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One problem I often run into when trying to make a general outline of the plot for a story is how specific I am in the descriptions of events. Generally, this happens when I have written a portion of the story already, meaning that I know what happens in and around that part of the story. When I decide to actually outline the plot for the entire story, I start out very general at first, but get more and more specific as I get closer to the part that I've written. This obviously leads to having numerous bullet points with very specific information on events that are very close together (short gap between points), while there are other bullet points that are very general and open for expansion (larger gap between points).

Is there a level of detail that I should try to keep the outline at? How detailed/simple should each bullet point be? My goal is to write a plot outline such that I can look at it and have a general idea of how long it is just by the number of items in the outline. Another goal could be considered to be ensuring that one plot point is not significantly more important or detailed than another. Is there any general method for doing such a thing?

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5 Answers 5

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My approach to outlining: For each scene, write the minimum that reminds me what I want to accomplish with the scene. For me, the minimum is something like:

  • The POV character.
  • What the POV character is trying to accomplish in this scene.
  • The conflict (who or what stands in the way).
  • The outcome of the conflict (yes, no, yes but..., no and furthermore...).

That's usually enough to get me writing the scene. If there are other things I want to make sure to include (a clue, a revelation, a relationship event, a description of something in the setting), I'll note those, too.

I stop with the bare minimum. That gives me the energy I need to get into the scene, and plenty of freedom and opportunity for discovery as I write.

Though I don't worry about length before I write, this can give a sense of the length of the story. My scenes tend to fall between 800 and 2000 words (2000 words is a long scene for me). I figure 1500 words on average. So if I have 10 scenes, that's about 15,000 words.

I can often get a feeling for whether a scene will be shorter or longer because of the nature of the conflict--how the POV character will try to accomplish the scene goal, and how the conflicting characters will interfere.

So if your bullet points represent scenes, and you know how long your scenes typically run, that can give you a ballpark estimate of the total length of the story. If your bullets represent something smaller (e.g. beats or interactions within a scene) or larger (e.g. chapters or sequences), you'll have to adjust, based on your experience of how big those chunks typically turn out for you.

You may need less information, or more information, or different information. My recommendation is to experiment, practice, vary your outlining from story to story or scene to scene to discover what helps you and what hinders you.

Try adding a few more details in your outline, and notice how that affects what you write, and your eagerness to write, and your satisfaction with what you write.

Try putting fewer details in your outline, and notice what happens.

Try outlining only a scene or two ahead of the scene you're currently writing. Try outlining many scenes ahead of your current scene. Try outlining only after you write the scene, to capture those things that you'll want quick access to when you write later scenes.

What other ways can you think of to vary the way you outline? Pick one or two variables and experiment with them. Keep experimenting until you discover what works for you.

And experiment now and again, because your needs will change over time.

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This seems to be the most useful to me right now. Thanks for the pointers! –  JMcAfreak Jun 13 '13 at 20:08

It's tempting to include all this information that you already know, so what's the harm? The harm, as you indicate in your question, is that the outline no longer serves as a good gauge of your progress through the work.

What is the purpose of the outline? If your publisher requires it then follow your publisher's guidelines -- but, probably, the outline is for you. You should therefore include the amount of detail that meets your needs. Since you want a consistent level of detail, this means either adding a lot more detail for the parts you haven't written yet or cutting detail out of the outline for the parts you have written. (It's already in your book/story, so it's not lost.) The latter sounds easier to me.

Perhaps you are tempted to include the detail because you need to keep track of key events, character moments, and so on. That's important too, but consider using a different tool for that -- a timeline, a map, a collection of notes sorted by topic/character/place/artifact, or whatever.

My field is technical writing, not fiction, so I don't need to keep track of characters and plot elements -- but I do need to keep track of code snippets that I've used as examples, interactions among different parts of the system, and the introduction of key concepts. I use notes, lists on whiteboards, and sometimes a task-tracking system to keep track of all this. The outline, on the other hand, remains a glorified table of contents, helping me to keep track of the book organization as a whole without getting bogged down in details.

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Something I've heard, though yet to try, is to write outlines at at three levels of detail, then finally writing the story.

First write the outline completely free from all character view point, write it as general as possible, cover all of the main points from the beginning to the end.

Next write a second more detailed outline, this time taking into consideration characters view points. In fact, write parts of the outline from their perspective as if they are writing it for the sections which involve them.

Next write the third outline, take into consideration the previous two outlines, and add in any of the details which you missed previously.

Then sit down and write the story.

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Your problem is that you're trying to use one tool for two opposing tasks.

  • You're using an outline as a guide for writing (what happens next).
  • You want to use your outline to gauge the size of your work (what has already happened).

If you can't gauge the size of your work by reading the actual text, then my suggestion is to keep two outlines.

Your writing outline is the one you use to create the book. This is a working document, and it can have as many or as few bullet points as you need. This is the one which has breathing room for pantsing.

  • Friday night: John goes to the pub. Thinks about his life and decides it doesn't suck.

Your reading outline is the one you use to measure your progress. After you finish writing for the day, or maybe at the beginning of a session as a refresher to get you back in the groove, you turn your text into bullet points outlining what you wrote. This document is descriptive.

  • Friday night: John goes to the pub.
  • Gets his usual.
  • Sits in usual chair, watches regular crowd shuffle in.
  • Starts thinking about the rut he's in.
  • Considers whether he needs a new job. Rejects idea.
  • Considers whether he needs a girlfriend. Rejects idea.
  • Startled by Greg joining him.
  • Greg starts telling John about his day.
  • John concludes his life is not so bad.

Once your descriptive outline is finished, you can see quickly whether your scenes are balanced to your satisfaction.

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I haven't written the whole work yet. I'll write, say, a portion of the story, then realize I should probably have an outline so it doesn't end up not fitting in with the rest of the story. Basically, I'm trying to make a plan for the rest of the book/story (especially if I plan to have multiple books). –  JMcAfreak Jun 13 '13 at 20:06

I don't like the outline too detailed because grows too much and becomes confusing, so I keep it simple and generic.

Normally I create one entry for each different scene. I deeply rely on Dokuwiki and have my outline page linked directly linked to other pages where I can add a much deeper level of details. Outline clean and concise, linked pages well detailed.

Doing that way, I can see a small outline and yet have access to all details I need.

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