There is no ‘right' way to write. There is no ‘right' way to outline. You will find your own way to a process that works for you, but it's always good to know the options!
In today's article, writing coach Megan Barnhard explains the different types of outlining styles and gives tips for improving your process.
Outlining is hands-down the best way to finish writing a better book, faster.
An outline ensures your book has all the right elements for its genre and keeps you motivated on those tough writing days.
Despite its benefits, outlining can feel restrictive and rigid. Maybe you’ve seen the way other authors outline and thought it’s just not for you.
Outlining is a very personal process. That’s why it’s vital to find your own strategy for doing it.
Something that honors your creativity rather than squelching it. A process that helps you through writer’s block while also leaving you free to change your mind or give yourself over to the magic of your muse.
Whether you’re a die-hard pantser or a dedicated plotter, this post will help you embrace your
personal outlining style and write more effectively.
Outlining vs. Brainstorming
First, let’s define our terms. Usually when authors talk about “outlining” they mean the whole planning process, minus any world-building or character development. That means not only putting events in order, but coming up with them in the first place.
I’m going to break things down into two distinct steps: brainstorming and outlining.
In this terminology, outlining refers to the process of putting your ideas in order and storing them in “writing recipes” so you know what to draft next.
Brainstorming, on the other hand, refers to the more free-form act of coming up with ideas.
Imagine taking a defibrillator to your brain and giving it a jolt of electricity to get your creativity
Now, because you’re an author, you probably naturally think in story. You might plan emotional beats and escalating drama without even trying to. Woohoo! That’s fantastic.
But when you brainstorm, make sure to give yourself space to come up with ideas even if you’re not sure where they’ll go or how you’ll use them. The key to effective brainstorming is to scoop up all the ideas in your writer’s net, without throwing any back because they’re too small or too weird or have seven eyes and lots of tentacles.
Eventually, you’ll dump the ideas you don’t need. But don’t skip the step of brainstorming. Often it’s when your mind is free to come up with any crazy idea that you come up with your best idea. It’s just a productive mental space to be in.
Now, with our terms cleared up, let’s get into how to do these two activities.
6 Different Planning Styles
There are tons of different ways to brainstorm and outline. Some of us start with the details and move to the big ideas. Some of us need to go in order or we get lost. And some of us aren’t quite sure where we’re going until we start moving, but moving gives us lots of momentum.
I’m going to walk you through the six planning styles that I’ve seen work the most consistently in my 12 years as a writing coach. I’ll share the tools I’ve used again and again to help writers beat procrastination, writer’s block, and overwhelm.
I’ll also share a few strategies that have been especially helpful for authors who thought they could never outline successfully.
Think of this list as a starting point on your journey to finding your own unique planning process.
The more you explore and refine your process, the faster you’ll write and the more you’ll enjoy it. Experiment with these methods and keep track of what inspires your best writing.
1. Bottom-up Thinkers
You collect interesting moments and then tie them together into scenes or stories. You can imagine exactly how your protagonist looks as he stares forlornly into his cup of Earl Grey at the funky-smelling café with the broken air conditioner and the surly barista. But you’re not sure why he’s there or where this scene is going.
- Carry pen and paper with you at all times. Jot down ideas for scenes on notecards,
sticky notes, or in a notebook whenever they come up.
- Freewrite about your characters and get clear on who they are and what they want.
- Make a mind-map of the scenes or events you already have in mind. See what thoughts
arise. Can you connect these scenes? Do they give you ideas for more scenes?
- Arrange your index cards or sticky notes in the order that you want the scenes to appear
in the story.
- Type up the scenes from your mind map as bullet points.
2. Top-down Thinkers
The why is more important than the what for you. You know the purpose and the reason for your characters and your scenes. You might write with placeholders, knowing that in Chapter 5 Ted has to meet someone who will push him to take a risk, but you don’t know who that person is or what that risk will be. You’ll figure out the details when you get there.
- Brainstorm what to put in a scene focusing on “behind-the-scenes” details, e.g., Jim has
to wind up at the abandoned theme park to start the climactic scene.
- Brainstorm what to put in a scene focusing on emotional beats and how your characters’
motivations would lead them to act, e.g., Rhonda wants to prove herself, so she
sabotages the big meeting in some way.
- Make a mind-map of all your characters and the conflicts and allegiances that connect
them. See what ideas for scenes arise from these relationships.
- Create descriptive chapter titles in the style of an old-timey book, e.g., Chapter 4: In
Which Percy Realizes He Is Not a Normal Kid. You don’t have to keep these chapter
titles; they’re just placeholders for you as you write.
- Paste your emotional beat brainstorms into a planning doc below their corresponding
chapter headers or scene titles.
- Paste your “behind-the-scenes” brainstorms into a planning doc below their
corresponding chapter headers or scene titles.
