Unconventional Outlines

Does thinking about making an outline give you nightmares? An outline doesn’t have to be hard to write. An unconventional outline is fun to make, and as a bonus, you will end up with so much information that will make writing your book or story much easier.

female prisoner shackled in her own cell, wikimedia commons

What will an outline lock you into what you must write?
An outline is simply a guideline for your writing, but it isn’t written in stone. If a better way to write a scene comes to you while you are writing, then ditch what you have written in your outline, and write it the new improved way. An outline is there to make writing easier, not lock you into writing something you don’t want.

writer’s block, flickr

Do you get writer’s block often? Do you get stuck and have no clue where to take your story? I believe that a good outline is a cure for this. Right in front of you will be a suggestion of where your story should go. You might wander off the written path and follow rabbit trail after rabbit trail, but these side paths you take off on could make your story even better.


what if, wikimedia commons

“What if” Questions
Remember the dull and uninteresting outlines you had to do in school? Forget those. There are much better ways of outlining. Besides, who wants to do things the normal way?

For every scene, every idea, every event, ask “what if” questions and write down your answers. Is it actually possible to write a story from the answers to your “what if” questions? Sure. Your outline doesn’t need to be complicated.

Write out a list of your scenes and what happens in each one.
These do not have to be done in order. Just write out each scene as it comes to you. Well, if you’re in the shower, that might not be convenient, but you can write it down as soon as you’ve dried off.

For each scene, might I also suggest you make notes about things that are seen, heard, or smelt in each one.

honeysuckle, pixabay

For a walk outside, make note of trees, flowers, or other outside scenery as well as anything unusual pertaining to the story.

Are there any animals around? Can they be heard? Music? A radio playing? Hammers pounding? Saws cutting? The chop of an ax? Thunder? A whisper?

Can smoke from a burning fire be smelled? What about the sweet scent of flowers? Food cooking? Of maybe a horrible smell, like that of something dead, is wafting through the air.

When it comes to you how a scene should play out, I realize it is exciting. Getting it written down seems like something you have to do immediately. But if it is that great, then it will stay with you for just a few minutes until you can get somewhere to make note of it.

Mind Maps are fun. 
Before I wrote the first word of Softly and Tenderly, while it was still just a thought, words to guide me through the first part of the story were written out in a mind map. Mind maps are awesome because you can do them anywhere as long as you have something to write on and a pen or pencil. Mine was written out in the kitchen on a sheet of printer paper with my flour-coated hands while I made fried chicken. The result was messy and not always easy to read, but it was a success. So mine wasn’t as neat as the one in the below picture.

What is a mind map?  It is a graphical way to organize your thoughts and ideas.  Write down the word “storm.”  Now draw a line out from storm and write down the first word that comes to mind when you think about a storm.  It could be rain, thunder, or lightning.

Those would be common words that most associate with storms, but maybe for you, storms bring something totally different to mind.

Maybe during a storm, you found a dog huddled outside in the downpour attempting to stay dry.  You took this dog home with you, and he became a close companion of yours.  So, when you see the word storm, it could bring to mind dog, loyalty, or friendship.

mind map, wikimedia commons

Or maybe you were caught out in the last thunderstorm, and now you associate storms with sickness.  When you were caught out in it, you had gone to see your newly born grandchild, so you could even associate storms with babies.

And the list goes on and on.  The associations will be different for each individual.  It all depends on your life experiences and whether you mostly think of horror, romance, adventure, etc.

You can make your mind maps a bit deeper. Next to each word you associate with storms, make a note of why this particular word came to mind.  Do the same for every word under each heading.

When your muse refuses to cooperate with you, reading over these words could be just the thing you need.  Seeing why you associate certain words with other ones could even be the start of a new story, or it could add more depth to what you are already writing.

hand-drawn map of New Cross, flickr

Maps make great outlines.
More than one map might be necessary, and you don’t have to be an artist to do this. The lines that indicate borders don’t have to be straight, and wavy lines are great to indicate bodies of water. Triangles work just fine to indicate mountains.

Maps of cities or specific sections of a city can help you pinpoint where each event in your story takes place. Maps of homes, schools, and/or buildings to guide you through them helps you see exactly the steps your characters would naturally take.

printable blank monthly calendar, public domain

A calendar will help you keep your timeline straight so that you don’t mix things up.
During what months does your story take place? You can use a 12-month calendar and just jot down phrases that let you know what takes place each day.

If your story takes place during a specific week, you can have a separate sheet of paper for each day. Write out the hours for each day on each piece of paper. You can now write down the exact time each event happens.

There are a lot of variations with a calendar. You could also write out weekly events or monthly events. The times don’t have to be specified in your story, but you will know.

Mowgli, Max Pixel

Write backstories for your characters.
Write about experiences, good and bad, they have had. Include details about how they react emotionally and physically in different situations. Everything you write about here points to the type of person your character is and will have happened before your story begins. Your readers don’t need to know about all of this extra stuff, but you do.

If you don’t know what to include, try interviewing your characters. Be nosy and don’t put limits on what you ask them.

By the time you are done with the backstories, you will know your characters inside and out, backward and forward.

create, flickr

Create Your Own Type of Outline
Maybe you don’t want to outline your story in any of the ways I’ve described. If not, create your own type of outline, and if it works great for you, then share it with the world.


Recommended Articles:
Character Creation and Character Sheets
Choosing a Name for Your Character
The Writer’s Journal
Softly and Tenderly, Part 1, by Lisa Binion

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *