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7 1/2 Different Ways to Outline (and 2 other Ways to Get an Overview Perspective on) Your Book or Script

seeing the forest w eye-line stick-macrocosmi-bw-horizSometimes you want to step back from the trees to see the forest.

You don’t have to outline your book or script before you start writing (I think some ‘exploratory writing’ is healthy for most books or scripts before any outline gets locked down. You’d take a car for a test drive, wouldn’t you?), but eventually you’ll want to re-gain perspective.

You can (and a lot of writers do – don’t pretend you didn’t!) get away without an outline for the first rough draft, but you can’t do a serious re-write without one (see 4 Different Kinds of Re-Writes) – unless you’re Stephen King, who famously, publicly and condescendingly dismisses outlines all together. Without diminishing King’s genius, I think some of his books could have been a lot better with an outline and maybe an ending? Anyway…

You don’t have to create an outline before you start drafting but most writers ultimately need and eventually use one– especially before or during a rewrite.

There’s no reason to limit yourself to just one method of outlining either. Different kinds of outlines reveal different aspects of character and story and may be better suited to different phases of the writing process in different projects. Each one will give you a different perspective and when you’re writing any large-scale project, you need all the perspective you can get.

During the writing process, writers have to (and want to – and should) get caught up in the words and details – but that inevitably means a shift in focus from the forest to the trees. Outlines are a way to discover, map and keep track of where you (and the reader) are in the forest. They are your GPS during the writing process.

1) Vonnegut’s Axis

by Kurt Vonnegut http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oP3c1h8v2ZQ

Vonnegut’s approach is a graphic chart of the shapes of stories. It won’t help you with the details of plot, but it’s a great way of seeing the big picture. This bird’s eye map can aid your drafting process by reminding you at a glance if the scene you’re writing comes at a high point or low point of the character’s story.

VONNEGUTS AXISThe G-I Axis (up-down) represents Good fortune (wealth, boisterous good health) to Ill fortune (sickness, poverty) for the main character.

The B-E Axis (left-right) represents the timeline of your story from Beginning to End.

Does your character start at a high point or a low point? Do their fortunes rise or fall? Dramatically or gradually? And where do they end up?

2) Linear Chronological Outlines

This is probably the way you were taught to outline an essay in school – and maybe the reason you’re against outlines to begin with. Admit it; you think they’re non-creative busy-work.

If the idea of an ‘outline’ is a turn-off, think of it as a sequence of catchy dramatic headlines that you can jot down on paper or in a digital file – whatever you have to do because chances are you will (or should!) use this form of outlining more than once over the course of a project. It’s just this…

  1. Act, Chapter or Sequence 1
    1. Headline for story beat or scene 1 (i.e. ‘Intro Dorothy & Family’)
    2. This also could be a sequence that functions as a single dramatic unit (‘Dog runs away, Dorothy goes after it, menaced by mean lady’)
    3. A story turn (‘Dorothy runs away but kindly old gent convinces her to go back home’)
    4. Or a major plot point (‘Tornado strikes, Dorothy & Toto whisked away in house’)
  2. Act 2
    1. This method charts the topography of the forest (‘Dorothy lands in Oz and meets munchkins’)
    2. While noting specific trees (‘Dorothy meets Glinda the Good Witch, inherits the ruby slippers and sent on the yellow brick road to Oz’)

Continue like that through the timeline of the whole story. If you don’t know what happens ‘next’ but have an idea about something that happens in the middle or end of the story, go ahead and fill those in. Then try to fill in the blanks and connect the dots between beats or story points you do know.

3) Character Outlines

You can also look at your project as multiple concurrent linear outlines that list story developments from an individual character’s point-of-view (whether the events ultimately appear ‘on-screen’ or not.

The Witch of the West’s character outline might start like this:

  • ~ Hears her Sister has been killed, races to the scene
  • ~ Finds Dorothy, who steals the magic shoes and takes off for Oz
  • ~ Tracks Dorothy’s progress through the crystal ball
  • ~ Tries to scare Dorothy’s henchmen away
  • ~ Enchants poppies
  • ~ Sends Winged Monkeys to get Dorothy
  • ~ Etc.

Through her story up to…

  • ~ Murdered by Dorothy

This kind of outline is quite helpful in anchoring each character’s point-of-view. Try an Outline for each major character.

4) Index Card Outlines

(Also see Why I Love Index Cards pt. 1 and pt. 2)

I love working with index cards! I find the cards an extremely flexible and illuminating way of outlining. They help me feel free to easily re-arrange or cut beats or scenes and are a really effective way of identifying and charting multiple characters and storylines.

