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A New Approach to Outlining

Seeking a middle ground in the plotters vs. pantsers debate.

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When I was about 12, I played baseball in the street with a group of neighborhood kids. None of us knew how to play; the point was to have fun.

One day while we were playing, a girl who lived in a big house on the corner – Jenny, I distinctly remember – arrived carrying a clipboard. She’d prepared rules and schedules to bring order and direction to our spontaneous play and started to boss us around.

I didn’t pull any punches. I told Jenny outright that she’d ruined everything, and I wasn’t going to play anymore. Everyone else agreed, and our clumsy baseball games came to an end.

Jenny is the outline: the uptight, high-maintenance spoilsport who tries to control something that should be free and fun and spontaneous.

Or so people who decry the outline would have you believe.

“Pantsers,” or those who write without a plan, claim the outline destroys creativity, that the stories birthed from them are lifeless and filled with paint-by-number plots and characters who act like puppets, not people.

Outlines are the bossy Jenny, ruining our fun. But that’s only because she goes about it the wrong way.

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A middle ground exists to please both the intricate plotters and the improvisational pantsers. This method is customizable, eliminates writer’s block, and stimulates creativity and is made possible by marrying the outline with what seems like its opposite: free-writing. 

What results is not the stereotypical, Roman numeral outline from English class but a first draft and, eventually, a finished novel that’s fresh and unexpected.

Here’s how you do it, in three steps.

Foundations

Most writers are familiar with some basic story structures. The Hero’s Journey. Freytag’s Pyramid. The classic three-act. This is where your middle-ground outline will start.

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So pick one, or pick none of them if you have your own story structure in mind. Or take Freytag’s Pyramid and move it around a bit. Borrow some elements of Fichtean Curve and mix them with the classic three-act. Don’t let these structures restrict you; use them to build something unique and unexpected into your story.

Let’s use the Hero’s Journey as an example of this method. You can list all 12 steps and follow them precisely if you choose. You could also maybe change a couple (what if the Mentor in the “Meeting the Mentor” step is, in fact, a secret villain?) to defy expectation. 

Or you sketch out a loose version, starting with theOrdinary World” to help you get started in your draft; then add in “Crossing the First Threshold” to guide your plunge into the meat of the story, the “Ordeal and Reward” to anchor the middle, and theResurrection” to inspire the ending.

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This structure can be rigid or loose, as loyal to the original as you want, and with as much or as little detail as needed. These structural examples are just the stepping stones to your overall story, and you can use as many or as few of them as you wish. Once you’re satisfied with your framework for the structure of your story, it’s time to improvise.

Lose it

Now for the fun part: free-writing. 

This is where you break free and write down your ideas, ask questions, wonder what if, brainstorm, and think outside the box. Pantsers should feel very comfortable here, and plotters can free-write confidently, knowing their outline will keep them on topic. Its function in this stage is akin to that of the writing prompt, focusing the writer’s imagination in a specific direction.

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Let’s continue to follow the loosely sketched Hero’s Journey structure, moving from the “Ordinary World” to “Crossing the First Threshold” and knowing, roughly, what’s required from both benchmarks (the hero’s everyday life begins in the former, then they step into their new world in the latter). Now, simply free-write between these two points. What is the hero’s ordinary life like? Brainstorm your answers. What will it take to make them leave home? Brainstorm your answers. Explore every plotline and crazy complication that pops up. But most importantly, let your characters show you the story and how they want it to go.

This is a stage of pure creativity, where your only concern is putting down your ideas. There is no pressure here.

Pull it together

The hard work begins now: transforming the unfiltered contents of your imagination into the first draft of your story, in non-narrative, summarized form.

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In the beginning, you’ll be confronted with a mess of free-writing notes, but this mess will be organized in sections. Continuing to use the Hero’s Journey as an example, you will have a set of pages brainstorming your ideas about the “Ordinary World” and another set on “Crossing the First Threshold” and so on.

Read through everything in each section. Eliminate what you don’t like, and add in something new. Shuffle it into some logical order. Maybe something you wrote for the “Ordeal” and “Reward” sections fits better in “Resurrection.” Put it there instead. Your goal is to trim the fluff and organize what’s left.

By the end, your free-writing notes should be streamlined, and a narrative line should surface. Meld this narrative with your predetermined structure from step one, just to make sure everything flows logically from point to point; for example, use it to make sure your midpoint climax doesn’t come too soon or too late.

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The second draft

Once everything is shuffled into its rightful place, you can organize each section into bullet points or scene beats. Revise the outline until everything is perfect, or good enough. By the time you’re done, your outline will likely be about half the intended length of your finished story, not a list of vague bullet points and Roman numerals only a few pages long. The best part? When you’re ready to write, you’re technically starting the second draft. Your first draft is already on paper. 

Now, the pantsers among you may still worry that this method drains the joy of discovering a new story as it’s written. You already know what’s going to happen, after all. Where is the surprise?

Don’t worry, there’s still plenty of room for discovery.

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Brainstorming thoroughly and outlining extensively allows you to spend considerable time in your imagined world. When it’s time to write, you’ll be able to dig even deeper than if you’d started from scratch because a story comes into being the longer it’s explored. 

There’s also room for surprise during the writing process. Before you dig in, create a new, parallel version of your outline – a short form. For each chapter or section, boil down your pages to a list of important points. Walk away from the story for a little while. Let your mind half-forget all your plans. 

When it’s time to face page one, glance at the short form to remind yourself where you’re going. This allows you to work free from your long-form outline, which can be used to inspire – but not dictate – revision.

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The outline isn’t your adversary, conspiring to spoil your fun. It’s a tool of exploration that enhances every stage of the writing process, allowing you to experiment with exciting structures upon which to develop your story, letting you wander your imagined world without pressure or expectation and unearth deeper, more meaningful details.

Creativity is a wild and unexpected creature, but it can co-exist with logic and order. Both are needed. Spontaneity and improvisation help you discover unique stories, but structure ensures the reader understands what you have to say.

The trick lies in knowing how, and when, to wield each power. 

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The books in S.H. Livernois’ supernatural mystery series, The Frontenac Sisters: Supernatural Sleuths & Monster Hunters, are all Indie Author Project (IAP) Select titles. IAP Select features the best indie books as curated by Library Journal, library editorial boards, editors, and librarians. She has also won an indieBRAG Medallion. She lives in Northern New York with her husband and dog. She writes in multiple genres, but everything she writes scares both herself and her loved ones. shlivernoisauthor.com

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