Mention the word outline in a room full of writers, and you’re sure to ignite a firestorm of passionate debate. Writers either love outlines, or they hate them. We either find them liberating, or we can’t stand how confining they are.
My experience has been that more often than not, those who swear they dislike outlines are thinking of them in the wrong ways. Outlines are not meant to trap you into preset ideas or sap your creativity before you start the first draft. Outlines are also definitely not meant to be lifeless Roman-numeral lists.
—by K.M. Weiland
To imbue your writing with the full power of outlining, you need to approach the process from a mindset of flexibility and discovery. When you do this, you’ll end up with a road map to storytelling success. Road maps are there to show you the fastest and surest way to reach your destination, but they certainly don’t prevent you from finding exciting off-road adventures and scenic drives along the way.
At their best, outlines can help you flesh out your most promising story ideas, avoid dead-end plot twists and pursue proper structure. And the greatest part? They save you time and prevent frustration. Sketching out your plot and characters in your first draft can take months of trial and error. Figuring out those same elements in an outline requires a fraction of the time—and then allows you to let loose and have fun in your first draft.
Let’s take a look at how to get the most out of the outlining process, beginning with the shaping of your premise and working all the way through to a complete list of scenes. (Note: Although this outlining method is one I use myself and highly recommend, keep in mind that there is no right or wrong way to outline a story. The only requirement is that you find the groove that works for you. If you start outlining and begin to feel the technique isn’t working for you, rather than denouncing outlines entirely, consider how you might adjust the process to better suit your personality and creative style.)
1. Craft your premise.
Your premise is the basic idea for your story. But it’s not enough to just have an idea. “Guy saves girl in an intergalactic setting” is a premise, but it’s also far too vague to offer much solid story guidance.
This is why your outline needs to begin with a tightly crafted premise sentence that can answer the following questions:
• Who is the protagonist?
• What is the situation? What is the hero’s personal condition at the beginning? How will that condition be changed, for better or worse, by the hero himself or by the antagonistic force?
• What is the protagonist’s objective? At the beginning, what does the hero want? What moral (or immoral) choices will she have to make in her attempt to gain that objective?
• Who is the opponent? Who or what stands in the way of the hero achieving his objective?
• What will be the disaster? What misfortune will befall the hero as the result of her attempts to achieve her objective?
• What’s the conflict? What conflict will result from the hero’s reaction to the disaster? And what is the logical flow of cause and effect that will allow this conflict to continue throughout the story?
Once you’ve answered these questions, combine them into one or two sentences:
Restless farm boy (situation) Luke Skywalker (protagonist) wants nothing more than to leave home and become a starfighter pilot, so he can live up to his mysterious father (objective). But when his aunt and uncle are murdered (disaster) after purchasing renegade droids, Luke must free the droids’ beautiful owner and discover a way to stop (conflict) the evil Empire (opponent) and its apocalyptic Death Star.