Outlining header

Outlining Methods Put to the Test

As a writer, (or rather, someone who writes), I read a lot of writing advice. I’m always looking for tips and tricks, dos and don’ts, and of course, that one elusive, but magical, piece of advice that will forever transform my writing life. (I haven’t found it yet, but I’ll let you know when it happens.)

One topic I’m constantly reading about is outlining. I outlined my most recent novel and it made for a much more structured plot. It also made the revision process a breeze. I caught plot holes early on, and restructured the first half of the novel after outlining the second half. I was able to see exactly where I wanted my story to end up without writing myself into a corner first. It was mind-blowing. I finally understood all my writing friends who had been evangelizing outlines to me for years. I was always a "sprinkle the seeds and see what grows" kind of girl, but no more. I’ve decided that outlining is a thing I want to do from now on. 

With National Novel Writing Month right around the corner, I’ve been doing a crazier-than-usual amount of writing research. I want to build an outline for my NaNoWriMo novel now, so that when November 1st hits, I’ll be locked and loaded. But here’s the problem: there are literally hundreds of articles out there about the best way to outline a novel. Of course no two writers are alike, so you might not be like me, but I thought I’d share my Outline Report Card with you (plus some pros and cons) of 3 different outline methods that I tried myself.

Outline Report Card

Three Act Method

My Grade: B

house typing

You’ve probably heard of this kind of outline before. The basics are that every story has a Beginning (Act 1), a Middle (Act 2), and an End (Act 3). You start this outline by figuring out where your story starts, peaks, and ends and then working out what action is needed to move through the story—to get from one act to the next.

This way of thinking about a novel was never very helpful to me, because I’ve always been more of a character writer than a plotter. But I was still able to use this method, by reinterpreting it a little and thinking about where/whom I wanted my characters to be at these three points in their story.

For example, a character might start out being a wallflower (Act 1) and end by coming out of their shell (Act 3). If I know that’s what I need a character to do, I can work backwards to pinpoint the inciting incident that forces this change in them, which would be the climax of my story or Act 2.

PROS

  • Freedom: You can make this kind of outline as vague or as detailed as you like. You can stick with three major scenes, and write freely between them or you can plan out every single scene before you write a word. It’s up to you!
  • Format-friendly: You can use this type of outline for a script or screenplay, a short story, a novella, a full-length novel and even poetry!
  • Plot vs. Character: A lot of outlines are structured around the plot, but if you’re more of a character-driven writer like me, you can toggle between plot and character as needed.

CONS

  • Still stuck: Because this outline doesn’t force you to think through every section of your story, you can still write yourself into a corner.
  • One size does not fit all: Some stories just don’t fit this structure. You might be writing an action-packed thriller that has seven acts, or a mystery that has four big reveals before the resolution, or a quiet literary novel that’s more of a meditation on family than a riveting, climax-filled story. Make sure the outline you pick fits your end goal.

Headlight Method

My Grade: A-

Jim Carrey typing

This was my favorite of the three. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s based on the E.L. Doctorow quote: “Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you make the whole trip that way.” So essentially, you outline as you go.

You can start this outline without knowing much about your story. As long as you know a main character or two, and the conflict, you’re ready! Using this method, you’d outline the first few chapters, then you’d start writing. When you wrote through the outlined chapters, you’d outline the next few, and so on. Brilliant, right? And so fun!

PROS:

  • You don’t have to know much: With this method, you can start writing right away, which can keep you excited about a project when you’re already as excited as you’ll probably ever be: right after you get the idea.
  • Built-in breaks: You have pre-set breaks when you can stop and reread what you’ve written—super helpful if you’re an editing nut like I am. This also allows you to pivot the story if/as needed.
  • Now what? You’re constantly forced to ask this question, so you’re less likely to get lost in your story. It also kept me motivated and interested in what I was writing when I normally I’m easily distracted by new ideas.

CONS:

  • You can still write yourself into a corner: Because you’re not exactly sure where you’re headed, you may have to re-outline or rewrite once you get to one of the breaks in your outline.
  • Pacing problems ahead: You may discover that the plot is unfolding too quickly or too slowly because you’re not sure how long or short your story will be as you write.

Snowflake Method

My Grade: D

Entourage maybe?

I wanted to like this method, I really did. But, ugh, it’s just not for me. The Snowflake Method is basically an extremely structured outline. Imagine the shape of a snowflake—the way it starts simply in the center and spirals out into more and more detailed pieces. That’s what you do with this method. You start with a sentence that encapsulates your entire story. Then you make that into a paragraph. Then you split that into several paragraphs. And so on into pages and character descriptions, expositions and chapters, until you’ve basically written a high-level version of your story. You go back after this is complete and write the actual first draft.

I don’t doubt that this would yield an extremely well-written and well-connected story, but it felt like homework to me. It sucked all the life out of me and stomped on just about everything I love about writing.

PROS:

  • First-timer? This might be perfect for a first-time writer who has no idea where to start. It guarantees that you think just about every part of your story through before you actually start writing, which I can totally see being really helpful to a first-timer.
  • Structure-lover: If you like structure, this method will be like crack to you. It’s extremely detailed and even has suggestions on how much time you should spend on each part of your “snowflake”.

CONS:

  • BOOORRINNG: At least it was to me. I am always in a rush to get to the actual writing part of writing, and this puts it off for so long that I didn’t care anymore.
  • Telling not showing: I could see a writer easily falling into a trap of using a lot of the pre-writing you do in this method as the actual story and it involves a lot of exposition that would not be interesting to read but is necessary to build the snowflake.
  • Spreadsheets? This method just seems so technical that it doesn’t even feel like writing anymore. Writers who use this method suggest using a spreadsheet to keep track of all the scenes you need to write, and while I know some writers use Excel to stay organized, it just made it feel like the exact opposite of what writing is supposed to be—art.

So tell us, Swooners. Are you plotters or pantsers? What outlining methods have or haven't worked for you? Share in the comments below!

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Ashley W.

Even though I work in marketing, I’m a consumer in every sense of the word: I love shopping, indie movies, ...

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