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An outline is the foundation of your story, a framework on which to build a solid, cohesive tale. Outlining first may make the difference between a powerful story with depth, or a mediocre tale.

outliningWhen I bring up the notion of outlining in writing workshops, most beginners just stare glassy-eyed before admitting that they've never tried the technique to develop their stories. Even seasoned writers often react badly, arguing that outlines stifle creativity and spontaneity.

Who's right?

To find out, first try to write a story your own way. Jump right into the fun stuff. Be spontaneous. Exhaust your creativity. Then, after the first draft, if your story is in trouble and you're not sure why, see if an outline will help.

You may be pleasantly surprised. You may even find that this valuable little tool is perhaps the most important step in the writing process.

Why? Because an outline is the foundation of your story, a framework on which to build a solid, cohesive tale. Without it, your story could crumble down around you midway through your first draft. Outlining first may make the difference between a powerful story with depth, or a mediocre tale; a paycheck, or a rejection letter.

Most people who earn a living writing almost always plan before they start their first draft. Though they may not need to write out a diagram, seasoned writers can tell you what will happen to their characters generally from the moment their story opens until the last word.

An outline forces us to think through our story piece by piece. It shows us quickly and precisely: (1) the depth of our principal character's problem; (2) if our story adequately resolves that problem; and (3) whether our plot logically takes the character from his problem to the eventual resolution.

How Deep Is Deep Enough?
One way to begin is to determine what kind of story you want to tell. Most stories fall into three general categories or a combination thereof: man against man, man against himself, and man against his environment. Notice the word against in each category. Against implies conflict and action, an essential ingredient for narrative drive in successful stories.

So start by jotting down the kind of conflict that concerns your main character. With this information in front of you, you're ready to begin your outline.

The first line – the problem – should describe your character's dilemma in a short, concise phrase. Don't settle for a superficial summary of an event. Instead, create an image that conveys the turmoil deep within your character's heart and soul. A lot of your story's power will depend on how well you've thought through this step.

Let's explore a real example. A student in a writing workshop had written a short story about a surgeon who, after his best friend's daughter dies under his knife, chooses a road of alcohol and self-destruction that ultimately kills him – a man-against-himself story.

However, the young woman was stumped. She couldn't make all the pieces add up to an interesting, cohesive story. She suspected the logic was flawed, but she didn't know how to fix it. After two drafts, she still hadn't tried to outline her story.

Let's help her. What is her character's problem? Is it: "surgeon loses patient"? That's what she thought. "Surgeon loses patient" may be what happens, but it doesn't tell us anything about the surgeon's inner struggle. Why is the surgeon shattered by the death of one of his patients? After all, surgeons work with death every day. What makes this operation different?

Is it because the surgeon knew his patient? Owed something to his friend? Or did the doctor commit some blunder that cost the girl her life? Did someone else make a mistake? Was her death an act of God?

The answers to these kinds of questions will tell the writer how profound her story is. If the problem simply is "surgeon loses patient," this may suggest a technical day-in-the-life story devoid of emotion and depth. If the writer had planned to resolve "surgeon loses patient" with "surgeon kills himself," she can immediately see that her logic is flawed. If the girl's death is not the surgeon's fault, yet it destroys him with guilt, the reader may feel little empathy for the character. What makes this episode worthy of the reader's attention?

Dig deeper for the answer. Remember the "man against himself" theme? Maybe the surgeon made an honest mistake. Maybe the girl's death casts doubts on the surgeon's ability to help others. Now we're getting warmer. During a routine operation on his best friend's daughter, the surgeon's faith in himself and his profession is suddenly shattered.

Using an outline to discover the character's innermost conflict can lead you to a richer story. A shallow story about a loser who throws away his gifted life after one mishap may leave the reader with an empty experience. But a story about a doctor who has deep-seated doubts about his ability to help others could offer an intriguing look at the human side of medicine. So, on the first line, jot down the character's innermost turmoil: "Surgeon doubts his abilities."

