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Sep 15

Mary Deal Outlines “Outlining a Story”

Outlining a Story

Writing a novel, even a short story, and keeping details and action in some semblance of order can be a daunting task. A loose outline, even a simple list of occurrences, can be the best aid to keep you writing on track.

I began using a structured outline but have since been able to keep facts in order by making a running list of plot points and anything else I need to remember.

We all remember learning about outlines in school. To me, they were rigid with a lot of requirements and I spent more time trying to remember how to title the information than getting the data on paper.

As a writer, you will have had more experience with keeping an accumulation of facts in your mind as you pound the keys. Or maybe you’ve gotten lost in all the twists and turns of your story. Here’s some easy help. For example, let’s say your story is about a woman searching for her abducted daughter.

Keep in mind that all stories need the following:

Setup (want)
Rising Action

Here’s a simple outline to keep the plot on track. My notes in parenthesis are for your understanding and need not appear in your outline unless they further help you.

Title at the Top

1-Abi’s daughter was abducted (told in present time, with some back story (SETUP)

2-Abi learns of a young woman her daughter’s age on Death Row (Rising Action)

a-The inmate faces lethal injection for a crime she didn’t commit

3-Twenty-three years have passed but similarities exist between the inmate and Abi’s daughter

a-Abi begins an intense investigation, including DNA, to learn if the inmate is her daughter
b-Abi pays to restore the sight of the only eye witness.

4-While Abi investigates; her home is torched, as is the sole witness’s home (Reversals)

a-With restored sight, the sole witness skips town.
b-Abi discovers an undercurrent, one to get the inmate to pay for crimes of others

5-DNA proves the inmate is Abi’s daughter (Recognition)

a-Abi fights to prove the innocence of the inmate

6-The case goes all the way down to the needle (Climax)

a-The lethal injection chamber

7-How the story ends after all the action plays out; how the characters’ lives are affected by the climax. (Denouement)

For the sake of this newspaper column, everything begins on the left margin. When you make your list, you can indent the a and b lines to set them off to detect them easily.

It’s as simple as that. The Setup should be brief, intense so the reader is drawn into the plot and can’t leave. The bulk of your story will be contained in Rising Action, Reversals and Recognition. The Climax should be unexpected, brief and stunning, or stinging. The Denouement is a wrap up and should never be more than one or two very short chapters. It can also be handled with anything from a few lines to a paragraph or two.

As you work with your outline, you can lengthen any area. I make more notes for the middle portions because that comprises the bulk of the story.

Another form of outlining: Many people prefer to put each new scene on a 3×5 card and write each scene before going on to the next. I prefer to have a running outline which I sometimes print out so I can see the whole story at a glance.

By the way, the story I’ve just outlined is from my latest thriller, “Down to the Needle.” If you read it, you will see most of the book is NOT included in the outline. Outlines are merely the main plot points but can be as detailed or as simple as you can work with. My outline here is simple. The story itself has so many twists and turns that could only happen by not tightly structuring the creativity of my muse. Read More

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