How to outline your story (In-depth guide)
Though plotters vs. pantsers is a well-worn dichotomy in writing circles, here at Wattpad, we like to think about it as more of a spectrum than a binary. Pantsers excel at improvisation and creative verve, while planners have meticulous structure and long-range thinking. Learning to outline doesn’t mean turning a pantser into a planner; it means giving yourself enough structure as a writer in order to allow your improvisation to bloom.
Outlining is important because it helps you think more holistically about your story. It’s easy to get excited at the first blush of a new idea, write a few chapters, put that up, and watch the comments roll in. But in order to actually build your readership, you need to update consistently and execute on the promises of your opening chapters. And in order to do that, you need to think ahead.
The best outline isn’t a perfectly filled out color-coded spreadsheet, or an exacting breakdown of every scene. The best outline is the one that you use. For some people, that’s notecards and string, for some it’s a spreadsheet with word count targets, for others it’s a 500-word summary, and for some, it’s a sticky note with one sentence on it.
Finding your own best way of outlining is a crucial part of the writing process. Yes, even for pantsers. In this module, we’ll be covering a couple of ways of putting together an outline and linking a variety of other methods you might find interesting. Give it a try, take what works for you, and leave the rest.
The Tentpole Method
We developed this Tentpole Method in order to balance our writers’ need for structure with the desire to improvise. It’s based on working with the images, scenes, and moments you already have, and using them to scaffold your story in an organic way.
- Write down the goals, motivations, conflict, and stakes for your main characters. You don’t have to know everything! Jot down what you do know; we’ll fill in the rest later
- Write down all the events you know about so far. Everything you feel excited about, the scenes you can’t stop thinking about, the big or small moments that make your story feel alive to you. These are your tentpoles. You’ll be relying on them to support the rest of your imaginative process. Note that these tentpole moments may not necessarily be big story moments, though they can be (and often are).
- What order do your tentpole moments go in? Try ordering them according to the Beginning, Middle, and End phases of the story.
- Examine each tentpole moment. What does this moment have to do with the character’s GMCS? Is this a moment where the conflict intensifies? Where the goal is in reach? Where does the character have to make a choice between what they desire and what they have to do? If none of your tentpole moments align with your GMCS, you should refine your GMCS so that they do.
- Are there any tentpoles in the Middle and End that require a lot of buildup? These are likely the big climactic moments of the story. Highlight them. What needs to happen to get there? What do you need to put in the Beginning so that the Middle and End make sense and have the impact you want? What do you need to put in the Middle so that the End pays off? You don’t have to have a concrete sense of that just yet, it can be vague. The point here is to think about what might need to happen, not necessarily to have concrete answers yet.
- When it comes time to write the Beginning, have a look at the tentpoles in the Beginning section. What might happen to get from Tentpole A to Tentpole B? From B to C? Brainstorm ways to connect your tentpoles. Use your GMCS to guide your brainstorming. As you brainstorm, look to the highlighted tentpoles. How can you build towards them?
- Repeat this for the Middle and End. Each time you come to write a section, brainstorm ways to connect your tentpoles, using your GMCS and highlight tentpoles as a guide. As you write, do any new tentpoles emerge? Integrate them into your outline. Your story will evolve, but keep in mind those central scenes that feel important, and try to write towards them.
The TV Treatment Method
This outlining method is adapted from screenwriting and is commonly used for TV scripts. The point of this exercise is to think globally about your story and focus on the most important elements of the plot.
Write the central conflict of your story in one sentence
Enlarge that sentence. Write a 600-word summary of your story, with 200 words each for the Beginning, Middle, and End. The point here is to keep it as tight and specific as possible. Be as concrete and concise as you can. What stands out in this version? What are the most important elements of this story?
Now, write a 1500-word summary of your story. What new details emerge in this version? How does the conflict of that initial sentence become more complex?
Use that 1500-word summary to guide you as you write the story. The conflicts and events of these summaries are the spine of the story that you can then use to guide the actual scenes as you write.
People with very strong pantser tendencies may not like this method, but we encourage you to at least give it a try in terms of thinking about the story as a whole. What new information did you get about your story when you think about it this way?
Here’s a list of other plot structures and outlining methods. Have a look through them and see what appeals to you. Are there certain elements here that you really like? Are there elements that really don’t work for you? What does that tell you about your creative process?
And don’t forget the rubber duck method! Sometimes explaining your story to a rubber duck, teddy bear, or trusted human listener can help you put the pieces together.
And remember: if in doubt, come back to GMCS. If you’re stuck in a scene, or if you’re having trouble thinking about what should happen in the next act of your story, return to your GMCS and let that guide you. What does your character want, and what’s preventing them from getting it? Plotting is just finding ways to answer that question.