Untraditional Outline Techniques

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Writing

This past week we’ve been talking about outlines.  On Monday I asked the question: Plotter or Pantser? Where Do You Stand?  That post got me thinking about my own writing process.

I’m usually not a seat-of-my-pants writer but I hate traditional outlines.  Something about long lists (I.A, 2.b–it’s all Greek to me) just doesn’t work for my visual brain.  I think it’s my background in design that means those outlines are too logical and sequential for me.  To that end, I wanted to share some plotting devices that have worked better for me.  These techniques help me organize my writing without killing the spontaneity.

Mind Mapping

Unlike traditional techniques, this technique forces you to look at a topic from multiple different angles. It also makes it easy for you to see an entire project in one glance, rather than having to read through line-by-line to get a sense of the full story.  While it usually lends itself more toward nonfiction, mind mapping can also be a great way to brainstorm ideas for a fiction project.

How to Apply this to Fiction: Try mind-mapping your story or novel by making each of the main branches as chapter topics or major events in the story.  The sub-branches can be scenes that sub-divide these larger branches.  There are no rules with mind-mapping so feel free to doodle and make notes (I use thought bubbles and speech bubbles to add notes to my mind maps, as you can see in the image.)

Here’s the very first mind map I used to brainstorm DIY MFA back in 2010 when it was just a glimmer of an idea.

Story Maps

We talked about this one in Tuesday’s post: Mapping Out Your Story but here’s a recap for those of you who missed it.

I love subway maps.  What can I say, I’m a New Yorker so it’s in my blood.  Recently, I started outlining stories using New York-style subway maps.  Just as subway lines intersect, different subplots weave in and out of the main plot thread in a novel or short story.  I like to think of writing as a journey so to me, this idea of mapping out a story works. Tip: If the subway analogy doesn’t resonate with you, try thinking of the map as roadways with local exits and big intersections.

How to Apply this to Fiction: The different threads in a story are in different colors.  Scenes in each thread are marked as subway stops (or exits).  If a scene applies to more than one story thread, then it becomes an intersection.  What I love about this technique is that when I sit down to write a scene, all I’m writing is a “dot” of the story.  Dot’s aren’t big and scary; they’re cute and round.  They’re just dots for crying out loud!  Somehow in my mind, it seems a lot more manageable.

To see a subway map of one of my favorite novels, The Hunger Games visit this post.

Scene Cards

This technique is super-portable, which is one of the reasons I love it.  Take a stack of index cards and make one card for each scene you know needs to happen in your story.  What’s nice about this technique is that you don’t have to write the scenes in order (you can move the cards around), and you can always add more cards later if you think you need them. 

How to Apply this to Fiction: On each card write the following information.

  •  Scene Title: Something easy to remember like “Scene where Jimmy falls from the tree.”
  • Characters: Who’s in this scene?
  • Events: What happens?
  • Setting: Where are we?
  • Purpose: Why do you need this scene? (Character development? Important plot point? Reveal important information?)  This last one is crucial because if you can’t think of a purpose for the scene then you have to question whether you need the scene at all.

Some computer programs actually have an index card function built in (Scrivener, for instance) which is nice because it makes editing and moving the cards around even easier.  I still like the old-fashioned method because it means I can grab a handful of cards and take it with me anywhere.

Also, for those of you who love spreadsheets, you can do the exact same thing but use Excel or some other spreadsheet software.  Just make each of the bullet points above into columns on the chart and have each row represent a different scene.  Voila!  You have your story in spreadsheet form.

Story Sketch

This technique got a post all of its own back in March called Rough Sketch: A Snapshot to Capture Your Work-In-Progress.  The idea behind the story sketch is to capture the main elements of your story in a one-page document.  It forces you to really narrow down the complexities of your story into the few most important elements and makes it easy for you to see the overall trajectory at a glance.  What’s also great about this technique is that you can give copies of it to critique partners new to your story to bring them up-to-speed.

How to Apply this to Fiction: Download a Story Sketch worksheet and fill it out!  For more details, read the post on the Story Sketch to learn what each part of the worksheet means.

Have I convinced you yet that outlines can be awesome?  Try one of these techniques–one that’s new to you–and see if it works for you!

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  • Good stuff, Gabriela. I’ve been using Excel for my WIP because it was the only way I could see the whole story at once (off the computer screen) more-or-less easily. I have a column for the chapter and scene number, color-coded columns for each of the major characters (plus “Others” as needed), and a column for the timeline. Each scene gets a row. For each scene, I write a brief description of what happens in the columns for the characters involved. If two or more characters happen to be in side-by-side columns, I’ll stretch the text across the columns. Printed out in landscape format, the outline is two sheets wide by 14 sheets high (or about 1.5 X 7.5 FEET!) but not only can I see it all, it’s easy to change and rearrange.

    For me, and for this complex story, this works well. For someone else, it won’t. But that’s OK–these are all techniques, not rule, right?

    • Gabriela

      Wow Ross! That is an awesome approach. I picture doing something like that and hanging it on my office wall when I’m done with writing the book! Like a badge of honor.

      And yes, it’s all about finding the method that’s right for you and your story. Thanks so much for sharing that!

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  • Patti Mallett

    Thanks, Gabriela!! (I couldn’t find your name. Thanks for the help there, Ross. And for sharing your very cool Excel method, too.)

    Very helpful post and one I will certainly be trying. It looks right up my alley.

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