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Effective Outlining: First Steps

Knowing where to begin with an outline can be daunting. A story idea may form in the middle of the story, with a character idea, a what if, or various other types of ideas. To build around that beginning idea, here are some guidelines:

Develop a clear beginning, middle, and end. This may only be general plot points, but it is important to have a concise path between these points.

Storylines should not be lopsided (front- or end-loaded), and should have a balanced arc. Consider using the three-act structure to create the roller coaster-like pattern of rising and falling action. Make sure all the action or revelations are not crammed together in one section of the story.

Identify the main plotline and subplots, and make sure all have a full arc. Every arc, whether story or character, should have a purpose. Determine what that purpose is and the steps required to fulfill that purpose.

Dangling subplots leave questions and frustrate readers, so make sure that every subplot is not only relevant to the story, but complete and satisfying. Those that cannot be completed satisfactorily should be removed.

Develop strong character arcs that have beginnings, middles, and ends. A character should change throughout a story, and those changes should make sense and provide the reader with a sense of satisfaction by the end.

Underdeveloped characters leave readers unfulfilled. Ask whether or not a character has reached his or her full potential dictated by the events of the story. Everything that happens to a character should have an effect. Consider effects individually and in total.

Develop a strong ending that makes sense and wraps up the storyline. Readers who feel unsatisfied when a book ends are unlikely to read that author again. A strong ending fulfills all plots and subplots and provide interesting development for the characters.

Flat, confusing, or illogical endings deflate the entire story. Endings that are wrapped up too quickly are likely lacking something. Make sure the ending links back to the beginning and the characters’ goals and desires, and that in some way those goals and desires are met, have changed in a way that makes sense, or have reached a satisfying conclusion.

Make sure you have enough story to fill an entire book. Don’t force content into a story just for the sake of length. Cut what isn’t relevant to the story. The story should not be stretched to fulfill a word count. Either write a shorter story or develop more pertinent subplots and character conflict.

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Effective Outlining: Outlining Methods

There are a variety of outlining methods, and which one works best depends on individual preferences and organization styles. Here are four of the most popular methods to try:

The Synopsis Outline

This is a 1-2 page document that roughly sketches the structure of the story and leaves room for flexibility. It hits all the major plot points but does not go into great detail on scenes or character arcs. This method creates a loose framework that can be further developed while writing.

The In-Depth Outline

This is a comprehensive chapter summaries that break up individual scenes. It includes detailed timelines, character details, plot points, and subplots. Scene-level description is usually not included, but full character and plot arcs should be developed with major pinch points noted and the scenes they are included in pointed out. Particular attention should be paid attention to flow between scenes and pacing of the overall arcs.

The Snowflake Method

This method begins with a one-sentence summary of the story idea, then builds into a paragraph, which is then used to create character descriptions and storylines. The structure remains fairly loose and branches into different story aspects. This may be especially helpful for storylines which are not fully fleshed out yet and are in need of brainstorming.

The Bookend Method

In this method, you begin by plotting the beginning and end of the story and the main characters, leaving everything else to be develop during the story writing. It is important to consider how the beginning and ending relate to each other and whether there is a meaningful link between the two that is believable and achievable. While this method does not detail out the steps between the beginning and end, you should have a sense of what steps will be needed to bring the two together.

Regardless of which method you employ, stay focused on creating a strong flow from beginning to end and pacing that will maintain the interest of the reader.