  • Label each card in MAGIC MARKER HEADLINE with the main story beat or scene. Feel free to add details in pen or pencil.
  • Lay out the cards on a table, pin them to a bulletin board or tape them to the wall using painter’s tape. This lets you stand back and take in the entire project at a glance.
  • Arrange the cards, potentially in rows by sequence (or act) from left to right. Each scene or act gets a new row.
  • Rearrange the cards before, during and after you draft.

index cards-Dark Eagle I-II-2797-SMHere’s what it looks like in action on a recent project of mine.

When outlining scripts, sometimes I even color-code them! A green dot on an action scene card, red for love story beats, etc. I’m very visual so this system helps me see the dispersion and flow of different story elements through the piece.

I use plain 3”x5” white cards (which are still under a dollar for a pack of 100!) and painter’s tape so I can hang them on the wall without tearing off the paint.

5) Pie Chart Outlines

Adapted from Beth Lapides (http://uncabaret.com/bethlapides)

Writer-performer Beth Lapides developed this method to chart her theater shows, but it’s quite useful for any large-scale prose project or script.

PIECHART21. Draw a circle. 12 o’clock is the beginning and end of your piece.

2. Start sketching in slices of material in sequence and in proportion to the time/pages they occupy

This pie chart example is for a traditionally-structured TV drama. Your project might feature a much larger number of smaller slices.

Beth points out that the pie chart connects the beginning and end so you, the creator, remember it’s connected and your readers/audience have the experience of coming full circle but (hopefully) changed.

5 1/2) Proportional Representation

Screenwriter Ron Bass applies the same idea of proportional representation to a linear page count. After creating a Linear Outline, but before drafting, he assigns a specific duration to every scene down to the ¼ page. Does that conversation really warrant 5 pages/minutes/%? Using the Pie Chart Method, you can actually see how much space things take up.

6) Darwin’s Novel Plot Grid

by Emma Darwin http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/2010/05/help-yourself.html

This is another way to plot out your plot schematically, before, during and/or after drafting.

Writer/teacher Emma Darwin uses an Excel spreadsheet for plotting novels and offers it as a free download. She uses rows for characters and her columns are: Thread A, Backstory Revealed, Offstage, Character Links/Echoes, Themes, Politics and Weather. Of course you can adapt it (or set up your own template) using any categories of material.

7) Story Software

A lot of writers love and use story development software. Several of these programs integrate outlining, brainstorming, suggested storylines and even scripting all in one package.

Do bear in mind that these are complex tools with their own terminology. As with all software, there’s going to be a learning curve, and it may take you a while to learn how to effectively use them. Remember that the software is a means to an end (writing your project) and be careful that learning a new program doesn’t become the project.

For a newer story software program on the market, also see

These are specialized story development programs. You can also use any brainstorming or mind-mapping software – or trusty index cards.

8) Treatments

Not really an outline method per se, a treatment is a prose version of your story (including all key story beats) in linear chronological sequence.

A treatment can run from 1-20 pages depending on the level of detail. It’s a way of thinking things through before you draft at length, a kind of scale model, and can be really helpful to articulate the central narrative, essential storylines and character motivation and to highlight and flesh out important moments.

It’s frankly very challenging to make the project seem exciting in such a condensed form. Condensing and simplifying your project this much tends to have a blandly genericizing effect. That’s one reason why book proposals are a writing project in and of themselves and why treatments are often the least effective way of selling a project.

But treatments can be very useful in the development process. Some screenwriters make extended scene-by-scene treatments before drafting and I’ve treatmented (new verb!) sections of material during drafting and re-writing to excellent effect.

Consider writing a treatment version of your project after you create an outline but before you do a full-length draft. Also see 6 Elements to Include in Your TV Pitch.

9) Storyboards

Turn your script into a visual treament with…

Amazon http://studios.amazon.com/storyteller?ref=astu_amzn_qp or Plotagon https://plotagon.com/

If you’re really visual, or having trouble ‘seeing’ your project, consider sketching it out or using one of these digital programs.

My advice is to use any device, method or technique(s) you can to get and keep perspective on the forest so you can be free to get all up in those trees while you draft!

Write on.

If you need help developing, analyzing, planning and/or revising your book or script, I can help. E-mail gregorymilleris@gmail.com or call 323-717-4731.

2 comments on “7 1/2 Different Ways to Outline (and 2 other Ways to Get an Overview Perspective on) Your Book or Script

  1. Amanda
    November 24, 2014

    Great, helpful list – BTW, Scrivener is just complex word processing (and fabulous!), it doesn’t take you through story beats the way the other software mentioned does; doesn’t really belong on that list.

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This entry was posted on November 23, 2014 by in Creative Process, Rewriting, Story Structure and tagged , , , .
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