One of my favorite things about writing is how entire worlds, full of connections and characters and meaning, can simmer in your head right up to the moment when they burst out onto the page (or screen, as the case may be). Even so, thinking about stories, and eventually writing then down – especially once your life has reached a point where you’re snatching minutes from other obligations – can make keeping a train of thought difficult.
While I’ve never been one for formal outlines, over the years I’ve come to realize that making some kind of lose structural notes can help me both keep a story on track and make sure it’s tightened up before I have to restart it too many times.
My toolbox has a few basic methods in it, and today I’m going to share it with you.
1. Whiteboard/Visual Outlining
This is one of my favorite ways to outline a writing project. Whether you’re working in prose, film or theater format, I find that visual representations of ideas can be a great way to get ideas out of your head and down on paper.
Pros: fast, informal, fun, free-form. You can follow your gut and explore new pathways easily, with fewer lasting repercussions. Want to change a theme or an action, or foreshadow something happening later in your story? Just go back and add in another layer of your thought-web.
Cons: can be tricky to transcribe easily, leaves you looking like you went all BEAUTIFUL MIND if you happen to use a whiteboard wall. VERY unstructured, usually requires another round or two of thinking through what you want to say before you have something you can really work from. Hard to share with others.
2. The Save the Cat Beat Sheet
Last year, a friend introduced me to this tool during a too-infrequent visit. Based on Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat model, which is geared towards screenwriting, the adaptation I’ve been using is from a site called Liz Writes Books, and lets you plug the length of your project in, then adjusts for length. This is the method I’ve been using on the project Sareliz and I are working on together, and it’s been nothing short of brilliant. Using this excel sheet, we can easily communicate ideas and plot lines, and once I finished the sheet for the first novella in our series, the first draft was finished inside of a week.
Pros: Organized, helps make sure you’re hitting every note on your way through the novel.
Cons: The last time I tried to share the link with someone, the Excel sheet had been taken down. It looks like it’s back up, but who knows for how long, so I’d advise you to save a copy to your hard drive. The names of the steps can be a little misleading, but there’s plenty of additional information on Snyder’s theory out there to read up on.
3. Step-by-step Guide
Most of my notes for stories wind up being in this format. The other day, for example, I went all Beautiful Mind on my whiteboard; in transcribing the ideas over and making them into something I could coherently share, the ideas fell most easily into this form. An example would be, “Jane talks about her feelings. John doesn’t want to hear it, he leaves, she follows him, they argue. Everything blows up in her face.” Nice and succinct, gives you a general throughline on the story.
Pros: Easy to write organically, easy to keep up with your thoughts.
Cons: Hard to share in raw form, since specifics are rarely spelled out. Requires you to keep the specifics in mind as you work – what are Jane’s feelings? Why doesn’t John want to hear about them?
4. Formal Outline
I hate formal outlines. I probably only use them when writing feature scripts and TV scripts, since those are two of the most structured forms of writing I know. If I’m writing a play, I rarely use an outline at all until I’m at least halfway through and have learned a bit about the characters. Anyway, a formal outline goes scene by scene and details what’s going to happen in each. Usually, they require several drafts themselves. What I find is that where feature films and TV scripts are concerned, they’re absolutely necessary, because you need to be able to adjust the story in major ways before you commit to writing a 50- or 120-page script. With short films and shorter episodic stories, however, I find they’re kind of a waste of time. In the time I can write a formal outline, I can work through two or three drafts of a short film script.
Pros: You pretty much must write one for a longer filmed project, and it’s good to at least know your way around putting one together. If you can keep focused, they make the actual writing of a script go much more quickly than it might otherwise go.
Cons: They’re bloody boring to write and then iron out, and in some cases you run the risk of getting tired of the project before you’re even at a first draft stage.
So, there are four methods for gathering your ideas and turning them into a coherent piece of creative writing. There are plenty more options – index cards, for example, though I’ve never been able to get the hang of using those – and these are just my preferences.
What method do you use in working on your creative writing pieces? Have you heard about other ways of working that I haven’t listed here? I’d love to hear about them if you have, so feel free to leave a comment!