How To Write the Perfect Outline

And why you might need it.

Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

I published a novel in high school. A novel where the main dish was the human experience otherwise known as emotions, as well as a little plate of murder on the side.

I did not outline, plan, or draw out this novel. Not a single word of it.

It’s technically a “murder mystery.”

I did not know who the killer was going to be until I was halfway through writing it.

People had already died. And yet.

How Could I Have Improved This Strategy?

It may have worked for me at the time, but it wasn’t practical, and my thoughts were more jumbled up than they needed to be. This is why I now use at least one type of outlining when it comes to planning out my novels and articles.

There is an infinite number of ways you can map out what your next project, but I’ll give you the five methods that I find the most helpful.

1. The Snowflake Method

This method is by far the most popular (at least from what I’ve seen, and from what I remember from old creative writing classes), and is generally what I use when I’m struggling to come up with a longer synopsis or deeper sense of the plot. The process is simple:

  1. Sum up your piece in a single sentence.
  2. Expand that sentence to a paragraph. This will give your piece more depth, and you can start to get into details.
  3. Add your characters to your description. This is where you talk about traits, physical features, and relationships with other characters. Scratch the surface here.
  4. The big synopsis, AKA, summarize your entire plot. The characters, the themes, the B story, and every major moment you can think of for what happens in your piece.
  5. Finish your characters. This is the time to truly add to your character descriptions, creating charts, writing in detail about their specific and individual traits, and coming up with facts and backstory.
  6. Complete the plot synopsis. Fill in the blanks, and jot down every detail of your story. By this point, it should feel like you’re practically writing the piece already.

Using the snowflake method does take a decent bit of time, but it’s well worth it if you’re struggling to piece your story together as a whole.

2. The Skeletal Outline

This is one you might have seen in a high school English class. You may be familiar with the drawing for the skeletal method, and it is simple, but it’s tried and true, and I’ve used this method when I need to effectively and quickly map out the direction my story is heading in.

Photo by Slideplayer

The goal here is to fill your story with markers at the major plot points. This includes:

  1. Starting your piece off with the exposition. What is life like in the beginning?
  2. The rising action. What happens next? What major points lead up to the big event?
  3. The climax. Here it is: your time to shine. This moment is the biggest. What’s the high point of your story? Where does all the action come from?
  4. Falling action. What is life like after the climax?
  5. Resolution. Your ending. How does it all turn out?

While this one may be the most straightforward, it contributes to a clean-cut story, and it’s easy to understand when you go back to look at your notes.

3. Book Boards

This is one of the more physical options. If you’re a more hands-on or visual person, this may be the right outlining technique for you.

A book board doesn’t have to be a cork/white-board. It can be your wall, sticky notes all over your mirror, and the like. I have used this method for my last two lengthier pieces of writing since I know it helps me to physically see it mapped out in front of me.

The easiest way to do this I’ve found is to gather your pieces, then organize. Your pieces could include:

  1. Notecards.
  2. String.
  3. Stickers.
  4. Pictures.
  5. Journal pages.

Once I have all my pieces, I work my way down the list. What works best for me is to organize by material and content. For example:

Put character traits and information on notecards, and if you have pictures, place those around their corresponding characters.

Connect strips of paper or rolling paper to make a timeline in order to write down your series of events. Use the string to connect characters, places, pictures, and notes to different sections of the timeline.

Overall, this method is for if you have a lot of time and craft supplies on your hands. And the best part? There aren’t any rules, and there’s no structure. Go nuts with it.

4. A Notecard File System

Yes, you read that right. It’s not traditional, but it’s more fun (I think) and hands-on. All you need is:

  1. A small box.
  2. Notecards.
  3. Something to write with.

And that’s it! There are many ways to do this, but I like to think that I’m writing the book with the notecards.

The front card in my box always has the title, and I layer character and setting cards behind it, marking it off with a notecard that I’ve flipped onto its side. Behind that, we have the rest of the book.

First, I’ll fill out a couple cards with main plot points (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution) and fill in the gaps with the more cards I make. Before you know it, your system will be full and useful, and your piece will be halfway written.

5. Descriptions and Characters

This method is a little more abstract, and should mostly be used if you aren’t sure what exactly will happen throughout your piece, and you’re going to have to be okay with that.

If you’re like me, your stories are heavily character-based rather than plot-based, meaning that you need to focus more on characters in your plot descriptions as well. That’s where outlining your novel via the characters come in.

You create an outline in any form you want, but instead of basing characters and extra notes around the main timeline, you start with your main character’s character arc and expand on that. This is extremely free form, so I would take this method as a chance to experiment.

Bonus: No Outline

The title was misleading, wasn’t it? Yes, number six is to have absolutely no outline.

Outlines aren’t for everyone. Some don’t find them helpful, and some simply don’t need them. Whether or not you choose to use an outline is up to you, as it could help or, honestly, worsen your story if this kind of thing isn’t for you. Either way, outlines are made to help us keep track of our pieces, and how we’re going to work through them. So happy writing, and pick what you know will work for you.

Novelist/student. 20 years old. I write about writing and mental health. Check me out on Amazon or Barnes and Noble!

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