The Art of the Outline

The theme this week for my narrative writing class is how and why a writer should use an outline. In my own personal writing, I have found outlines to be extremely helpful, even necessary, when writing my novels. While I can’t say that outlines would be particularly useful when writing short stories, they become very useful when transitioning to a longer work. Without them, I feel safe in saying that my stories would be little more than disjointed ramblings on a page.

A far cry from the outlines required in school, story outlines are a lot more “user friendly”. Here, one does not have to worry about separating section I from section IV, nor do you have to be concerned with whether or not you should use the letter A or number 1. Those kinds of formalities aren’t nearly so important for a story outline. While it is true that outlines are meant to help a writer organize their thoughts, how they’re written up has less bearing on the structure of the written work than does the academic outline.

There are a plethora of ways to put together a story outline. There are several formats that I use, ranging from short lists of ideas to detailed chapter-by-chapter plots. For the most part, however, I have 3 ways in which I do outlines, and I always do the chapter-by-chapter method.

The first kind is simple. It consists of a list of the chapters with “titles” for each of them. These titles function as short descriptions of what will happen in each chapter. An example of this can be found in the outline for my newest Star Series book, Fall of Paradise.

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Prologue = Royal Conflict – Royal Clan loses bid on throne
1. Betrayal & the Book of Charms
2. A Change of Language
3. The Huntress’s Refuge
4. Refugees at Aelfgar’s Home
5. Monsters and Marshes
6. Shah, Terrorizer of Adrun
7. Tsunami at Laidra
8. Tsunamis and the Royal Clan
9. A Wall of Dark Warriors
10. Rejection at Lodur
11. Battle at the Compass of the Sun
12. Message to the Dwarves
13. The Mysterious Illness
14. Lava Bugs
15. Search for the Firestone
16. City in the Shadows
17. The Creation Celebration
18. A Game of Pillars
19. Lost in the Gem Cavern
20. Dragon Nest
21. Shah’s Request
22. Destruction of Tolel
23. Hope at the Compass of the Sun
24. The Blind Soldier
25. The Incident at Hunting Lodge
26. Black Dragons and Invincible Warriors
27. Conflict at Loritel
28. Peace and Council
29. Battle at Aila
30. Sealed in Morfael’s Dungeon
31. Suspension and Redemption
32. Saving the Prince
33. Rumors
34. Lord of Selendil
35. Faerida
36. Peace Work in Kashul
37. Fairy Boat Races
38. The End of Paradise
39. An Angry sea
40. Monsters by Sand and by Shore
41. The Royal Clan Invades
42. Ainor’s Intervention
43. Red Rivers
44. North Migration

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What those titles actually refer to, however, is something that I have to decide. Especially when I don’t really have a clear path that I want to follow, an outline of this nature gives me some organization and direction without hindering the progress of the story, which does a great deal of growing on its own accord.

Another type of outline that I have been known to use is what I simply call the “detailed outline”. With this, I forgo chapter titles and launch straight into plot planning. Usually, I describe scenes from each chapter. This kind of outline is particularly useful when you already have a clear vision of where you want to go with the story. I used this type of outline when writing Rebirth, the third book in the Star Trilogy.

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Chapter 1: Introduces the fate of Ceallach as he is murdered by Fogarta, how Fogarta takes over, and the fate of Rinba and its chief, Rolf.

Chapter 2: A lone survivor from Rinba stumbles into the valley where the Four Stars live and tells them about what happened. They send him to the nearest village, Klyndal, and head to Drumach Castle to warn Dorrian. Here they also find out what has been going on with the Gauls.

Chapter 3: The group stays at the castle, intending to set out for Rinba in the morning. The morning, however, becomes dark. Strange monsters such as gargoyles have surrounded the castle and it is now that they realize that the Gauls are not the ones doing this, as a wounded warrior tells them about how Fayndor has become dark. They barely have time to evacuate the royal family to Lodur village in Erris, which has not been affected yet.

Chapter 4: Most of Livania has been engulfed in darkness and is terrorized by creatures of darkness. Even lamplight is dull. In Erris, Lachlan swears to keep the royal family safe. Princess Lina begs to go with Eryn but he tells her that he doesn’t want her getting hurt, so she stays. They decide to infiltrate Fayndor and set off.

———————–

And etc.

Like the first outline example, nothing is set in stone. Stories, particularly novels, tend to have a life of their own, and the tale will sound stunted if an author tries to keep strictly to the original plan. However, the details are enough that, unlike the first example, there is no possibility of me forgetting where I was going with the chapter.

The third type of outline that I use is a lot more complicated, and for those who are easily intimidated by outlines, this one is not for you. In this instance, there are three parts: a general story overview, a basic outline, and a detailed outline. Here I have the option to not only work on story planning, but to actually flesh out the story as well. Typically, I only use this type of outline when I’m working on a story that has a lot of “grey area”, points in which I have absolutely no idea what should be said and done.

