Friday, December 3, 2010

Sequence Outlining

How many of you outline? Now, how many of you learned how to make an outline in school but don't actually outline the stories you write?

I'm here today to say that the school-style outline and the writer's outline are often very different things.

I outline fanatically. I always have an outline of some sort, even for a long book. Outlines help me because I often write puzzle-like stories where the required outcome is known, but I don't know how to get there. Once I figure out intermediate events I have to make sure they all fit - relevantly and somewhat neatly - into the space between point A and point B. However, my outlines don't look like

I. Blah Blah
A. Blah
1. blah blah
a. blah

Which is to say that I don't organize my thoughts into concepts and sub-concepts. That's a pretty natural organization for a persuasive paper, where you have to build and support a particular argument. For a story it's not necessarily of any help at all.

I've tried two main strategies for outlining and I believe most firmly in something I'd call "organic outlining." This is opposed in my mind to chronological outlining.

In chronological outlining, you take a look at the book's calendar of events and you write down what logistically has to happen at what time, and then use that as a scaffold for placing plot- and character-related events. Whenever I do chronological outlining, I find I end up with something that has lots of events in it, but is lacking in the larger dynamics the story needs. Things don't converge to form the big highs and lows that make a story exciting. I also end up with big gaps that say "something has to happen here," and I often can't figure out what to put in those gaps, which makes the story feel both long (too many words, yikes!) and diluted.

In sequence outlining, you start with events first and worry about calendar later. Often I start with a list of questions or suggestions that come directly from my sense of the demands of the story. Such as:
  • Someone has to be the target of an assassination attempt.
  • Sorn has to be part of some nefarious plan to influence the voting.
  • Tagret has to learn that Selemei wants to expose his mother to the public eye.
  • Tagret has to do something bad in order to save his girl from the candidate Innis.
Then I put my mind on how these things can be ordered relative to one another, and relative to other events I have in mind. I ask myself, "what would be the worst time for this thing to happen?" So for example, the worst time to learn that Selemei wants to bring attention to his mother would be just when Tagret realizes his mother is up to something that would put her in serious danger if she were to be exposed to scrutiny. That gives me a hint for another event, "Tagret realizes his mother is up to something," which I can then look for a place to add. Of course, I know that it must happen right before "Tagret learns that Selemei wants to expose his mother to the public eye." The two events now have a required relative sequence.

I try to find as many required relative sequences as possible, and then I see how closely I can place them to one another. The other thing I do is I try to take related events, which happen to different characters, and pile them up into the same time period so that the story intensity will go way up. I'll think to myself, "This is basically Tagret's point of greatest despair. How can I make it so that his ally also experiences despair at this point, and his enemy elation, so that it all lines up and the dynamics are stronger?" Or, "What can I line up with this so it provides the climax?"

Once I have those relative chronologies in place, then I worry about schedules. Schedules provide the scaffold only after I have all of the relative pieces in place. Nobody will try to assassinate any candidates except between their initial nomination and the voting round where it gets down to two candidates, because if one of two gets killed they'll have to start over. Tagret won't do a bad thing unless he absolutely has to, which means it's going to happen after he's determined candidate Innis can't be ruled out any other way, and before Innis gets enough power to act on the girl directly. This chronologically confines the timing of that particular event.

What I end up with (as will you, if you try this) is clumps of densely packed event sequences (a bt like Cheerios in a bowl!). Gluing those sequences together in a logical way can be tricky, but if I can do it, that gets me to an initial sense of how the story flow has to work - with the added advantage that I don't feel like a slave to the calendar, and I don't feel like the story is either wordy or diluted.

In a story as complex as the one I'm working with, this technique is proving to be extremely helpful. Indeed, the more complex you want your story to be, the more outlining can make the difference between getting through it and petering out in the middle.

It's something to think about.


  1. My first outlines were exactly the academic style :). I used it to define points occurring in the story so for example:
    1) The testing
    a) Meet the flyers
    b) Prepare for the ceremony
    c) The test
    2) Graduation.

