My Outlining Process

Outlining is one of the more difficult parts of the writing process. This is where you first take whatever ideas are bouncing around inside your head and attempt to form something resembling order. Everyone has their own process to do it. Me? It took me a while to find my sweet spot. I’ve since found it, and would like to share what to me has been a lifesaver.

My first bit of advice with your outline is don’t be afraid to make it something tangible. What do I mean by that? I used to outline exclusively on a computer using word and paint documents. It worked decently enough for a time, but one of the things it created was a sense of rigidity. If it was on a word or a paint document, it seemed somehow less appropriate to move my bullet points from one space to another. In other words, it kept me from experimenting. So when it comes to your outline, never be afraid to make it something you can touch and manipulate with your hands. Believe me, it helps.

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The first thing you need is a staging area for your outline. Some people work better with smaller spaces. Some like bigger areas like the entire floor of a given room. I prefer a healthy middle ground, so I got me a magnetic white board. This is the place where my stories find a sense of order. In order to do that, you first need your tools. Fortunately the tools are easy to come by, even if they add up to a hefty price tag.

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This box contains my outline kit. In here I have hundreds of push pin magnets of seven different colors, a set of larger magnets, some pens, a pair of scissors, strips of printing paper, and several plastic bags.

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Staging the board is perhaps the easiest part of the process. This is where the larger magnets come in. The larger magnets are meant to represent the traditional three act structure, which is the story mode in which I prefer to work. The space between the first and second magnets represents my first act, so I need to make sure by the end of that, the audience is aware of what’s going on. The space between the second and third magnets is the first half of act 2, at which point the heroes are usually in it for the long haul. After that between the third and forth magnets is the second half of act two, which takes the characters to their lowest point. The space between the fourth and fifth magnets is the final climactic act where the heroes go through their final push, either finding victory, or perishing.

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The paper, scissors and pens are for the creation of bullet points. Whenever I have an idea, I’ll write it down on one of the paper strips, then cut the note off the paper strip so it can be placed on the board. It’s here that the note is placed with the magnets. In the event I don’t like the idea or can’t find a way to put it on the board, I’ll place it in one of the plastic bags, where I have one for each of my current projects. If I’m ever hard up for ideas, I always dig around one of the bags. Sometimes an old discarded idea might end up being useful.

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You may be wondering why the magnets are different colors? The different color magnets was something I discovered quite by accident, but it has since become one of the most essential components of my outlining process. The magnets represent a character’s perspective. To be more specific, red represents the protagonist, blue is the secondary lead, green is a third lead, yellow is the villain, and so forth.

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Say I have a scene told from the hero’s point of view where they fight the villain and learn a great truth at the same time. Both occur back to back and are from the hero’s perspective, so they’re held up by a single red magnet. Since it’s the final fight, I’ll place that towards the end of the board. The color coding of the magnets allows me to see, at a glance, how well represented each of my characters are. If red is my lead, yet most of my board is green, then I’ve got some problems, and will work to adjust the plot and make sure the lead has greater representation.

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These color coded magnets allow for great experimentation. Say I think that perhaps one of those segments is better told from the villain’s perspective? I can easily switch it out for a yellow magnet instead of a red one, not altering the paper in any way. Another way to experiment is moving the scenes. Originally I had my hero learn a great truth during the climactic battle with my villain. But say learning that truth earlier is what motivates our hero to fight? In that case, moving the magnet further down the board towards the first act may be a good experiment.

This is the way I’ve been outlining for the last year, and it has worked like a dream. Basically you keep adding scenes and magnets, slowly closing whatever gaps you have until finally the board has a full outline. From there, you’re ready to go into much more specific scene breakdowns, and then it’s time to start writing prose. It has worked out very well for me. Were it not for this method, I probably wouldn’t have been able to finish the second draft of my book.

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Seen here is the current incarnation of the board, where I’m outlining three projects. Up top is the fantasy novel, which is being given more space. Below that are outlines for two scripts, one of which is finished and the other of which is still developing. This board allows me to work on multiple projects at once. Every time an idea for one comes, it will find its way up there with a magnet, all while leaving the other staging areas undisturbed.

Outlining may seem tedious, but if you find a way that appeals to you it can be one of the most energizing and fun parts of the writing process. It’s a lot like digging up a skeleton, then slowly putting the pieces together to see what great beast emerges. Not all writers outline. Me? I can’t do without it. To those who have never outlined their work, it’s certainly something worth trying. My method works well for me, but it’s not for everyone. Maybe somewhere out there is a process that’s right for you.

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