[by John Robert Marlow]
Are you an author who
- Has never tried using an outline?
- Likes the idea of outlining, but gave up on it because it was too much trouble—or just didn’t work for you?
- Uses an outline for initial story planning, but not for revisions?
- Would rather have a root canal than use an outline?
If so, you’re not alone. Let’s face it: traditional outlines—with formatting and structure imposed by programs like Microsoft Word—can be a huge pain, especially when you want to change things. All those indents, letters, numbers, and Roman numerals seem to move around like they have a life of their own. Inserting a simple plot change can easily become an exercise in frustration. Small wonder some writers hate the prospect of outlining; it’s at odds with the creative process.
As a novelist and editor moving to Los Angeles, I felt the same way, despite the fact that many of my favorite writers were outlining devotees. It was only after getting involved with Hollywood that I learned about another kind of outline with none of the disadvantages I’d come to know and hate.
The Hollywood outline was designed for use with screenplays, where story changes come fast and furious, and your grandfather’s fancy outline would slow things down, wasting time and money.
It wasn’t long before I realized that what worked so well in Hollywood could, with a bit of tweaking, also work for books—including works-in-progress in need of revision. After all, story is story, regardless of medium.
After joining The Editorial Department in 2006, I introduced a hybrid outline format—the Developmental Outline—a simple and streamlined method to chart new stories and revise existing ones. The results have been extraordinary, and it’s been a real pleasure to see so many authors—some of whom detested conventional outlines—come to really enjoy the process and save themselves a good deal of time and effort on plot, structure, and pacing.
So whether you’ve given up on outlines or simply never tried them, consider working your story “Hollywood style” and giving this new format a chance. Here’s how it works…
The Developmental Outline is a simple bullet-point map of your plot, with one bullet for each significant physical, emotional, and (if applicable) spiritual event in your new or existing story. (You’ll see how simple in the sample outlines of two famous stories below.) Outlining in this way requires no fancy software or formatting and makes each bullet or “story beat” completely modular. Making it easy to add, move, change, or delete any event in the outline, without altering the structure of the outline itself.
Most bullet points should be short. Very closely related events might share the same bullet. No significant event is overlooked. When finished, someone who’s never read the story should be able to follow it from start to finish, just by reading the outline.
Try to include only the most essential information in your bullets. Weather, clothing, décor, and so forth are for extraneous details outline purposes. (Unless, say, a heavy downpour outside and slick-soled shoes cause a character to slip on a polished wood floor and hit his head on a table as he comes in the door.)
This kind of outline is relatively short, which makes for a reasonably fast read. When you come up with a new idea and want to consider how it affects the rest of the story, all you have to do is buzz through the outline. The same goes for changing, moving, or deleting bullet points.
Because the outline of even a lengthy and complex story is much shorter than the story itself, you’re more likely to read through it in one sitting, and thus keep the whole story in your head as you work. Contrast this with trying to remember every detail, and figure out whether or not your new idea will screw something up 200 pages from now—or actually having to read through the entire story every time you want to make a change.
Because the outline is so condensed, you’ll get to know your story’s “pitch points” better (and faster). Ghosts, orphans, and other glitches will become obvious in a way that doesn’t happen when you’re slogging through the whole manuscript. You’ll spot more and miss less. In the time it takes to read through a book manuscript, you can roll through the outline 5 -10 times, or even more.
The Developmental Outline process works the same way whether you’re plotting out new stories, revising drafts, or adapting a book into a screenplay (or vice versa). If your story will be classically structured—seven plot points in three acts—you can note those elements (on their own line) as they occur. This will serve as an at-a-glance structure reference and help break up the outline visually.
It’s also helpful to turn on line numbering, if your software has this capability. (Recent versions of Microsoft Word do.) This makes it quick and easy to pinpoint any specific bullet you’d like to come back to, or discuss with a writing partner or editor. Generally speaking, bullet points should be 1.5 x or 2 x spaced for ease of reading.
WORKING THE OUTLINE
You can work the Developmental Outline alone or with a brainstorming partner, editor, or co-writer.
In either case, start by outlining—in simple bullet-point format—the current draft of your manuscript. (Or if you’re outlining something new, a bullet-point progression of the ideas you have so far.) Save two versions of the outline: an original, and a working draft. Tuck the original away, and use the working draft. Give it an appropriate title—say, Brilliant Outline 001.
Before you start revising the outline, you’ll need to decide how to keep track of your changes. You may be tempted, when using Microsoft Word, to turn on “track changes” and let the program track what’s new, cut, or moved. In my opinion, this winds up being far more trouble than it’s worth. The markup view is cluttered, and the accept/reject process quickly gets cumbersome.
My own preference is to manually color new, altered, moved, and deleted text. I typically use green for new text, maroon for moved text, and strikethrough for deletes. This makes it easy to spot the different kinds of changes, and—unlike bright colors or highlighting—is easy on the eyes.
You can also wing it and not track changes as you go, but I don’t recommend this.