    ^Pseudo outline of part of one of my early novels.

    However, I now outline much more like you do. I use a spreadsheet, jot down everything I can think of that has to happen, use numbers in the next column to order and reorder them until I think I have things in the best way to maintain the story and still have the highest tension. I can also add in new scenes easily as I realize I missed something.

    I tried to write NaNo this year with an incredibly bare bones outline (not on purpose. Changed projects with one day to spare and all I had was a three sentence write up.), and it was a disaster. I had to stop, write an initial synopsis, and then outline from that before I could get going.

  2. I think I need to try the sequence outlining. I seem to remember that I did better with memorizing relative historical sequencing rather than pinning events to dates back in grade school. If it worked better for studying history maybe it'll work better for my writing too.

  3. Margaret, thanks for the comment! I used to do more academic style outlines myself. I feel for you on's the kind of task I couldn't pull off, with my life demands. Good for you for going for it!

    Jaleh, sounds like a good thing to try!

  4. Juliette, what you describe sounds disturbingly like a project plan in the business world. You have a goal, a set of tasks to get there, and a group of people to perform those tasks. Some tasks depend on the outcomes of previous ones, so they must be done in order.

    The main difference I see is that in business, we try hard to avoid "the worst time for this thing to happen." Unlike writers, we try to minimize drama. (grin)

    I just finished reading George Martin's A Game of Thrones over the weekend and near the end I wondered what a Gantt chart (a project management tool) for that story would look like. Scary big is my guess.

  5. Dave,
    I'm not sure why that would be disturbing necessarily. Some of the goals are the same - to get something done in the necessary logical sequence and not have a lot of dead time between steps. Good point about the drama, though. I'm all for the drama. I've never tried Gantt charts but I am using excel for my current outline - chapter numbers in one column, story events in another, number of days passed in a third, and calendar events in a fourth. It's really helping.

  6. Juliette,

    Sorry, I said "disturbingly" because the work projects I'm involved with sometimes devolve into panicked flight. (grin)

    A Gantt chart is probably overkill for writing purposes because it details how long each task is expected to take. That's fine for things whose durations are significant to the story, like sailing to Australia, but it's probably too much detail for a shopping trip unless you're writing an episode for 24.

    I read your other post on your outlining method, and it looks just about perfect for the job. I really like the color coding idea.

  7. Dave,
    I'm really hoping my outline helps me *not* hit the "panicked flight" stage with this book! I do count days, as you've noticed in the more recent post. Hours are less critical for this one, but might be in a different kind of book. I'm glad you like my color coding. It's an easy visual for tracking balance, which is very important in this particular book.

  8. This is a wonderful post! I'm working on my first novel and I've rewritten the outline 3 times in the academic format (as if I'm writing an essay) and each time I do this I get about halfway through writing all the scenes and can't stand the lack of plot and drama.

    The type of outline matches the way I think about my story (different scenes of meaningful interaction and conflict) so I think this will really help!! Thanks!

  9. Hello, Katie! Thanks for the comment. I'm glad the post spoke to you.

  10. When I first started writing, I resisted outlining but now my resistance has fallen by the wayside. I write historical fiction and have realized that I need a basic outline of the historical events that occurred so I can make sure my characters are where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be there. Once I get that down, then I can work on the internal story of my characters.

    I personally don't use the 1.A.1.a. model. I use a paragraph model and one of the really neat things that happens, which I love, is when I'm outlining, the scenes sometimes end up writing themselves. Later, when I go back to do more writing, I have something to build on.

  11. Yes, indeed, I imagine outlining would be critical for historical fiction. I also find that scenes will begin to flower in my head as I clarify the outline. Thanks for your comment, scratchesonlinen.

  12. I don't generally outline, but if I need to, I scratch it out and then usually end up putting everything on index cards to rearrange.

    1. Silvercat, I have tried the index card method, but it's too difficult for me to track all the events and the calendar simultaneously. Cards work great for some people, though!