The Resolution
Once the writer has identified her character's "real" problem – his inner struggle – she can jump to the outline's resolution and make another crucial decision. Does the surgeon eventually come to terms with his fallibility and emerge from the crisis a wiser man? Or does he kill himself in a street fight over a bottle of booze, as originally planned. Does the second option resolve his conflict of self-doubt? Of course not. And because it doesn't, the reader would probably feel cheated. Perhaps the writer wanted to make a sad statement about abusing booze. Too shallow? Well, people, not alcohol, make for good stories.

Maybe the writer wants to tell a story about a man who can't live with his mistake. In that case his death (read, suicide) resolves his inner turmoil, and we perhaps learn a sad lesson about throwing away one's life.

Let's go back to our original idea about a surgeon who has serious doubts about his ability to help others. After the tragic operation, he believes he has let his best friend down. He isn't the savior he thought he was. To bury his lost confidence, he succumbs to drink and nearly destroys himself.

During the course of the story, however, the character discovers that the gift of life is not his to give. After all, he isn't God. He's merely a man, with a man's fallibility. Once the character understands this, he can continue practicing medicine, but with a new-found respect for the miracle of life. So the writer's resolution falls into place: "Surgeon accepts his fallibility."

Let's look at the outline so far:

Problem: Surgeon doubts his abilities
Plot:
a)
b)
c)
Resolution: Surgeon accepts his fallibility

And, Finally, The Plot
Once the complication and resolution are clear, the writer now must develop her story around how the character resolves his issue. She begins to see that some of her original pieces no longer fit. She must examine each scene and ask herself if it helps resolve the character's problem. If it doesn't, she needs to be a tough editor and take it out.

Let's see how she fared.

After retreating to booze (the first plot development), the surgeon develops a relationship with a welfare worker who happens to be his son (second plot development). In her original story, it wasn't clear what role the son played other than narrating his father's failure and road to self-destruction. Obviously, the son could not help Dad.

Following the conflict/resolution outline developed thus far, the son must help Dad understand his role as a doctor. The writer needs one final scene called the epiphany. Something must happen that turns on the floodlight of inner revelation that shows the surgeon the way out of his dilemma. This pivotal plot development was missing from the writer's original story.

What can she do? Here's one solution: after a street fight, the social worker son takes his drunken father to a hospital in a low-income neighborhood. There, Dad sees the overcrowding, the neglect and the suffering at the hands of overwrought doctors less capable than he. Maybe he successfully intervenes in a misdiagnosed case and saves a child's life. That experience brings him to his moment of truth. Dad sees how he can make a difference. He understands that by throwing away his gift he is guilty of a much bigger sin than letting his best friends daughter die on the operating table.

So, with his son's help, Dad makes peace with himself. He swears off liquor, and in no time is back in the operating theater saving the lives of needy children. A nice, tidy story.

The completed outline now reads:

Theme: Man against himself.
Problem: Surgeon doubts his abilities
Plot:
a) Surgeon retreats to booze
b) Social worker son finds Dad in gutter
c) Son shows Dad his real worth
Resolution: Surgeon accepts his fallibility
Conclusion: Surgeon resumes strong, caring practice

The Value of an Outline
This outline is merely one of countless ways the writer could have developed her story around this particular problem/resolution. Nothing to stifle creativity here. There's still plenty of room in this well-thought-out story for experimentation. Also, an outline is a fluid document. You're free to refine and change it as your story takes shape during the first draft.

The rest of the process is straightforward. With this little outline stuck below the screen of her word processor, the writer can start a new draft and know precisely where to focus her narrative drive. Having established a solid foundation, she can concentrate on characterization, dialogue, pacing and all the other ingredients that make for a compelling read.

Outlines need not be lengthy epistles, nor should they take long to complete. If you can't seem to finish your outline, this may be a sign that all is not well with your story idea. If you're stuck, ask yourself: does your character have a compelling enough problem around which to build a story? Does your resolution solve your character's problem? Do your plot developments logically take the character from his problem to his resolution? If not, can you come up with a series of events that do?

Don't leave your story's development to chance; instead, use an outline to build a solid foundation. This fundamental step will quickly and clearly show you: (1) the depth of your character's problem; (2) how the character goes about solving his or her problem, and (3) whether the final resolution supports the rest of your story.

Before you begin writing, that's the least you should know about your story.

