No matter how many professional writers you ask about story outlines, each answer you get will be different. On one side of the spectrum of opinion is D., a friend who is an accomplished screenwriter, fiction writer and film critic: D. never writes down an outline, explaining this with “That would be like telling the story twice.”
On the other end we place the Russian writer – Ivan Turgenev, if memory serves – who essentially wrote entire novels by ballooning a one- or two-page outline. After distilling the entire story start to finish in two pages, Turgenev’s second draft would expand those few pages to 20 or show, then a second draft of 80 pages and so on until a book of several hundred pages had evolved.
The approaches to an outline may be different among writers, but basically all agree that some kind of outline is the first step on the way to actualizing the abstract idea into a tangible coherent story. (Note that D. never said he doesn’t create an outline: He just doesn’t write it down. He plans, trust me.)
The basics: A minimalistic outline plan
Feel free to free-write as much of your idea as you’d like, but we recommend thinking through at least the following aspects of the story. Try to keep the time spent on this exercise to 60 minutes: You’ll want to list as many of the essentials as quickly as possible while the idea is still at its most primitive but most brightly burning.
• Get down the kernel of the idea in one or two concise sentences, remembering to define the idea in terms of action. You story is not about some philosophical concept or an alternate universe, it’s not about a man who owns a lot of stuff or a woman who becomes a better person: You story is about somebody doing something.
Please understand that this is no trivial argument designed for rote memorization before freshman English class. Odds are that you did not originally conceive of the story by first considering the plight of one’s existential soul with a godless apathetic universe – more likely you dreamed up a laid-off insurance claims adjuster who’s been given a terminal cancer diagnosis or a conservative Republican who falls for a radical Latinx activist.
The whole point of making the outline is to buttress against memory loss; this early in the game, characters and actions will get you closer to the deeper truths of the story sooner than an all-embracing concept. Remember, too, that the immediate impact on a reader is made through the characters and events; appreciation of the overarching moral and philosophy comes later.
• Identify at least three key events that will move and/or turn the action. Put down three inciting incidents or events you not only want to include in the story, but that you feel are necessary for the plot. No need to refer to Hero with a Thousand Faces or choose o0e event each from the story’s beginning, middle and end; you need even need to list major events or stop at three – particularly if you’re going to be working in novel or move script format. Just keep in mind that to reach the end of the trail, even a simple map of a few guideposts is infinitely better than nothing.
• Get down the end point of the story in one or two concise sentences. Here’s the one line, commonly spoken in college writing courses that should never be uttered once one aspires to professional story writing: “I don’t know how it’s going to end; I’m just following the story to see where it goes.” Simply letting thoughts slalom the stream of consciousness in what is likely to be a semi-autobiographical tale is amusing and can be quite instructional – but the only true place for this “technique” is the classroom. Many (many!) writers argue that a good solid conclusion is even more important than an attention-grabbing opening.
One might call this The John irving Principle. Irving, author of the National Book Award-winning The World According to Garp, explained his way of reverse-engineering his novels: “I always begin with a last sentence, then I work my way backwards, through the plot, to where the story should begin.”
You won’t need to create a “He loved Big Brother” or “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” for this part of the exercise, but the point is to know your characters’ final destination. And once you’ve reached the end point of the story’s outline, you may approach the creation process with a clear course to growing that idea.