Regardless, you’ll want to save your outline frequently, each time giving the filename a higher number—Brilliant Outline 002, 003, etc. The most recent draft will always be the one with the highest number. This makes it easy to back into a previous version, or recover from a crash that corrupts the working outline draft.
Once you’re sure about changes, you can “black” them manually—changing the text color to black—and delete the strikeouts. (To black the whole outline using Microsoft Word, hit CTRL +A or Select All, then change the font color to black.) This allows you to view only new changes from this point forward, and keeps your outline from looking like a classified circus document. Because you’ve been saving frequently, it will be possible to go back and recover any deleted gems you later change your mind about. And of course, you’ll still have the original as well.
Roll through the entire outline this way, alone or with your brainstorming partner, then repeat, taking it from the top. Odds are you’ll find things you missed the first time around, and light bulbs that didn’t go off before will do so now. After the more obvious challenges and opportunities have been addressed, you’ll start to see the less obvious ones. This should continue through several drafts.
Once you have an outline you think is flawless—or as close as you can make it so—set the outline aside for a bit and then do one more pass, just to be sure.
Remember that you’re not a slave to your outline and that nothing is ever set in stone. The goal is to create a functional blueprint for the next draft so you’ll know exactly where you’re going before your fingers ever touch the keyboard.
Now let’s look at how this technique works in practice. This is what a Developmental Outline of The Matrix movie’s opening sequence looks like:
- Traced phone call: Trinity tells Cypher that Morpheus believes Neo is The One; Cypher expresses doubt, says “We’re gonna kill him” (Neo)
- Four cops move down dark tattered hall with guns and flashlights, kick in door of Room 303; TRINITY sits inside bare room, working laptop; she raises her hands
- Agents pull up outside, speak with Lt., who was told to wait for them; AGENT SMITH tells Lt. the four men he sent are already dead
- Cops move to cuff Trinity; she kills them all with freakish, inhuman abilities
- The Agents enter the building with more cops
- Trinity speaks to Morpheus on cell phone—earlier call traced, hardline cut, Agents coming; he tells her where to find another phone
- Trinity steps into hall as elevator opens, takes off; Agents and cops pursue, LARGE AGENT in the lead
- Trinity hits fire escape; Agent Smith on ground outside so she goes up
- Trinity hits the roof; Agent follows; she jumps to next roof, he follows; cops lagging, barely make jump
- Agent fires, misses; Trinity makes impossible jump over street to next building; Agent follows, cops stop
- Trinity bolts across roof, leaps off edge, crashes through small window in next building
- She tumbles down staircase, lands on back with two guns aimed at window; no one follows, she rises
- Trinity runs outside, spots phone booth; garbage truck skids into turn, stops with headlights on phone booth; phone rings
- Garbage truck burns rubber for phone booth; Trinity sprints toward booth
- She steps inside, picks up phone, turns to face oncoming truck
- Truck smashes phone booth through wall, backs up
- Agent Smith steps from truck, other Agents walk up; there is no body in the phone booth; “She got out”; Smith says their informant is real, and the name of their next target is Neo; a search is already running
- NEO sleeps in front of his computer; news headline about Morpheus eluding police on the monitor
- The new scroll disappears; words appear as Neo wakes: “Wake up, Neo… The Matrix has you… Follow the white rabbit”; He tries to shut down but can’t; next message is “Knock knock, Neo”
- Someone knocks on the door; the monitor goes black
- Neo answers, small group in hall; he sells illegal disk to lead dude in hall; dude invites Neo to party; Neo passes, then spots white rabbit tattoo on gal’s shoulder, agrees to go…
That’s a Developmental Outline. Every significant event is there. (In this case, they’re all physical.) The final level of microdetail—Trinity leaving a footprint in the concrete when she lands on the third rooftop, for instance, or spinning as she sails toward the window of the fourth building—isn’t needed until the actual writing begins. (Though you can of course make notes as cool little details come to mind.) As you can see, once you have the Developmental Outline in place, it’s hard to write too far astray.
Character names are capitalized the first time the character appears (a borrowed screenwriting convention), which acts as a quick reference when you’re wondering where a character is introduced. (Just conduct an all-caps search for the name.) When names are particularly long, abbreviations can be used to shorten them and save space.
