Outlines–you’ve probably heard of them but keep getting mixed messages, “They’re great!” “They’re okay.” “I never use them.” “I never stick to the outline.” You don’t know what to think of them, so let’s break it down.
In school you learned the traditional outline for an essay:
And so forth.
In writing, there are several ways to do an outline. The first one is the Skeleton Outline, which is very similar to the essay outline—just without the ‘I)’ ‘A)’ and ‘a)’. Here is an example from a random, time travel story I wrote just for fun, and the character ‘Elf’ is not an elf but an ELF—Energy Life Form. He is pure energy with a wicked sense of humor and can ‘possess’ objects making them come alive as long as he’s inside them.
Late that night, the city sleeps (here we introduce the setting)
Weston mutters in his sleep (important details of what happens)
A breeze flutters the drapes
Weston awakes to the horror of Elf, who threatens him
Elf disappears, leaving a very disturbed Weston
Elf returns to Sindric and reports (new scene)
Sindric is pleased (what happens in scene)
Sindric turns back to Helen’s letter
You can recognize the essay format. This is the barest of all outlines. It introduces the scene, then lists the basic details of what happens in the scene. Usually no dialogue is listed unless it absolutely important.
The next form of outlines is the Block Outline. This one contains much more detail and differs greatly from the Skeleton Outline. Here’s an example using the same scene from above:
Later that night when all is sleeping, a draft disturbs the drapes in Weston’s room. He mumbles in his sleep something about stubborn horses and not enough to drink. Breeze comes into the room. Weston ignores it and tries to sleep, but then he suddenly senses the presence of something in the room. He quickly wakes and is startled by the glowing wraith of Elf. Weston tries to get away, but Elf flies into his face. He warns him about betraying countries, etc. When Elf is certain Weston is too scared for the night, only then does he vanish with a wicked laugh he picked up from a movie before everything went bad. Candles blow out. Terrified, Weston doesn’t know if it was a dream or not.
Still giggling at himself, Elf flies through the empty streets and slips into Sindric’s window. Sindric is waiting for him. Elf announces his success and declares he should do that more often; it was fun! Sindric is amused but returns to his conversation with Helen on the paper.
Each paragraph is a scene, and it contains as much detail as you want to remember. It can include specific dialogue if you have anything in mind. This form of outline is a great way to get all the details out of your head and not rely on your memory to remember them.
As you can see, these paragraphs are blocks, and the paragraphs can get long—sometimes taking up an entire page. No indentations at the beginning of them, and that is done purposely because you want a clear distinction between the outline and the story. These outlines can look as daunting, messed up, and overwhelming as you would like because no one else will ever see it.
This is also always written in third person present tense. When written this way, the voice is very telling and not showing. This form of outline can be so thorough, you may feel that you’ve invested all the energy required for the scene, but if you purposely have the voice telling, you know you’re not finished with the story yet. You need to convert it from telling to showing.
Here is the scene I wrote based on that outline:
Once everyone retired to their respective chambers, Weston crawled into bed unable to hinder the content smile on his face. Everything was falling into place. It would be perfect, and thus he drifted off to sleep with such ideal thoughts.
A night phantom breeze breathed into the room, twisting the drapes into a ghostly figure before slipping further into the room. Its touch ruffled the feathers on his blanket and stirred pages of open books.
Weston mumbled something in his sleep, “Stubborn horses…” He murmured some more, “Didn’t get enough to drink…” He then turned onto his side, tugging the blanket closer to his chin. A lurking thought latched onto his mind, but the knight dismissed it. He tried to slip back into a deeper sleep, but his trained body sensed what his mind had yet to comprehend.
Weston’s eyes shot open.
“Hello,” Elf’s glowing face greeted him.
“AH!” Weston leapt back as far as he could while lying flat on his bed.
A wicked grin claimed Elf’s face, revealing all his pointy teeth. The ELF flew into his face and grabbed him by the front of his shirt. “Now listen here, buddy, and listen close. We all know you’re just a good-for-nothing stupid knight wanna-be, whose got less skill than a 4-year-old. We know your plans, and you will NEVER succeed. Do ya hear?” Elf demanded, bringing his bright glowing face centimeters away from Weston’s death pale features. “Well, do ya?”
Unable to form any coherent words, Weston stuttered and stumbled over his words, nodding fast. “Y-y-yes!”
“And if I even catch you even attempting to carry out your plan, I shall summon all great and evil spirits from the afterlife, and we will torment your mind so much, you will wish for death! DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
“Yes what?” Elf growled.
“Sir?” Weston’s voice cracked under the strain of the single word.
Elf smiled with evil smirk and backed off. “Very good,” he nodded still hovering in the air. “Remember that.” With that, he spun around ready to dart out of the window, but Weston stopped him.
“W-w-wait!” the knight gulped when the night terror turned back to him. Managing to find his voice and gather his courage, Weston asked, “W-what are you?”
The smile returned but this time cold and unforgiving. “Your worst nightmare.” Candles blew out with a gust of wind, and Elf flew away faster than an falcon with wicked laughter in his wake.
“BWHAHAHA! I always wanted to say that!” Elf exclaimed as he came to a landing on the windowsill of Sindric’s room where the Scriptor waited.
“Say what?” Sindric opened the window to allow the ELF in.
Adopting the same voice he used to scare Weston witless, Elf demonstrated, “I am your worst nightmare. BWHAHAHAHA!”
Sindric looked at him with furrowed brows. “Did you really laugh like that?”
“Well, of course!” Elf sounded offended. “You can’t possibly be a good bad guy without the evil villain laugh. BWHAHAHAHA!”
“I see,” the words crawled out of Sindric mouth before he decided not to bother trying to understand Elf’s strange perspective. He focused on the task at hand and folded his arms across his chest. “How did it go?” the Scriptor inquired of their mission.
“Perfectly smooth!” Elf slid his palms together to illuminate just how smooth he meant. “If he does anything after this, then he’s denser than a hardheaded rock!”
Sindric decided to let the comment slide. He turned to his desk, unfolding his arms as he approached. Papers spread across the surface in a loose order, but that did not concern Sindric. He sifted through the paperwork before singling out a specific paper. Holding it up, he scanned it over and smiled. His plan was in motion.
So you see, the scene is much more alive now that it was fleshed out. With the outlines, we merely had a body, but when you write the actual scene, you breath life into that body, and it takes on a life of its own.
“Are outlines necessary? I mean, do I have to use one when I write a story?” Of course not. I both use and don’t used them. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I find when I don’t use an outline, I don’t finish the story about 80% of the time, but then there are times when I don’t have an outline, and the story just takes off, and all I can do is hang on for dear life.
“Do I have to use these forms of outlines?” No. If you have a style that works for you, do that. I’ve seen many writers stress out over outlining because they don’t know how to do it, so these ideas are merely examples of how it can be done. If it doesn’t work for you, find out why it doesn’t work, and tweak it to work for you if you intend to use an outline when writing.
Note: When co-writing though, outlining is important, but we will go into more detail on that when we discuss co-writing.
Next week I will show you another form of outlines useful when writing historical fiction or any kind of writing that requires a lot of dates, and then we’ll get into more details of the pros and cons of outlines.