Copyright © 2014 by Joseph Massucci

This article originally appeared in The Writers' Journal, 1988, and was reprinted in The Writers' Journal Guide to the Writing Life, Writers' Journal Books, copyright 2000 by Christopher L. Buono.

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  • Carrie: good, believable characters are the cornerstone of all great stories ... and creating them is arguably one of the hardest techniques to master in fiction writing. After all, you -- the creator -- must conjure up from the ether a person that must seem as real to your readers as any human being God put on this earth. Quite a feat.

    I'll have plenty to say about creating characters in future blogs/articles. Meanwhile, a great place to start is reading Nancy Kress' "Dynamic Characters: How to create personalities that keep readers captivated" (Writer's Digest Books).

  • Guest - Alexis

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    Reading this was worth my time. Thank you for making this wonderful article about outlining stories. Outlining helps a lot and it makes it easier for me to write a whole chapter and move on. I am hoping to read more articles from you.

    God Bless.

  • Guest - Katrina

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    Hi. Are you familiar with Dr. Randy Ingermanson's "Snowflake Method" of "designing" a story? If not, I'll give you the link and you can read it at your convenience. What do you think? Thanks. :)

    http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/art/snowflake.php

  • Guest - Joe Massucci

    In reply to: Guest - Katrina Report

    Katrina, Ingermanson's article offers some useful tips for writing novels, but his "Snowflake Method" strikes me as a gimmick rather than a useful tool. The "snowflake" is a high-level, abstract diagram that shows you what the project looks like during the building phases, but as a tool is doesn't offer a way to work that process.

    Instead, Ingermanson gives readers helpful steps for fleshing out plot and character that are independent of the diagram. His premise is you start your project with simple statements, and then you keep expanding your work until you achieve a final draft, which is a fair overview of the writing process. Personally, I like tools and techniques that help me simplify the vision of what I'm trying to achieve, rather than ways to add layers of complexity.

    As an aside, I strongly disagree with his initial statement that "writing a novel is easy." Writing a novel -- a good or bad one -- is perhaps the most difficult project a writer can undertake. The process requires time and commitment, energy and passion, a well-stocked toolbox (including your outline), and a keen insight into technique. Oh, yes, and let's not forget lots of creativity.

  • Guest - Katrina

    In reply to: Guest - Joe Massucci Report

    Hi. I read your message on Ingermanson's "Snowflake Method" and all I can say is: Interesting!! And thanks for your input.

  • Guest - Frank

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    I am a wannabee writer. I think I have several books in me, but the whole outlining thing has me a bit anxious. I have many books on the subject, but can't seem to put it together, yet I definitely understand its value.

  • Guest - Joe Massucci

    In reply to: Guest - Frank Report

    Frank, you’re not alone feeling intimidated by the prospects of writing your first novel. However, using an “outline” as a tool to help you get organized as you begin the process should take some of that burden off you.

    We talked about this very topic last night at my weekly “Mystery Writers of America” (Houston chapter). All eight of us published novelists agreed that an outline is an indispensable part of the process — regardless of how many novels you’ve written previously. Many editors even require an outline before they’ll sign a “spec” contract with you (giving you an advance and agreeing to publish your book before you actually start writing).

    So think of yourself as a carpenter about to build your first set of kitchen cabinets. You have a hammer and nails, and lots of wood, and you think you’re ready to use them skillfully. What’s missing? A sketch or diagram of what the finished product might look like. Personally, I would hate to starting cutting and hammering without one!

  • Guest - Kori

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    Wow! This was super helpful. I am planning on writing a novel but i had no idea where I wanted to go with it. After reading your article, I had a detailed plan in my head and on paper about where I wanted to go with my story beginning to end. I am just starting out writing though. If there are any pointers or directions you could lead me that would be fantastic!

  • Guest - Joe Massucci

    In reply to: Guest - Kori Report

    Kori, once you have your outline, then start writing. Chose any scene that inspires you, even if it's at the end of your story, and get it down on paper. It's all about "baby steps" ... one page a day, one scene or chapter a week -- small, steady steps. You'll be surprised how quickly they add up. Go for it!

