LESSON Story Outlines for Dummies (A Reference for the Rest of Us)

Discussion in 'REFINING WRITING' started by Minibit, Apr 10, 2016.

  1. When you're pitching your story, an outline is indispensable. Your editor or beta will often require it. In fact, I often want to see the outline before I even agree to edit something; often if it's not ready for the copy-editing stage, it will show in the outline.

    So what is an outline?

    It's a synopsis of your story, start-to-finish. Its something an editor, agent, friend, or anyone else can read quickly which gives them the gist of how the story unfolds.

    An outline:
    • Is written in short form; I recommend bullet points and summary statements
    • Includes all events which move the main (A) plot
    • Covers the whole story from intro to conclusion
    • Contains all the 'need-to-know' info for understanding the context of the story
    An outline does not:
    • Include B or C plots (sub-plots)
    • Include dialogue
    • Include character development
    • Include detailed context​
    • Include Author's Notes​
    An outline can have, but does not need:
    • The Title
    • Chapter titles
    • Markers to show where a chapter ends/begins
    • Character names
    Always remember that the person who needs your outline can ask for more info on any point if they want or need it.

    Here are some examples of things that should be cut or shortened in an outline.

    • X and Y have a fight in which X says Y is just a "two-faced liar" which brings up all of Y's trauma from before, causing her to run out into the street where she meets Z, who comforts her and lets her sleep at his place.
    This is too much how and why, and not enough result. Results are what is important in an outline, the how and why will be explained in the actual story. This point can be shortened to:
    • "X and Y fight, causing Y to storm out and end up crashing at Z's place."
    The important part (the part that moves the story, is Y ending up sleeping over at Z's place. But we need to know she was fighting with X to understand why that happens.

    • X becomes suspicious that Y is the thief and decides to follow them
    • X begins surveillance on Y
    • Y finds a hidden camera and confronts X
    • X accuses Y of being the thief
    • Y proves indisputably that they are not
    • X admits defeat and decides to return to the scene of the crime to look for new clues
    All of this can be cut, because it is a B-plot, a sub-story that does not move the A plot. No part of this brings X closer to finding the real thief. Had the points read something like:
    • X becomes suspiscous that Y is the thief and decides to follow them
    • X begins surveillance on Y and discovers that Y and Z are secretly dating
    • Y finds a hidden camera and confronts X
    • During the confrontation, X notices Y has a stolen item that they could not possibly have stolen
    • X concedes that Y is not the thief, but considers that Z might have stolen the thing for them
    This can stay in, because it leads to X suspecting the real thief, and therefore moves the A plot forward

    • X finds out that Y has a crush on them
    This can be cut entirely, unless the relationship between X and Y is the main plot. If it read as any of the following, it could stay:
    • X finds out that Y has a crush on them, and the info distracts them from noticing Z's second robbery in progress
    • X finds out that Z has a crush on them, and realizing their own feelings causes them to excuse Z as a suspect
    • X finds out that Y has a crush on them, and ditches surveillance on Z to meet with them
    This way the discovery directly leads to an action that moves the main plot.

    • X decides they need to try to be less paranoid
    Character development is nearly always a B plot, and does not belong in an outline. The exception is similar to 3: if it directly and clearly leads to an event which moves the A plot, such as
    • X decides they need to be less paranoid, and overlooks Z's suspicious action
    then it can stay.

    Here is an example of an outline:
    • It's a fantasy universe with monsters etc
    • XY and A are all humans
    • X and Y are monster hunters
    • Z is a monster

    • X happens, causing X to meet Y and team up
    • X and Y are attacked by Z but defeat them, much carnage from the fight.
    • X and Y decide to find out more about Z and go to LOCATION for info
    • LOCATION has been destroyed by Z, but A shows up and says they can help, joins the team
    • XYA team prepares to go after Z, but Z only seems more undefeatable the more they learn
    • A is kidnapped by Z's team, tortured into giving up what XYA team knows
    • X and Y rescue A
    • Info A picked up while captured reveals possible weakness
    • a chance incident leads to XYA team finding out about a time Z will be vulnerable
    • XYA team attacks Z
    • Z has secret advantage, still gets defeated but Y dies in the battle
    • Day saved, bittersweet tone, Funeral scene
    • Fin.
    Now you try! 8D
    #1 Minibit, Apr 10, 2016
    Last edited: Apr 11, 2016
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  2. Question: Should the outline present events as they are presented on paper, or should they be presented in chronological order? For example, in the Odyssey, the story's chronology is a bit bundled, starting with Telemachus searching for his poppa, then Odysseus stuck in Calypso's island, then Odysseus telling everything else that happened to him to the Phaeacians -- should Homer, if he did, have written the outline starting with the setting out from Troy, or from, well, the above?
  3. Depends! If your story is told out of order like that I would probably give two outlines, a chronological one and an 'as told' one, or possibly just a chronological one with a description of the order events will be told in the footer
  4. Cool! Thanks. I might ask for an outline review soon enough -- this stuff's real handy!
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