Thursday, December 9, 2010

A useful outline format

I've come to the point in my outlining process where I don't feel I can progress any further on For Love, For Power without doing the writing that will take me further in. This in itself is interesting, because I'm sure there are people out there who think that outliners must know everything in advance and count on their outlines not to change much. On the contrary. I'd feel rather more comfortable with this novel if my outline were a bit more solid, but I expect it to change, and in fact I expect it to become more fully fleshed as I start writing and discover the various new elements, character alterations, etc. that will help me see more about what needs to happen. The part of my outline that has the least information is actually the middle of the story - the beginning is pretty solid through chapter 13, and I have a pretty good sequence going for the final eleven chapters (yes, it has lots of chapters!). In any case, the thing that has let me get this far is creating a particular outline format in Excel, so I thought I'd share how I've been doing it in case any of my readers might find it useful.

Here's an example from the start of the novel:
1 Tagret meets Della in the panic 1
1 Tagret kisses Reyn 1
2 Aloran interviews with Eyli 2
2 Indal institutes the Kartunnen ban/health checks 2
3 Tagret sees Della at the concert and speaks to her 2
3 Tagret speaks to Lady Selemei 2
4 Nekantor tries to break Tagret's door 2
4 Garr and Tamelera return home 2
5 Tagret receives an invitation to tea from Lady Selemei 7 Tagret's birthday

As you can see, the main content is in the second column, labeled "events." I write down what needs to happen in varying levels of detail, depending on how much I can envision. In this case, this section is rather minimal because I'm summarizing something I've already written. When I have a clear idea of whose point of view the event must fall in, I give the event a color code showing who it belongs to. I also have the names included, but the color coding helps me to see the balance of the points of view at a glance. If I don't have enough chapters in someone's point of view, it will jump right out at me because there won't be enough of their color in that section of the outline.

In the far left column I make sure to note which chapter each event falls in. That helps me gauge the length of the book. For this book, each switch of point of view is a new chapter.

Then to the right of each event I number the days that pass. This is important for me because I need to make sure that people have enough time to change their minds, fall in love, etc. and everything has to happen pretty quickly, but it shouldn't be totally unrealistic. I also need to track whether people have had enough sleep/food/activity/healing time over certain periods of the novel (to see how worn out they would be), and the day counter makes this much easier.

Finally on the far right is the calendar. I haven't actually filled in the dates (most of the book occurs in the month of Soremor), but this is where I put important events like Tagret's birthday, his mother's birthday, the Eminence's death, the Accession Ball, and the different rounds of voting in Heir selection - which, by the way, need to occur on a fixed schedule every three days.

I think you can probably see how this was tangling up my head before I worked out this outline format. There was a time when each point of view character had his own column, but that was more confusing for me and made it harder to track which events caused one another and how the characters interacted.

In any case, I hope a glimpse at this will give you ideas for organizing your own projects - it's pretty easy to set up.

Happy outlining!


  1. I found Christopher Nolan's plot map for Inception an interesting method for outlining a complex movie plot.

  2. Cool, JDsg. I still haven't seen the film, so I won't look at it in detail - but the map seems useful for planning purposes!

  3. I'll have to try that layout, Juliette. I have to track the days for one of my stories to allow for reasonable travel times. That is a great way of organizing the information to spot at a glance if things don't look right.

  4. I hope it works well for you, Jaleh!