  • Guest - Kira

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    I was very impressed and relieved with the information that you have given. Thank you! The last time I wrote a story outline was in the third grade, so I had not a clue where to start. This article has given me an inkling at least on what an outline should consist of. My story is about 40 pages so far, and I feel like I'm dog-paddling in the middle of the Atlantic. I decided to try an outline but had no idea how to begin. So, thank you again.

  • Guest - Rosie

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    I wonder if you could also use the Hero's Journey in conjunction with the above structure?

    Also, when writing a mystery short story or novel, how would you incorporate the clues and red herrings into the above structure?

    Rosie

  • Guest - Joe Massucci

    In reply to: Guest - Rosie Report

    Rosie, yes, this structure fits the "hero's journey" story very well. In fact, I believe all good stories are about a journey, whether physical or self-discovery. In the end, the hero changes in some profound way because of his or her experience. The example in my article is a journey from one vision of self to another.

    Clues, red herrings, etc., work independently of the actual "journey" structure. They serve to propel the plot, but the overarching structure -- the journey to self-realization -- remains intact. Rarely does the hero change based on finding a clue to a mystery. Instead, the hero grows and changes based on his journey of self-discovery in the course of solving the mystery.

  • Guest - Don Snider

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    Joe,
    Thanks for the tips! I need all the help I can get, believe me. I've always loved the Arts and greatly admire you and most all the professionals within the Art field. I want to do a nonfiction screenplay, perhaps a book about the driver for Donnie Brasco, Lefty, FBI and Bonnano's Me. Any advice would be welcome. Wish I could locate a writer to assist me. Interested?

  • Guest - Michelle Ryan

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    Hi Joseph,

    Just to say thank you so much for this. Your tips helped to realize that my main character went through an entire story of conflict, deciding that life was not worth living and then decides to live ... but for what reason?

    I had not provided a clear reason for her decision. I have been able to link in a reason with the thread of nature and the environment that runs throughout the novel.

    Once again, I thank you for your precise advice :-) Michelle

  • Guest - Jada

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    This article is wonderful. But I can't seem to understand how to boil down my character's "innermost turmoil." I was going with "boy tries to save the world," but I'm stumped as to what it actually is. After reading your article I'm sure that's not it.

    Do you have any tips for breaking down the theme and getting to the meat of what you're writing about? I can't seem to find my real theme at all.

  • Guest - Joe Massucci

    In reply to: Guest - Jada Report

    Jada, always start with "character." Who is your story about, and how will the experience change him or her? "Boy tries to save the world" is what he does, but this doesn't necessarily define him. You'll have a very flat narrative if the boy wakes up one morning, sees the world needs saved, and then saves it. At the end of the story he goes back doing what he did the day before. An unmemorable experience for him and for the reader.

    Instead, look for characteristics that makes the boy fallible – a vulnerability that puts his task at risk. After all, you'll want to build tension and suspense on the fact that he may not succeed.

    So decide what characteristics make the boy flawed and perhaps unable to fulfill his saving-the-world task. Is he a coward? Is he afraid to take responsibility? Perhaps he's a loner, but discovers he needs the help of his new friends to succeed. The theme then becomes "alone, we all perish ... together we build a great future." By the end of the story, this loner becomes a strong leader in this new world.

  • Guest - Donald Ray

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    I loved your article "The least you should know about outlining your story." I've read a lot of articles dealing with plot development and none of them were any help with my plot. Your article made plot development so easy that I was able to finally finish my plot.

    Great article!

  • Guest - Roberta Gonzalez

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    Thank you for the straight forward easy to digest steps for outlining a story. I am about to write my first article for a contest.. man vs self.. a transformation story of myself... it is so personal was hard to get the story down without seemingly rambling...

  • Guest - Jeff Gallagher

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    I first read your outline concepts over two years ago and remembered then how helpful they were. Keeping your page bookmarked, I've just reread everything and want to thank you for taking the time to post your ideas.

    Even if the economy wasn't in the tank, trying to earn a living as a writer is an incredibly challenging undertaking, but I sincerely believe that creating an outline is a pertinent building block for a successful story.