Here’s Chapter One of the first Harry Potter book (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone):
- MR., MRS., and baby DUDLEY DURSLEY in kitchen: Mrs. Dursley gossips, Dudley throws tantrum; owl flies past window, no one sees it
- Dursley leaves for work, sees cat reading map; looks again, just sees cat, which seems to be reading street sign; nearing town, stuck in traffic, Dursley spots oddly-dressed people, some wearing cloaks
- Dursley at work, doesn’t see owls outside flying past
- Dursley goes out for a doughnut, overhears people whispering about Harry Potter
- Back at work, he starts to call home, hangs up, thinking bit of conversation he heard about “Harry Potter” must be about some other Potter and not his nephew (he’s never seen nephew, isn’t sure of first name)
- Dursley leaves work, bumps into man in cloak, who hugs him saying, “You-Know-Who has gone at last” and calls him a Muggle
- Dursley goes home, spots same cat by his house, tries to shoo it then goes inside, watches news report on unusual daylight owl activity and shooting stars falling instead of rain; asks wife if she’s heard from her sister lately; she gets upset and says no, why?; he says odd things are happening, thought it might have something to do with her sister’s crowd; Dursley inquires about nephew’s age (about same as Dudley’s) and first name (Harry)
- Just before bed, Dursley looks out window, sees cat staring down street, expectant; wonders if it has anything do to with the Potters he and his wife are related to and avoid, tells himself nothing the Potters did could possibly affect his own family
- Cat sits outside as owls fly over, watches as DUMBLEDORE appears on corner in long robe and purple cloak; he eyes the cat with amusement, pulls device from his cloak, clicks it to kill streetlamps; he sits beside cat, starts conversation
- Cat turns into PROFESSOR McGONAGALL; they speak of celebration (owls and shooting stars a part of this) 11 years in the making, Muggles noticing odd things, and You-Know-Who’s disappearance; Dumbledore refers to Y-K-W by name others fear to say: VOLDEMORT
- McGonagall says Dumbledore the only one Voldemort was afraid of; Dumbledore calls this flattery: V had powers he himself never did; PMG says that’s only because DD chose not to use dark powers, and says rumor is V went after the Potters last night, killed Lily and James, but when he tried to kill their son Harry, V’s power somehow broke
- DD says they may never know what happened or why V couldn’t kill the boy, says Hagrid (who tipped off PMG to DD’s pending arrival) is late; DD has come to bring Harry Potter to his aunt and uncle, along with a letter to help them explain things to Harry when he’s older; PMG argues against leaving him with the Dursleys, says Harry will be world-famous among their own people; DD explains that’s why he must be with the Dursleys—they know nothing of this, and Harry can grow up in peace until he’s old enough to handle the truth
- When DD says Hagrid’s bringing Harry, PMG calls Hagrid careless, but DD would trust him with his life; the giant HAGRID arrives on huge motorcycle that falls from sky, a bundle of blankets in his arms, says he got Harry out of house ahead of swarming Muggles
- DD takes HARRY POTTER, a baby with a lightning bolt-shaped scar on his forehead; HAG kisses Harry’s forehead goodbye, starts bawling about Harry being left with Muggles; DD quiets him and leaves Harry in blankets on Dursley doorstep, with letter
- DD, PMG, and HAG say their goodbyes; HAG leaves on the flying bike; PMG leaves as cat; DD turns streetlamps back on as he leaves, wishing Harry good luck; Harry sleeps on doorstep, unaware of fame or future…
That’s the first seventeen pages of Harry Potter—all of chapter one—in 46 lines, or one single-spaced page. At this rate—compressing 17 story pages into one bullet-point page—the entire story map for this 309-page novel will be a mere 19 pages long. Nothing of real story significance has been left out, and anyone can follow the tale without having read the book.
As mentioned above, finer-level details like clothing wouldn’t normally be mentioned in an outline; Dumbledore’s clothes are mentioned here only to show his kinship with the oddly dressed folk Mr. Dursley noticed earlier. Because, as things turn out, these folk will be important later.
OUTLINING AS A REVISION TOOL
Many of the authors we work with here at TED are surprised to learn how helpful an outline can be when tackling plot, structure, and pacing issues in already-completed draft manuscripts. With any new story, our job usually begins with a diagnostic evaluation to provide feedback on what works, what doesn’t, and how the story might be tweaked to realize its fullest potential.
It’s not uncommon for these evaluations to turn up inconsistent plot elements, structural problems, tangents, pacing missteps, or character issues. In some cases, story deconstruction/reconstruction is necessary to make a story work. That process goes much faster—and yields far better results—when an outline is used.
The Developmental Outline process allows you and your editor to focus solely on story essentials. Working this way—free from distractions—makes problems quicker to spot, and solutions easier to find. New ideas can be tried out in bullet-point form, in a fraction of the time it would take to write the proposed changes into the story itself—time that will go to waste if the idea is later scrapped. It’s also easier to “let go” of a bullet point that isn’t working than it is to ditch a whole scene (or sequence of scenes) that you’ve labored over for hours.
As a novelist, screenwriter and editor who once hated outlines—and has since worked on dozens of Developmental Outlines with TED clients—I can confidently say that there’s no better tool for mapping out a new story or refining an existing one than the Developmental Outline.
OUTLINING & BRAINSTORMING HELP
Whether you’re looking for help getting started with outlining or feedback and guidance to strengthen one you’ve already written, TED can help. Working at your preferred pace, and using the process described above, we’ll assist you in developing an outline that helps your story achieve its fullest potential—while making the experience as painless and productive as possible.
More information on TED’s Developmental Outline service can be found here. Should you have any questions about this or other services, feel free to contact Ross Browne at the Tucson office.
copyright © by John Robert Marlow
Director of Development at The Editorial Department