Some writers love outlines. They outline everything they write and feel it gives the story order and direction.
Some hate outlines and feel that an outline makes a story rigid and lifeless.
Some (like me) fall somewhere in the middle.
I outline the mystery novels I write for grown-ups because it’s really hard to do a mystery novel and make all the bits work unless you’ve outlined first. So for mystery novels, I write by building the skeleton first (an outline) and then writing. But I write most of my children’s chapter books with a much more organic approach. I know basically what I’m going to do, but I don’t do detailed outlines.
However, even if you’re someone who hates the thought of outlining your work before writing, an outline can be your best friend when it comes to big picture revising. This kind of revision makes sure the story works, and is not aimed at simply being sure you have all your continuity in place (like spelling the characters names the same every time) or making sure you don’t have major typos. Big picture revision is making sure the book works. And it helps if you can see what you’ve done.
One quick way to see if you probably have a decent structure in place for your work is to try to sum it up in one sentence. For example, this is how I could sum up several of the books I’ve written:
A boy breaks the rules to follow his new robot friend on an adventure that quickly turns catastrophic and he must use all his wits to survive and make it home again. [Lost in Space, Abdo]
A team of boys search for evidence of the Chupacabra, but they soon realize someone doesn’t want them investigating and will go to extreme lengths to stop them. [The Monster Hunters Chase the Chupacabra, Abdo]
Alfie comes from a long line of dragon fighters, but he doesn’t want to kill anything and must find his own way to win. [Alfie’s Dragons, Heinemann]
The less clear plot your story has, the more difficult it will be to sum up in one or two sentences. If you find it takes a full paragraph to even begin to sum up your story, the structure probably needs a little more scrutiny. So it may be time to cut away some flesh and look at the bones.
Outlining the Finished Story: Begin with Scenes
Once a story is finished, outlining can help you see the structure much more clearly. You don’t need a traditional outline like the ones you probably had to do in school. Instead, you’re really just writing a long string of scene summaries (often grouped by chapter) and noting the transitional strings that hold them together. Let’s look at how that works.
Begin by going scene by scene and summarizing what happens in each scene. A scene is the basic unit of story. Scenes take place at a specific moment of story time and in a specific place. For example, one scene in Alfie’s Dragons takes place in the woods with the main character unsteadily seated on a huge horse and weighed down under ill-fitting armor. And what happens is that he falls off the horse and makes a decision to shed the armor and continue on foot. That is a scene because it (1) takes place in a specific moment of story time and (2) in a specific place where (3) very specific actions/dialogue happen.
So begin writing these little mini summaries of your own scenes.
- Where do they take place?
- Who is in each scene?
- What happens?
Keep summarizing until you have a series of super short outlines of the action/dialogue and events in all your scenes.
Mix in Exposition Events
Because stories sometimes cover a lot of time or must include information that simply cannot be rendered in a scene, your outline now needs to add in all the non-scene bits. Imagine you have a kind of action montage between scenes like this: “For months, Alfie tried. He learned that wooden swords hurt when they smack you. He learned that horses are very tall and don’t always want to go your way. And he learned that when your teacher laughs at you, it hurts even worse than wooden swords. One thing he didn’t learn was how he could possibly kill a dragon.”
That is basically exposition because it doesn’t dip into the specific moments of Alfie’s instruction. Stories will often have this kind of compressed time moments that must be done as exposition but are important to the story. If written cleverly, they can be engaging, even though they are telling, not showing. These must also be slotted into your outline, but you should put in some kind of notation so that when you look over the outline, you can tell the difference between the scenes and the exposition bits.
Everything in your story/book should be either “scene” or “exposition.” And once you have the outline done, you should see far more of it as scene than as exposition. If the reverse is true, you could be looking at a problem right there.
Question the Outline
Once the outline is done, look at every snippet of exposition and every scene and ask:
- Why is it in there?
- How does it deepen or move the story forward?
- Why is it engaging?
These questions can help you see if your story has extraneous bits that aren’t doing enough to move the story forward. Sometimes your favorite snippets simply aren’t doing enough story work to justify their existence and you must either revise to make them more story relevant, or cut them.
Another important thing you can do with an outline is check the story’s timeline. So with each snippet of exposition or scene, make a notation of whether it is chronologically moving the story forward or if it moves the story backward (meaning, is this a flashback?) or does it not move the story at all.
The exposition bit quoted from the Alfie story would get a forward arrow because it is showing a compressed bit of time that is moving the story forward. But if I had an exposition bit like this “Alfie liked hiking, singing and playing soccer. He did not like dragon fighting. He didn’t even like thinking about dragon fighting.” That bit of exposition doesn’t move the story timeline at all, so I would mark it with an asterisk or maybe a little square to show it is a stationary moment in the story.
Once you have all these notations, you can see if the story is moving forward most of the time. Recognize that every backwards arrow or little square represents a disruption to the energy and momentum of the story. They make the story slower. Now sometimes slow is good, not every story needs to be breakneck all the time. But they are also disruptive to the reader’s connection to the story, because they remind the reader that this isn’t really a journey they’re on. It pulls them from the reading dream. So use flashbacks and stagnant moments extremely sparingly, and only when you know they aren’t going to cause too much disruption and annoy the reader.
Let Your Outline Guide You
A post-writing outlining is always going to give you a fresh perspective on the structure of your story. It will let you look at the big picture more easily and show you problems that will require revising or rewriting. It can be a bit disheartening sometimes, but it is also incredibly useful in helping you do the work to make your story the very best it can be. And we all want that.