keith (to whom I am forever indebted).

(vic-k, I am counting on you to keep me afloat in the martini department :wink: )

A change of pace Mon Chéri

Le D :smiling_imp: