Outlines and Notecards and Timelines, Oh My! How to Plan Your Plot
So we’ve all been there—you’re going through your day, doing whatever you do, and suddenly…inspiration strikes! You have a brilliant idea for an amazing story that everyone will love.
You jot down some hurried notes so you don’t forget, then continue thinking about this totally awesome world you’re going to build.
Later that day, or a few days after, you finally sit down to start writing. And…
Wait. Where do you start?
And then you shuffle through your notes, stare at the blank page, and feel completely defeated. There is an amazing story trapped inside your head and you can’t get it out.
If this has ever been you (and let’s face it—it has), then you are experiencing the paralyzing conundrum of: How do I get the idea out of my head and onto paper?
Because, see, stories are complicated. Even the simplest ones are complicated.
And you have to have some kind of game plan before diving in, right?
So here are some varieties of story planning that you might like to try.
Let’s start simple—the outline. You probably made outlines in school, but these are less painful because they have very few rules and no one is going to mark it up with red pen. (Well, you might, but you can use purple or green or something instead if you prefer.)
Outlines don’t have to be as scary as they sound, and they can be as simple or detailed as you need them to be. I’ve had outlines that were essentially five main points bulleted on a page. I’ve had other outlines go for pages and pages, delving into great detail. It’s all about what the story needs and what you need.
The main thing is not to psych yourself out. A lot of people don’t outline because they’re intimidated by the idea of outlining. It’s not scary, it’s just a list. You can change it whenever you want and you can completely ignore it after you write it if you choose to (my characters usually do). Often times, it just serves as a good way to get thoughts out of your head and onto the page, so you can figure out if you actually like them or not.
Sometimes, you just have to work backwards. Exactly like the original outline, the reverse outline allows you to plan backwards, from the end. Super handy if you know how your story ends…but are kinda stuck on how it gets there.
This is also super-handy for adding twists and turns, as you work through them in a way that
A personal favorite of mine, notecards give you all the planning powers of outlines without the rigid structure. I like them because I can move them around, switch up the order of scenes, remove or add scenes to see how it impacts story flow, and generally change things up whenever I want. Also, you can add extra notes to the back of the card for reference, which is sometimes very handy.
An added bonus is that notecards can be stacked and carried with you, sometimes more easily than a printed/hand-written outline. On the other hand, spreading them all out on a table (I have a pin-board where I stick them) can use up a lot of space. If you need the visuals, though, it can be excellent for planning.
You can even add dialogue to notecards. If there’s an exchange that’s really important, jot it down so you don’t forget.
(Again, add as little or as much detail as you want—this is an art, there’s no “right” way to do it!)
Timelines are great if you need to keep a lot of events in order, which is generally the case with my insane stories.
I like to use them in conjunction with notecards, because timelines are best if kept pretty basic, and notecards give me more wiggle-room for adding detail and playing with what’s going on in individual scenes.
A fairly simple and loose method of planning out a story is to write three paragraphs—one for how the story starts, one for what goes on in the middle, and one for how it ends.
You’ll still have a ton of freedom within the parameters of this, so it’s great for people who don’t like to be too constrained.
Random Thoughts Outline
I actually really love this—it’s where you take a few pages of paper and just start writing things that you know you want to happen at some point in the story. In no particular order, with no rhyme or reason, just write things down. “Characters get lost in labyrinth,” can be followed immediately by “Defeat evil Lord of the Realm in epic battle,” which can lead to “Main Character discovers magical relic that grants him power.”
These are all out of order, but once you have them down, you can comb through them and start figuring out where they go—kind of like a puzzle. You can write “Beginning” “Middle” and “End” in a different color next to each mini-scene/thought and then structure your outline from there. I’ve used it before and, when you have no ideas where to start, but too many ideas to just dive in, it’s an excellent tool.
If all else fails, you can do what I did for my most recent novel: Just start writing. It sounds kind of insane, but if you relinquish all needs for it to be “good” or “make sense” or have fancy things like “structure” and “logic” then this method can actually be pretty amazing. In a sense, what you’re doing is just pouring the story out on to the page. You end up writing the story you want to write, rather than the story you think you should write. You can always fill in the plot holes, characterizations, and structure issues later. You can even do research later, if your story isn’t terribly research-heavy! It can be a little more work in the revision stages, but it’s great for when you’re just raring to get started and can’t contain your excitement long enough to actually plan and plot. And it can have surprisingly awesome results.
My one caution? Don’t let planning turn into procrastination. Prep is important, but you’ll never truly have enough, so once you’ve gathered what you need to start, start! First drafts are meant to be terrible, and if you hate it, you can always fix it in editing!
There are tons of ways to plan out your novel—this list is definitely not complete! What’s your favorite method on or off this list, and how has it helped you get the job done? Let me know in the comments!