When you’re imagining a story, creating the characters for it is just another part of the job. It’s almost automatic, the way they get into your mind, showing you what they look like, how they think, yet, putting those things down on paper isn’t always as obvious or easy to do.
I’m not talking about poor writing skills here, no. They can be well written and yet, not appear interesting at all or straight up unappealing. So, what can you do?
With this post I listed 10 outline techniques to help writes move their story from a basic idea to a complete set of arcs, plots, sequences and/or scenes. Or to simply expand whatever you have in hands right now.
If you have a vague story idea or a detailed one, this post is for you to both discover and organize. A few technique will work perfectly. A few won’t. Your mission is to find the one that works best for you. That said, I advice you to try out as many techniques as possible.
So, are you ready? Open your notebook, or your digital document, and let’s start.
1. Snowflake method: Start with a one-sentence description of the novel. Then, develop this simple phrase into a paragraph. Your next step is to write a one-page summary based on the paragraph, you can write about characters, motivations, goals, plots, options, whatever you feel like. From this point on, you can either start your book or expand the one-page summary into four pages. And, at last, four pages into a brief description of known sequences of scenes. Your goal is to make the story more and more complex as you add information, much like a forming snowflake.
2. Chapter by chapter: List ten to twenty chapters, give each chapter a tittle and a brief description of what should happen. Then, break each chapter into three to five basic sequences of scenes. Give each sequence a title, a brief description and a short list of possibilities (possibilities of dialogues, scenarios, outcomes, moods, feelings… just play around with possibilities). From this point on, you can either create the scenes of sequences with a one-sentence description for each or jump straight to writing. Your goal is to shift from the big picture to a detail-oriented point of view.
3. Script: This might sound crazy, but, with this technique, you will write the screenplay of your story as if it’s a movie. No strings attached to creative writing, just plain actions and dialogues with basic information. Writing a script will take time, maybe months, but it will also enlighten your project like no other technique. Your goal is to create a cinematic view of your story. How to write a script here.
4. Free writing: No rules, no format, no step, just grab a pen or prepare your fingers to write down whatever idea that comes up. Think of possibilities, characters, places, quests, journeys, evolutions, symbolisms, fears, good moments, bad moments, clothing, appearances. Complete five to ten pages. Or even more. The more you write, the more you will unravel. You can even doodle, or paste images. Your mission is to explore freely.
5. Tag: This technique is ideal if you have just a vague idea of the story. Start by listing ten to fifteen tags related to the story. Under each tag, create possible plots. And, under each plot, create possible scenes. Grab a red felt pen and circle plots and scenes that sparkle your interest.
6. Eight-point arc: With this technique you will divide your story into eight stages. They are Stasis, Trigger, Quest, Surprise, Critical Choice, Climax, Reversal and Resolution. The Stasis is the every-day-life of your main character. Trigger is an event that will change the every-day-life of your character (for better or for worse). Quest is a period of your main characters trying to find a new balance, a new every-day-life (because we all love a good routine). Surprise will take your character away from their new found every-day-life. Critical Choice is a point of no return, a dilemma, your character will have to make the hardest decision out of two outcomes, both equally important. Climax is the critical choice put to practice. Reversal is the consequence of the climax, or how the characters evolved. Resolution is the return to a new (or old) every-day-life, a (maybe everlasting) balance.
7. Reverse: Write down a description of how your story ends, what happens to your characters and to those around them. Make it as detailed as possible. Then, move up to the climax, write a short scenario for the highest point of your story. From there, build all the way back to the beginning.
8. Zigzag: Draw a zigzag with as many up and downs as you want. Every up represents your main character moving closer to their goal. Every down represents your main character moving further from their goal. Fill in your zigzag with sequences that will take your character closer and farther from the goal.
9. Listing: The focus of this technique is exploring new ideas when your story feels empty, short or stagnated. You’ll, basically make lists. Make a long list of plot ideas. Make another list of places and settings. Make a list of elements. And a list of possible characters. Maybe a list of book titles. Or a list of interesting scenes. A list of bad things that could happen inside this universe. A list of good things. A list of symbolism. A list of visual inspiration. A list of absurd ideas you’ll probably never use. Then, gather all this material and circle the good items. Try to organize them into a timeline.
10. Character-driven: Create a character. Don’t worry about anything else. Just think of a character, their appearance and style. Give them a name. Give them a basic personality. Give them a backstory. Develop their personality based on the backstory. Now, give this character a story that mirrors their backstory (maybe a way to overcome the past, or to grow, or to revenge, or to restore). Based on your character’s personality, come up with a few scenes to drive their story from beginning to end. Now, do the same thing for the antagonist and secondary characters.
So, when is it time to stop outlining and start writing?
This is your call. Some writers need as many details as they can get, some need just an basic plot to use as a North. Just remember, an outline is not a strict format, you can and you will improvise along the way. The most important is being comfortable with your story, exploring new ideas, expanding old concepts and, maybe, changing your mind many times. There’s no right or wrong, just follow your intuition.