3. Associative Thinkers
One idea leads you to the next. You love the feeling of “flow” when characters seem to act of their own accord and tell you what they should do next. You can get lost in writing for hours and completely surprise yourself with the ideas that arise.
- Freewrite for at least 10 minutes whenever you sit down to write. See what ideas come up and where you might use them.
- Talk your story through with your writing buddies or a writing coach and bounce ideas off them. (Try a Book Clarity Session)
- Write out a summary of your story. Don’t plan ahead; just let it flow and see what happens.
- Make a mind-map of scenes or events and see what related ideas come up.
- Color-code or number your mind-map to put scenes in order.
- Copy and paste key scenes from the summary of your story into a planning doc as chapter headings or bullet points.
4. Big Picture Thinkers
You like graphic organizers, and arranging ideas from top to bottom or left to right on the page helps you orient yourself. You love knowing where it’s all going. You can see the finish line even from the start.
You have a clear vision, but you can sometimes get bogged down in the details or run into writer’s block for individual chapters.
- Write down key moments or anchor scenes (inciting incident, climax, final appearance of protagonist, etc.) on separate pieces of paper and brainstorm possible events for each
- Create a mind-map with the central conflict in the middle and possible scenes clustered around it.
- Create a circle outline with the central conflict in the center and each key scene as a “slice” of the circle going in order clockwise or numbered.
- Color-code or number your mind-map to show the order of scenes.
- Create any kind of one-page graphic organizer that lets you see the entire story at a glance. Think mini-storyboard that includes the major plot developments rather than every single scene, or even a flow-chart of events showing causes and effects.
5. Know-It-When-I-See-It Thinkers
You tend to feel limited by outlines. You don’t want to commit to a particular plan because you know some brilliant idea is just around the corner. You’re inspired by details, able to fill an entire page describing the look of an object or a character’s expression.
- Freewrite about a character, setting, event, scene, or possible plot point, seeing where your writing takes you.
- Interview yourself about your story and your characters. Just say whatever comes to mind without judgment. Record yourself.
- Transcribe key points from the recording of your self-interview.
- Highlight key ideas from your freewrites. Use these to create scene titles or chapter headings on a whiteboard or a piece of big poster paper. Jot down the various possibilities you’re considering for each section on the whiteboard, or on sticky notes.
- Once you pick “winners” move the other ideas down to a storage area so that you can use them in other places if you like.
6. Linear Thinkers
Skipping around drives you nuts. You like moving from Point A to Point B, and only then figuring out Point C. You are very logical, using what you see in your plan or your draft to help you move naturally to the next scene or chapter.
- Tell your story out loud off the top of your head while looking at a plot hill or a story
template for your genre. Record it.
- Write out a summary of your story. Don’t plan it first, just write.
- Use stepping stones: Think through “which leads to…” and “which would have happened
because…” to generate both causes and effects.
- Turn your story summary into a list of bullet points and add those to a planning doc or white board with space to add more scenes as needed.
- Create a storyboard.
- Write all your scenes or chapter headings on index cards or sticky notes and put them in order up on a wall or in a box.
It’s not necessary to pin yourself down in one of these categories. The point is to experiment and learn what works for you.
If you’re more of a top-down thinker, start by determining which category you’re most drawn to.
Where do you see yourself most? (Hey, maybe in the top-down category!) Once you’ve decided on a category, pick one strategy to try.
If you’re more of a bottom-up thinker in general, it means you should start with details (different brainstorming and outlining techniques) and work your way up to categories (what kind of planner you are).
Skim back through the brainstorming techniques until you find one that sounds fun or interesting. Give it a go!
However you start, the key is to take action. Pay attention to your process. Keep what works in your Author Toolbox and leave behind what doesn’t.
Again, outlining is a personal process. It takes some trial and error to find your jam. But once you find it, you’ll be able to repeat the process.
You’ll write better stories faster and with less frustration. What’s not to love about that?
Do you outline your books? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Megan Barnhard is a writing coach for inspired entrepreneurs and conscious creatives who want to make an impact with their words. In her 12-year career as a coach, she’s helped hundreds of writers tame the writing process and share their stories in books, blogs, websites, and essays.
If you’re interested in more ideas for making outlining easier and more effective, check out Megan’s latest book, Recipe for Outlining: A Fun & Flexible Guide for Planning Your Novel. You can follow Megan and get her weekly (live!) writing tips on Facebook: @MeganBarnhardWriting. She also blogs about the writing process for authors and bloggers at MeghanBarnhard.com/blog.
[Wall with colourful notes and images photo courtesy Jo Szczepanska and Unsplash. Arrow and feet photo courtesy Jon Tyson and Unsplash. Convertible photo courtesy Clem Onojeghuo and Unsplash. Mountain sunset photo courtesy Eberhard Grossgasteiger and Unsplash. Road line photo courtesy Gautier Salles and Unsplash.]