O is for Outlines

BLAST_OAs a screenwriter, outlines are mandatory. Not so for authors. If you’re penning a novel, it seems as if you must choose between two camps – plotter (those who outline) or pantser (those who start writing a manuscript sans outline). But it doesn’t have to be one or the other, and I think the vast space between these polar opposites is where most writers fit. So with that in mind, the following three tips for outlining are more like stages, moving from macro to micro in scope.

3 Stages for Writing Outlines

Tentpoles. These are crucial events in every story. I believe they’re called “tentpoles” because they give a story shape the way tentpoles structure a tent. Without tentpoles, your story (and your tent) will fall flat. Tentpoles are things like the Inciting Incident, Call to Action, Midpoint, Crisis and Resolution. Even writers who identify themselves as pantsers often have these tentpoles in mind before they begin writing. I follow this “Save the Cat Basic Beats” model to get all my tentpoles set up.

Beat Sheet. In the post noted above, I call tentpoles “basic beats” because they are the bare minimum needed. A full beat sheet, however, drafts all the little beats in between the big tentpoles. But what is a beat? It’s an action that moves the story forward. Each beat leads to the next. If you can erase a beat and not change the story, well, then, that’s not a beat. For me, the Beat Sheet is a fun game of fill-in-the-blanks, or if we want to stick with the tent metaphor, I’m filling my tent with supplies that will get me through the trip.

Scene Outline. This is the itinerary part of the camping trip. Not everyone likes this stage, and that’s okay because there’s no obligation to do it! However, some of us like to work out the fine points before hitting the road. For this step, I take the action in the beats and develop it into scenes that outline the hero’s want, conflict and change for each one. For more information, check out this handy scene checklist!

2 Examples of Outlines

There are lots of ways to outline. You can scribble notes on scrap pieces of paper. You can make flow charts. You can use Scrivener (I hear they have templates for outlining, though I haven’t checked out the program yet). You can even pin index cards to a bulletin board, like this:

The Board: I've begun plotting scenes on index cards.
The Board: I’ve begun plotting scenes on index cards.

Or if you’re J.K. Rowling, you can make a spreadsheet!


1 Link for more help

If you’re not sure why you’d ever want to outline, check out this post: 5 Reasons To Outline Your Novel.

And in case you’re just dropping in now, here’s our April A to Z list thus far:

A is for Antagonist

B is for Backstory

C is for Character Change

D is for Dialogue

E is for External Conflict

F is for False Stakes

G is for Genre

H is for Heroes

I is for Internal Conflict

J is for Juxtaposition

K is for Kittens!

L is for Laughs

M is for Midpoint

N is for Narrative

Coming up:

P is for Pinch Point

Q is for Questions

Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

17 thoughts on “O is for Outlines”

  1. Excellent point about the flexible scale between a pantser and a plotter. I’m the former, but in truth I fluctuate across the scale – depending on the project. Though my outlining is not the most in depth, my tentpoles are in place!

  2. These are great. I got a start to understand all of this stuff with “20 Master Plots and How to Build Them” but I’ll have to look into Save the Cat as well… I’ve heard it as a reference material a few times now.

    1. I highly recommend it! As much as I love writing craft, I rarely finish writing books because they are long and often over-explain. But Save The Cat is detailed yet short and to-the-point. It really helped me get a handle on long-form structure! (i.e. novels and films as opposed to the TV episodes I was used to writing)

    1. As a plotter, pure pantsing sounds terrifying! Like jumping out of a helicopter with no parachute and hoping you sprout wings before you hit the ground! Question – do you have an ending in mind for the book? Even if it’s just one moment that you work towards? Or do you just start writing and see where the characters land?

  3. This is so true: ” I think the vast space between these polar opposites is where most writers fit.”

    I often see comments in outlining posts from writers who aren’t sure where they fit. I think I’m more the pantser type so I’ll have to check out your “5 Reasons To Outline” post. Love the tentpoles idea.
    P.S. The HP spreadsheet image is spectacular. I’ve never seen that. 😀

    1. It’s human nature to want to define people and put them in groups, when really most of us are a hybrid of different types. I’ve been seeing that term a bit when applied to writers – “hybrid” – a writer who is a little bit pantser and a little bit plotter. So maybe that will catch on and it will be less of an “us against them” thing, and those writers in the middle will feel they have a place to fit in. 🙂

  4. Thank you! On FB, I’ve seen authors post a pic of their bulletin board full of notes. I’m only a wannabe writer at this point. Not sure how I’m going to do the planning but there will definitely be some plan or outline in mind. I’m not a pantser at heart. 🙂

    1. Glad you’re getting some ideas about how writers outline. There are lots of different methods! I’m still perfecting mine and trying different strategies (like should I do character sketches before a beat sheet or after or at the same time?!). Good luck with figuring out your method!

  5. Once I was introduced to the world of planning I’ve never looked back. I enjoy setting up my stories in advance. Anything can happen. It forces me to look at the big picture and not just the hook. I use index cards so I can move scenes around if I think of something better. What most writers who refuse to “plan” (sometimes the word “outline” raises hackles) don’t realize, I think, is that planning doesn’t stifle creativity, it enhances it. And once you get your tent poles, or beats, in place you can pants your way from one to the other. As long each scene has a mission and drives the story forward. I’ve pants novels and planned novels, and the difference is this: you can start without a plan, but you’re just going to have to go back and plant clues once you figure out who the killer is, you’ll have to plant red herrings, Mc Guffin, and rewrite scenes, fill in plotholes, etc. So why not plan it out to begin with and spend less time on multiple drafts? Simple logic if you ask me.

    I’ll be sorry to see this series end. Keep up the excellent work!

    1. I totally agree! Spending less time on multiple drafts is my goal! Also, I like working through the macro to micro levels of a story. I think my brain would explode if I tried to do everything at once!

      So glad you’re enjoying our A to Z posts. But don’t worry, when we go back to our regular blogging schedule in May (me on Mondays, Robin on Wednesdays), we’ll continue to share writing craft advice. The only difference is these A to Z posts are planned, and my regular posts are usually based around, “What did I screw up this week? And how can I learn from that and share this new writing wisdom with others?”

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