This is dangerous territory, and not an option that I highly recommend. Most of the time, such stories would be set aside until further development can occur in my mind. But, occasionally, I come up with a story that sounds absolutely awesome, but creating a finished piece is tricky. Instances of this nature remind me of a man’s T-shirt I once saw which read, “I know where I’m going. I just don’t know how to get there.”

Of course, this statement jokingly refers to the stereotypical “don’t ask for directions” sort of man, the kind who neither asks for directions, nor condescends to look at a map. The third type of outline keeps me from becoming that sort of a writer, acting as a sort of “verbal map” for my story.

Be forewarned that outlines of this nature are time consuming, and thus should only be used if the story really strikes you as interesting. There have only been a handful of times where such an outline has become necessary for me, the most recent example being a potential trilogy called the Millenia Chronicles. So far, a super-extended outline has only been done for the first book, Red Heart.

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Part 1: Book Overview

A new child is born to the royal family of Alium. On her hand is the image of a red heart, and a frightening prophesy is made:

Ten years and ten again
Her crimson heart will bleed
Her life will flow to a better soul
And from her form recede
Her conscience shall stay in her lifeless frame
A hope to quench great fears
And cursed, she’ll wake till curse she’ll break
Under tears of 1,000 years

The red heart is an ancient power in Alium, but one that comes at great price. It is not to be used outside of their world, though they know other dimensions exist. The child is named Era Millenia Aliuma because of the prophesy.

When she turns 18, Millenia is forbidden from fighting in any wars and is confined to the palace in the hopes of preventing the prophesy from coming true. However, one day when she is wandering in the royal forest, Millenia stumbles upon a rogue portal. Frustrated with being cooped up within the palace grounds, Millenia uses the portal.

She finds herself in a country called Everoe. The king is dying from battle wounds, the prince is trying to keep his country in one piece. unlike Millenia’s matriarcal homeland, Everoe is strongly male-dominated.

Though it takes a long time, the stubborn Millenia works her way into the army, the first woman to do so. She also falls in love with the prince, Everette.

And etc…

Part 2: The Basic Outline

P. The Cursed Child
1. The Gate in the Forest
2. Foreigner
3. Attack of the Ghilts
4. The Castle of Everoe
5. The Reluctant Medic
6. The Competition
7. Mission of High Pass

And etc…

Part 3: Extended Outline

Prologue – The Cursed Child=
On the thirteenth night of the fall season, a daughter is born to the royal family of Alium. She is born, however, with a cursed power: the power called “Red Heart”. With her comes a prophesy:

Ten years and ten again
Her warring heart will bleed
Her life will flow to a better soul
And from her form recede
Her memory shall stay in her lifeless frame
A hope to quench great fears
And cursed, she’ll wake till curse she’ll break
Under tears of 1,000 years

Chapter 1: The Gate in the Forest
It has been 19 years since the cursed princess was born to the royal family of Alium. Named Era Millenia because of the prophesy surrounding her, the princess has quickly grown in skill and rank among Alium’s soldiers. However, fearful that the “ten years and ten again” means that Millenia will die at the age of 20 if she stays in the army, the queen forbids Millenia to remain in the army. The princess is confined to the palace grounds and separated from anyone close to her. Bored and resentful, Millenia takes her bow and quiver and goes hunting.
When Millenia gets off course while tracking a lion, she comes across a portal gateway that has opened mysteriously. Determined to escape her proverbial exile, Millenia dismounts her horse and steps through the gateway. She finds herself in a strange land, but when she saves a goatherd from the lion which had gone through the gateway before her, she is led back to a farm.

Chapter 2: Foreigner
After stepping though a magic gateway and entering a new world, Millenia finds that she had “bitten off more than she can chew”. The people of this new world speak a different dialect of Millenia’s own language, so communication can often be difficult. She is offered a place to stay in return for manual labor on the farm, owned by a man named Mediah. Through the course of the next few weeks, Millenia discovers that she has gone from a matriarchal society to a patriarchal one. To add to the difficulty, she knows nothing about farm life, traditionally a poor person’s role.

And etc…

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Though I could definitely write out the whole process, I doubt you have the patience to sit here and read it all. The point I’m trying to make is that, with this form of outline, one has the opportunity to flesh out the story multiple times, giving the writer a chance to work from the ground up instead of jumping right in.

All in all, there are many ways to do an outline, and each writer is a little different in their process. No two writers are exactly the same. Some may prefer a condensed outline. Others, an extended one. Some may not prefer to use an outline at all. People like that are, in my eyes, either crazy or genius, as I, for one, could never keep my thoughts straight if I didn’t have some sort of outline to follow.

These are just a few examples of my own work. My challenge to you, as the reader, is to find your own style, a map that will guide you to your goal: the end of a finished piece.

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