2 Key Factors in Successfully Outlining Stories

Today’s guest post is by Andrea Turrentine.

If you intend to write a novel, I can tell you most publishers may ask you for an outline and a few chapters.

Outlining may be unavoidable, especially for new writers.

It is also pointless to debate the efficacy of outlining because no doubt most of the best pros do it.

Atwood. Rowling. Martin. Patterson. Gaiman. Sorkin. Rhimes (She doesn’t need to now but teaches her students how she did so when she started out).

If it works, it works. That’s right. I’m taking a hard stance.

What we are going to look at is about outlining in practice. So, while devout pantsers may wish to leave, don’t! I may yet convert you.

Much has been said about outlining. So, I will simply state that you need to choose an outline method that is best for you.

Now you must be wondering, how do you intend to write an article about outlining without homing in on a method?

The Elements of a Plot

Let’s focus on literary elements that allow you to plot multiple books.  Using these elements, you will be able to plug them into the outlining method of your choice.

What are these elements?

The word element is used intentionally. I want you to imagine the periodic table. The building blocks of everything.

Storytelling has its own set of fundamental elements that exist in all storytelling. There are quite a number of theories also.

The first element is the Hero. The theory is that of the Hero’s Journey.

C. S. Lakin wrote an article Strategies for Novelists Writing a Series. I really soaked it in. I instantly saw the elements at the basis of her outline strategy.

The Hero’s Journey is a tool that you can overlay across your series. The journey is often presented as a wheel. I’d like you to think biblical, cosmic, universal wheels within wheels. Writers can use literary elements to wrap stories around stories and stories within stories.

Think about Eddard Stark from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. He certainly had a journey whose end was the inciting incident of several other journeys in the story. For others, it was a turning point.

Wheels within wheels. Overlapping stories and character journeys are hallmarks of epic stories of every genre.

Theme and Premise Front and Center

The way a writer achieves this is by letting theme and premise rule their story.

What is theme?

Theme can typically be summed up in a word. Family. Love. Revenge. Social Climbing. Unrequited Love.

I think the animated anthology Love, Death, and Robots is an amazing example of how themes are employed across multiple styles of storytelling.

Outlining need not impede your creativity one bit.

Theme is a gentle mistress leading your story. If the theme is the mistress, the governor, then the premise must be the path.

A premise is usually summed up in one sentence. Power corrupts absolutely. Love conquers all. These are a famous few.

The hero’s path is guided by the theme, and the premise decides the twists and turns of said path.

What could happen? A hypothesis.

Now, that doesn’t sound like a very creative-writing-sounding word. Yet, brainstorming is just that.

Creating scenario after scenario of all the possibilities based on the guidance of your theme and premise opens the doors to countless stories. By this gentle surrender to the elements, you will always have the ingredients for superb storytelling.

How is it done?

You can create interlocking paths for your characters easiest by using the mind-mapping method or the snowflake method. Before you attempt to plot events or the character journey, decide the seeds you want to plant.  The theme helps you decide which seeds that you plant.

You must know your character’s point A and point B for this story. In the first story you want your character to go from an innocent girl to hardened assassination. If the premise of the story is power corrupts, what path may be laid out for this girl?

Perhaps she begins as a victim and discovers the power of her sexuality or the satisfaction of violence. Types of power. She changes via this path.

Our creativity is not dulled because we have a path before us. The writer is able to place many interesting obstacles on this path for our characters to overcome.

Understanding the theme and premise of my story allows me to answer the question “What is this story about?” Once I choose to write about power, I am free to explore all manners of power, aren’t I?

This is a story generator. You can explore the theme of power across endless volumes of story.

That is the value of the theme.

I also do not have to worry about the blank page. Brainstorming becomes a creative storm that allows me to choose a premise with ease.

If my premise is “Power corrupts absolutely,” then I eventually need to decide if I agree with it. The reader will ultimately decide if they agree as well. This is also a story generator.

I know this is not all that groundbreaking. I do not think it is a popular consideration. We don’t like being constricted and confined creatively. However, I have found that writing with my theme at my side on the path of my premise is mind-clearing.

I hope this  advice serves you in crafting your epic tales.

Write on, y’all.

Andrea Turrentine is a US expat living in Japan. She has an Etsy store where she offers resources for writers. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and at her blog.

Featured Photo by Ales Maze on Unsplash

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  1. Thanks for a great article! I also have to express my appreciation for including the entire article in the email that went out. That makes it so much handier than having to click through the email to get the last 2/3 of the article!

  2. I’m a pantser through and through. I think it works well for me with short stories because I can see it playing out on my little movie screen in my head.

    Recently though, I’ve begun to see the advantages of outlining. I’m currently working on a YA novel that I’m struggling with. After reading your article I realize that I really haven’t thought about my theme.

    Thank you so much for getting me unstuck and converting me to a plotter. Although, I might sneak in a short story her and there.

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