  • Guest - Gloria

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    Thank you for your article "The least you should know about outlining your story"... I've never been able to work with an outline much less create one - until I read your article. It was very helpful - thank you!! Could you possibly give an example of an outline for each of the three themes?

    Again, thanks for a wonderful article.

  • Guest - Mike S.

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    Hi Mr. Massucci! I am a teen writer who has discovered this helpful method for outlining a story. I am taking a video class, and I am having trouble coming up with an idea for a short film for the class (the video should be around 5-10 mins.).

    Would this help me, or is it for only longer works? Thank you.

  • Mike, if your video assignment requires a "story" with conflict/resolution, then by all means outline your script first. Length of the piece really doesn't matter ... the story structure will be the same regardless.

  • Guest - Jordan

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    Hi, I'm a young writer and have a question.

    In my story I want to have two main characters. I saw your comment about the book you posted for making characters come alive and I'm going to check that out asap. But I was wondering if you think two main characters is to much for a sorta first timer and would I have to make two different outlines for them? Thanks.

  • Jordon, you can certainly have two strong characters in one story. You wouldn't necessarily need two outlines (although a character "sub-outline" would be a good way to understand each character's conflict as it pertains to your story). But your overarching story needs a single tight outline that defines and resolves both characters' conflicts.

  • Guest - Mary J. Doss

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    Your outline information and examples are fantastic! Thanks

  • Guest - Micheal Haynes

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    Can you write an outline story ending with (the will to win)?

  • Micheal, "will to win" sounds more like something that motivates a character rather than a story resolution. This might be best played out by having the character with a will to win come face to face with some conflict that keeps him from winning. Or perhaps the character is changed by the experience.

    What does the character learn? Perhaps that there are more important things than winning. Or, "I won" but at what cost?

    Good human drama shows a character changing in some way (hopefully for the better!) by overcoming some great obstacle. You need to come up with a series of events that take your character from a naive state to a more mature or more realistic view of the world that makes her a better person as a result of how she resolves her conflict.

  • Guest - Lyssa G.

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    Hello sir, I was just wondering if you had any advice on how to just stay focused and get through writing the first draft of your story. Of course, without getting so distracted with how everything "should be" at the end. (And I also apologize if that was a run-on sentence) Haha.

    Thank you for your time. This site looks great!

  • Lyssa, here's very useful advice from Lisa Scottoline published in Writer's Digest magazine that deals with just this issue: "9 Ways to Get Started Stay Motivated"

  • Guest - Luigi

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    Outlining is definitely the way to go, but it's HOW you outline that's important and for that you need to get your head around story structure - watch the videos at http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html

  • Wow. Thanks. I woke up this morning with the sole purpose of writing an outline - a first for me. Well, the first real, well-thought-out outline I intend to perfect and write my story around. Your article was the first I read and I am inspired. I'm also tired of chasing my tail with my writing. One question. My story is fiction in the spirit of Dorothy Parker - urban setting, single female, event that makes the day memorable, close: tomorrow is another day at the office, another day searching for a better life, but what fun today was. Do you suggest I follow your conflict/resolution outline and tweak it for humor? I'm sitting here reworking it in my mind.

    from Denver, CO, USA
  • Today I reread your article on creating an outline then sat down and wrote my first serious outline. What happened was amazing. I set up my outline exactly like yours then as I got to the resolution I had an epiphany. My story truly had the characters I wanted and the story had a solid foundation. Before, the idea for the story seemed to have great potential but no meat and I had no idea where to get it. I feel the story even as I write this and can't wait to do it. I will leave this page and go back to my outline and start slogging out words I hope will make this an interesting story. Thanks again.

    from Denver, CO, USA
  • Your outline information is useful, however, I am attempting to follow Joseph Campbels "Hero's Journey", and it is still not registering with my inner visual force.
    I use my seat of the pants most of the time, however, a novel is a daunting task for someone that has never gone there before.
    I am at 33000 words and forever in edit mode.
    I was hoping for and end date of October before the editing begins.
    I have never had writers block, so that is not the issue.
    It seems that I need a simplistic middle and end map to drive my creative forces ahead.
    Is there such a thing?

    from Florida, USA

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