WAW: Progressive Outlines

Writing About Writing: A once-a-week post about some aspect of writing. I’m not an expert; I’m just some guy. Take it with a grain of salt.


I was working on an outline this morning and wanted to share my method. Some may find it helpful.

For the sake of having an easy example, I’m going to outline “The Three Little Pigs” using this method.

Step One: Broad Outline

I start with a super broad outline. This is literally just bullet points with ideas. At this stage, I throw out ideas without worrying about whether or not I’ll keep those ideas to the end. This part of the outline will also include things about style or tone that aren’t purely plot points.

Example

  • Pigs live in houses
  • Wolf comes around and bothers them in some way
  • One pig is smart enough to survive it
  • Maybe the wolf dies at the end
  • Tone: Fairy tale

Step Two: More Specific

Now it’s time to get more specific. I will again throw around ideas that may or may not make it into the final draft, however. I’ll even sketch out multiple versions of the story.

Example

  • Version One
    • Pigs live in a tower
    • The wolf makes his way up each floor of the tower
    • He eats the pigs on floor 1 and 2
    • On floor 3, he encounters a smart pig who defeats him
    • The pigs eat the wolf
  • Version Two
    • Pigs live in three separate houses
    • Each house is progressively more sturdy
    • The wolf blows down house one and two
    • At house three, the wolf finds he can’t ruin the house
    • He tries to talk his way into the house, but the pigs are too smart
    • They live and the wolf starves waiting outside their house
  • Version Three
    • etc…

Step Three: Detailed Outline

Finally I have an outline I can run with. Usually during step two it becomes really obvious which version of the story is going to work. Once I have that, I can go into a detailed outline.

Note 1: I like to get SUPER detailed, but that’s not everyone’s jam. Go for as much detail as you like. I like to know exactly where I’m going, but other people enjoy having a more open outline that doesn’t lock them in to any decisions.

Note 2: If I’m writing a short story, a few bullet points are enough for even the “detailed” outline. But if I’m doing a novella or novel, I will do a detailed outline like this one for every chapter and scene.

Example

  • The pig in house one is making breakfast. He hears a knock on his door and sees that it’s a wolf.
  • He refuses to open his door so the wolf forces his way in by blowing down the flimsy house made of straw.
  • The pig flees just in time and gets to house two.
  • At house two…
  • etc…

Resources:

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