How to Outline a Story: 3 Different Ways

by Hope G. Hanson
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I think everyone knows that outlining isn’t for everyone. Many writers fit the “pantser” category and work best when they just plunge straight into the deep end on the first draft.

But for those of us that do work better with an outline to guide us, though, there’s another problem:

“How do I structure my outline?” 

This is a question that’s taken me on a seriously convoluted rollercoaster ride. I’ve tried everything from flow charts to an annotated witch’s hat plot diagram to having dozens of sticky notes arranged on my wall. And the number of times I’ve desperately typed some variation of “how to outline a book” or “free novel outline” into my search engine… Well, it’s just embarrassing. 

Ultimately, the problem is simple. Not only is there no one-size-fits-all outline that’ll work for every writer, there’s also no one outline guaranteed to work for every story. For example, the format I used for outlining my currently-scrapped Celtic-mythology-based project is basically unusable as an outline structure for either of the things I’m presently working on.

However, through a lot of trial and error, I have managed to find three distinct outline structures that, together, can be used for pretty much anything. Although no outline format is perfect, and you might find that none of these work for you, I’ve found these to be what work best for me. And hopefully, some of you will too!

#1: The Bullet Outline

The name is pretty self-explanatory: It’s just a series of bullet points that outlines the general progression of your story. Simple, easy, and incredibly versatile. 

That versatility is definitely my favorite thing about the bullet outline. You can make it as complicated or brief as you’d like. Also, you can organize the bullet points in whatever way makes the most sense for your specific story. 

Personally, I generally tend to divide the outline into sections based on chapters. It makes the most sense to me for when the time comes to actually write the story. I also usually make mine relatively detailed, but that’s the other thing I love about the bullet outline: I can put enough detail in that the writing process goes smoothly, but not so much that there’s zero room for spontaneous creativity. Which is great, because that’s what works the best for me. Again, though, this kind of outline can easily be adapted to everyone’s individual needs and preferences.

#2: The Chart Outline (a.k.a. Scene-by-Scene Outline)

Again, this one’s name is self-explanatory: It’s an outline, but in chart form. Personally, I tend to use a chart outline when I want to outline a story with more detail, and I usually divide the chart into rows based on scenes (hence the “scene-by-scene” outline). Here’s an example of the format that I usually use: 

Scene #TitleSettingCharactersDescriptionNotes

Like the bullet outline, a chart outline can also be adapted to fit the individual needs of you and your story. You can divide it into rows based on scene, chapter, day, point of view, and so on. And, of course, you can put into the different columns whatever information is important to you. 

#3: TV Series-Based Outline

This is the only one that I’ve come up with independently of online sources (though I doubt I’m the only one out there who’s suggested this approach). That being said, it requires a little more explanation. Technically, the name is once again self-explanatory, but first you’ll need a little context. 

This outline format is one I first used when planning for the scrapped project I mentioned before. I structured my outline in this way because timing and pacing were key to making this particular story work. And the best way I could come up with for making sure those things were done well was to envision my story as though it was a TV mini-series. Here’s how I structured my outline to reflect that: 

ACT 1

Episode 1: 

Episode 2: 

Episode 3: 

ACT 2

Episode 4: 

Episode 5: 

Episode 6: 

ACT 3

Episode 7: 

Episode 8: 

Episode 9: 

Basically, I divided the outline into three sections (Acts 1-3). Then, I divided each of those sections into three subsections that I dubbed Episodes 1 through 9. I then placed important events, turning points, and pitfalls at the places where I’d expect to see them if I were watching a TV series. For example, I placed a seemingly insurmountable obstacle at the end of Episode 8, where I’d expect there to be such a pitfall were I watching this story unfold on-screen. 

All things considered, it’s not a format that works best for everything or everyone. For instance, as I said before, it doesn’t work for the project I’m currently focused on. However, if you’re someone who likes to picture your story playing out on screen (of which I am very, very guilty), this could be an incredibly useful tool for figuring out pacing. 

Conclusion

When it comes down to it, outlining is as much of a creative endeavor as actually writing is. I’ll repeat, no outline format works for everything or everyone. There is no perfect guide for how to format a story outline.

Really, the best way to structure your outline is whatever feels the most natural for you and your story. That could be an unstructured flow of bullet points or a complex document with every single event on- and off-screen carefully detailed. But whatever feels right to you probably is right. 

Happy outlining, and drop a comment to let me know how you like to structure your outlines!

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