7 steps in outlining your short story/novel

Writers always should outline their story before penning it – but just how should they go about the process of outlining? What would an outline look like?

There are as many different approaches to outlining as there are writers. Some prefer paragraph summaries. Others like the elementary school 1, 1A, 1B, 2, 2A, 2B approach. A few like to pen scenes on notecards. Others create elaborate box charts. Use what works best for you, and if you’re uncertain what does, then experiment.

Whichever approach you use, you’ll want to follow these basic seven steps: premise; backstory; inciting incident; rising action; climax; revise; and write first draft.

Begin your outline by establishing your premise. In fiction, it’s the basic idea of a story and usually answers four questions:
• Who is the protagonist?
• What is the central problem the protagonist must solve?
• What is an internal conflict that the protagonist has that might prevent him from solving the problem?
• Who is the antagonist?

A premise might be: A British spy (protagonist) sent to create a resistance cell in a Nazi-occupied village (central problem) falls in love with a local woman who fears a cruel SS chief (antagonist) will retaliate against her family and community should they present any problems for the occupiers, leading our hero to question his orders (internal conflict).

Usually a premise can be stated in a single sentence. And often when the writing of a story falters, it’s because one of these four elements is missing or unclear.

Next, create a backstory for your protagonist. Always ask what events occurred in your protagonist’s life that led him to this point. How have those events shaped him into the kind of a person he is as the story begins? For example:

Our spy, Graham Clark, has felt deeply about the women he loved but because of his sense of duty, had to forgo developing any relationships, losing each of his lovers. Because of this, he’s never been loved. Maybe the family of the last woman he loved died in a Nazi air raid, and he knows if they had married years back, he had the means to get them out of London to the north before the attacks began.

You may never use the backstory, but going through the exercise helps you formulate the character you’ll be working with through the tale. As in sports where coaches are more likely to win when they know the kind of player they are working with, so in writing authors are more likely to write a winning story when they know something about the protagonist they are working with. At best, you might be able to weave the backstory into your story as a key plot point.

Inciting incident
Next, sketch out the inciting incident, which is your story opening. During the opener, you must establish for readers the central problem to be solved, the protagonist, and the setting. Don’t select a setting because it’s cool or because you are familiar with it; instead, brainstorm about a location and time frame that allows your plot to best unfold. In addition, this is the moment in the outline when you decide your point of view. A very basic sketch of the inciting incident, using the paragraph summary approach, might be:

British spy Graham Clark pulls his rubber raft beneath a bush on a beach as Nazi searchlights scan the French sky overhead. Crouching, he pauses to take a compass reading, estimates he is only three kilometers from Serein, where his contact awaits. He sees a squadron of Nazi planes flying overhead on its way to England. What is tonight’s target – London? Portsmouth? Birmingham? Forming a resistance group in an occupied village sounds like fool’s errand when England itself is under attack. He hears a German voice and freezes. There’s a patrol on the road above the beach.

Notice how these aren’t very detailed sentences. The key in outlining scenes is merely to get the gist of what will happen.

Rising action
Next, determine your plot points. For a short story, you need a minimum of three scenes for the rising action plus a scene for the climax. In each scene, ask:
• How does the protagonist attempt to resolve the central problem? This is his goal.
• What obstacles hinder the protagonist from resolving the central problem and so create conflict?
• How does he fail to resolve the goal?
• What occurs in this scene that allows him to try again in the next scene?
Once you know the answers, sketch these scenes. For a scene in our spy story, you might write:

Graham, posing as a Frenchman, is with his contact, Maréchal, who is to introduce him to a possible Resistance recruit, Philippe. From what Graham has observed, Philippe, the village baker’s assistant, lacks the common sense to be good at the secretive work they must do; Maréchal attempts to assure him that Philippe’s heart is in the right place. Graham worries that simply talking to Philippe, especially if they must reject him, may doom his mission. There is a knock at the door; Maréchal checks through a barely open blind and sees it is Philippe and lets him in. They greet each other warmly. Maréchal introduces Graham to Philippe; the three make small talk about their workday. At last, much to Graham’s relief, Maréchal invites Philippe into his den to see the wooden models of great French naval vessels. Maréchal shows off several models (including one that defeated a British ship, just to rib Graham) and extols the greatness of French military prowess and history, which Philippe gets starry-eyed at. Graham asks if he served with the army during the German invasion. Philippe says he was too young, but his brother served. Maréchal pats Philippe’s shoulder, says his brother served bravely. Philippe’s hands form into fists, and he nods. Maréchal says there is a way he still might serve. Philippe looks at him confusedly. “How? Is there a way to get to England and join the Free French?” Maréchal and Graham look at one another; Graham steps forward, “No…but there is a way to help the Free French return.”

Our protagonist has not achieved his goal of creating an effective resistance, but he is closer to doing so, albeit by enlisting a potentially questionable recruit – which could lead to a setback in a future scene.

Once you’ve completed the scenes you need for the rising action, move on to sketch the climax. Ask yourself:
• How does the protagonist attempt to resolve the central problem in this scene?
• What obstacles hinder the protagonist from resolving the central problem and so create conflict?
• How does he succeed in resolving the goal?
• What occurs in the climax that allows him to finally succeed and defeat the antagonist?

Write out this scene just as would each scene of the rising action.

You also must sketch the falling action/denouement. This is where lose ends are tie up in the story.

Next, review and revise your outline. Ensure the scenes link together and that they follow your premise (or perhaps a new premise developed, in which case you need to change what you wrote as and that point in the outline and ensure the rest of what you’ve written matches this new storyline). Watch for gaps in the story and fix those plot holes. Also delete the rambling parts that don’t take your characters toward achieving their goal.

For example, in the above outlined scene for the rising action, we might add what the naval ships and battles that Maréchal tells Philippe about. Outlining is a time to do research.

By the way, when outlining if you added snatches of dialogue, character descriptions or blow-by-blow details of the plot that came to you (and they probably will), good! That’s what an outline is all about – spurring your creativity and immediately organizing those thoughts. Just remember that because of this your outline may have a thoroughly developed scene and another scene that is still vague; as revising the outline, you’ll need to ensure that the weak scenes are equally as complete.

Write first draft
Once you’ve written the outline, you’re now ready to write the first draft. Begin by reviewing your outline for the scene then start filling in the gaps. Remember that your outline is a living document. Course corrections are often needed and are perfectly acceptable during the first draft.

If you find yourself stuck as drafting a scene and notice that there’s not much in the outline to guide you, then that’s a sign at least that portion of the outline wasn’t complete. Go back and finish it up – then get back to penning that first draft!