14 Apr

Outline Techniques for Those Who Hate Outlines

Posted in Creativity, DIY MFA, Process, Writing

This past weekend in #diymfa chat, we had a great discussion about outlines and whether we plotted out our stories in detail or wrote by the seat of our pants.  As you can imagine, the responses were as varied as the number of people in the chat.

This discussion got me thinking about my own writing.  I’m not a seat-of-my-pants writer–not even a little–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

I give a detailed How-To for this technique in the first DIY MFA.  Unlike traditional techniques, this type of outline 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.

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 a mind map I used to brainstorm the very first DIY MFA back in September.

Story Maps
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 for me.

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.  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.

Tip: If the subway concept doesn’t work for you, think of this as a road map instead.  The main story threads are interstates, subplots are smaller roads and the dots are the stops you make along the way.

Here’s a subway map I designed to use for DIY MFA.

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 important 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.

Homework: Choose one technique and try it out. Then tell us about it in the comments or on twitter!


Comments on this post

  1. Carrie says:

    I like using the mind mapping technique for some of my writing.
    I also keep index cards for things I'm writing. I like to use them for characters but maybe I should explore using them for scenes.

    1. Ghenet Myrthil says:

      I love your outlining methods, especially the subway map and index cards. The map makes it so easy to plan how various plot lines will intersect, which is so helpful for a first-time novelist like me. 🙂

      1. Julie Musil says:

        I love that scene card method. It's kind of like something I do already. I like it because I can move things around (like you said) and add scenes. Or throw it away. Whatever! Thanks for these great tips.

        1. Najela says:

          I was talking to my playwriting friend and she told me about Action/Reaction/Obstacle. I meant to get her exact outline, but I keep forgetting, however, I adapted my own. I write a little summary of the scene, then write the characters action, then the reaction, then the new obstacle that the character has to overcome. This is my first time using it and so far, I haven't hit any bumps in the road yet.

          1. Alicia Gregoire says:

            I love scene cards. I started using those when I first decided on NaNoWriMo and haven't gone back. I do like the subway map outline, though.

            1. J.C. Martin says:

              I have tried mind-mapping and scene cards, but my brain works in an odd way I think. I'm a bit of seat-of-my-pants plotter in the sense that I write a complete outline of my story, but by the seat of my pants, as if I was writing my first draft, from chapter 1, but the chapters are short, and only a few lines long.

              An example of my WiP's outline:

              Chapter 1
              AI stalks victim into Underground station. Arrives at platform. Victim waiting for training at edge. Pushes as train approaches. AI retreats into tunnels.

              Chapter 2
              DI CF in doctor's waiting room. Pain in abdomen. Meets Dr Choudhury (liken to Indian princess). Endometriosis . Hysterectomy suggested.

              So what I've done is I wrote my whole story in it absolute basic form, amounting to no more than 8,000 words. Perfectly manageable to go back and change structures, characters, scenes, move chapters around, etc. And when I'm happy with the outcome, I start writing, putting some meat on them bones, you might say. Seems to work for me. So in a way when I start fleshing out the story, I'm kinda already in my 3rd draft. 🙂

              1. Christine says:

                Scrivener has saved me as I am also very visual and not a true outliner. I like the scene cards in Scrivener and I can color code them (pink for heroine/blue for hero. I can also do mini synopsis per card and I can lay them out as actual cards or as an outline by switching the view mode. This is a great way to brainstorm a first draft, characters, scenes, setting, and more.

                I like the mind map idea, I generally do a long line and break down the story into four acts then fill in the blanks. It's still a learning process. Each book is different 🙂

                1. Gabriela Pereira says:

                  I love hearing about all the outline (or anti-outline) methods you guys use!

                  Najela The Action/Reaction/Obstacle method sounds fascinating. Definitely going to have to try it out sometime. Amazing what writers can learn from other genres or forms of art, right?

                  JC Martin Your Chapter-by-Chapter rough outline idea is sort of like what I do sometimes. Only when I do outlines like this, I make it into a spreadsheet because I'm crazy like that 🙂

                  Christine I <3 Scrivener too! Version 2 just came out for Mac and I'm seriously tempted to do an upgrade because it looks *awesome*.

                  1. Bekah Snow says:

                    I am always up for ways to organize

                    1. Kerryn Angell says:

                      I always mind map when brainstorming a new idea and trying to flesh out the story. I love that Scrivener is available for Windows now. I've previously tried out Writers Cafe Storylines and Mindola's Supernotecard for outlining.

                      I always find it difficult to apply a scene to multiple storylines, especially when they intersect often. I think the subway method will be perfect for my next big project. Now that I visit London often I love the tube maps. 🙂 The best bit about the subway method that you suggested is that scenes are dots because you're right, dots aren't scary!

                      I'm a reformed plotter and much prefer to know where I'm heading but to figure out how to get there as I write the first draft. I think revision is a great place to construct and work with more detailed and formal outlines.

                      1. Selena Wolff says:

                        I use Scrivener for this very reason. I've tried linear outlining and it just doesn't work.

                        Great post, and timely for me! Thanks!

                        1. R.J. Edwards says:

                          I love the mind mapping idea. Its perfect for my constantly wandering mind.

                          1. Sonia says:

                            I've never tried mind mapping but the card thing in scrivener works for me.

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