Just like you need to plan for a trip, outlining your story can help you be prepared, but with a flexible itinerary ⤺ Tweet This!
Eventually, regardless of what they’re taught, every author develops different, unique ways of composing their fiction, or non-fiction. No method is “right” or “wrong” as long as the job gets done correctly, and in a timely fashion (assuming you have a deadline, whether it’s imposed by a client or employer, or just your way of sustaining consistent progress on your project).
If you’re like me – and for your sake, I hope that’s not the case – you just dream up a title, a first line, and maybe a final line, and then fill in the spaces between, allowing the characters to tell their own stories.
If fact, I often write the last paragraph first, so I know exactly how it ends. This informs my narrative with advance information. However, the ending can change as I write, but at least I have a general destination in mind, however much I deviate from the map and detour from my own path. As long as I never lead the reader astray, it’s all good.
But for the more cautious or at least organized among you, here are five suggestions for how to outline a book, which can also be applied (if modified) to flash fiction, journalism, etc.
1. List your characters – this includes not only their names, but also their distinctive personality traits, individual histories (whether you actually refer to them in the body of the work or not – the literary equivalent of “method acting”), and any other characteristics that will flesh them out in your own mind. This will help your own creations guide you through the work. This also works for non-fiction, except ideally you won’t be fabricating any of the details.
2. Write a brief plot synopsis – I say “brief” but that’s relative to the scope of the narrative. If it’s an epic historical saga, your notes could be the equivalent of a novelette in length. Whatever works for you. My point is the synopsis is but a blueprint, not a contract, so feel free to change anything as you go, while allowing your imagination lots of freedom to weave new story threads spontaneously.
3. Describe the setting – not just for your audience, but for yourself, so you can visualize all of the action in vivid mental Technicolor (or vibrant chiaroscuro, if it’s more of a noir piece). If your story is set in a real place you’ve never actually been, make sure you research it thoroughly. If you’re just making a place up, do the same!
4. Write some sample paragraphs – again, this is to be considered classified information, For Your Eyes Only, but it will help you significantly in the long run if you first establish the voice, tone and mood of your narrative style with some experimental passages, dialogue exchanges, etc. Think of it as your own private “spring training” before heading onto the major league field. It doesn’t officially count, but practice makes perfect, or close enough.
5. Compose your own soundtrack – for many writers, including myself, listening to music while writing can be very inspirational, especially when it comes to sustaining a specific atmosphere. Go to Spotify or iTunes and organize a customized song list that accurately reflects the “feeling” of your piece, its place and its people. And don’t worry about “rights issues.” It’s not like you’re going to sell the soundtrack album. Unless of course, it’s a screenplay that gets the green light…
So there you go. Good luck. Just don’t waste so much time on your outline that you have no time or energy left for the actual story.
And remember, things often don’t go according to plan, whether in real life, or on the page. Just roll with it.