8 Ways to Outline a Story

Sometimes it’s difficult to know where to start when you’re coming up with a short story or novel. Creating an outline is the best way to compile your ideas into a cohesive story.

We’ve put together 8 different ways to outline. In this list, you should be able to find the perfect method for outlining no matter what type of writer you are. Next time you’re starting a novel or short story, consider one of these methods.

The Snowflake Outline

The Snowflake method is one of the most popular ways to outline a novel. You start with a simple idea and slowly add layers of complexity. It’s just like the structure of a snowflake: some sort of simple structure that reveals more and more layers the closer you look.

The Snowflake method is a great way to outline if you both enjoy having some type of plan but also write best when you’re just writing. It gives you just enough structure that you don’t get lost with plenty of freedom to sit down and let the words flow.

To write a story using the Snowflake method, come up with some sort of simple concept or moral. Maybe the idea is a girl conquers her fears and goes on a journey. Ask some questions and add complexity. Where is this girl coming from? What are her fears? How do her fears get in the way of her journey? How does she establish her strength and finish her journey?

I also like this method for short stories, because you can make it as simple or in-depth as you like. Short stories tend to be most cohesive and powerful when they’re centered around a well-developed, simple concept. The Snowflake method gives you just enough structure to develop an incredible short story.

The Three-Act Outline

The Three-Act structure is a fantastic choice for those of you acquainted with screenwriting or theater. It includes three set acts that work together to develop an overall story arc. This outline is perfect for an adventure story.

The first act sets up the story and includes an inciting incident that sets off the events of the second act. Act Two includes rising action and some sort of confrontation that raises the stakes and makes trouble for the main character. Act Three wraps up the story with some sort of happy or sad resolution.

Remember when I said three-act is a good choice for those of you who know screenwriting? That’s because many famous films are written following a three-act structure. Star Wars, the Lord of the Rings, just about any Tom Hanks movie, anything Marvel, everything Disney… if you love movies, writing Three-Act structure will be a breeze for you.

The Agenda Outline

The Agenda Method is a less common method of outlining perfect for the detail-oriented writer who likes to have everything planned out. This method leads to a very naturally flowing story. It’s a good option for a contemporary or YA novel.

To outline using the Agenda method, get a year-long calendar or planner. Fill in each day or week with the main events that happen to your protagonist. Basically, you’re writing your main character a life plan for the year. This is pretty fun!

Maybe you start in January and by March the set-up is done with a few visits to the main character’s favorite areas where the reader meets all the secondary characters. Then by July something terrible happens that leads the character to the climax of the plot. By September, the character has made some sort of decision. By December, there’s a happily-ever-after.

Whether it be going to school, the grocery store, on a date, or whatever else you pencil in for your character, each event in the planner should contribute to an overall plot. Have some idea of what the central conflict will be so this outlining method doesn’t just leave you with a fictional diary.

The Seven-Point Outline

The Seven-Point method is another common way to outline. This outline can end up being pretty strict. If you’re a writer who needs a set outline to fill in, seven-point may be for you. However, if you’re a bit more of a write-on-the-fly person and like the freedom of taking your story where it goes, you may want to pass this method up.

The Seven-Point method includes seven set marks of the story. There’s a back story that introduces the characters and their motivations. There’s a catalyst that sets everything off. Some sort of big event poses a dilemma to the main character. The midpoint pushes things along with another secondary moral or psychological dilemma.

There’s some sort of crisis that puts the main character into a panic. The climax of the story is near the end and here the character must face their fears or make a difficult decision. Finally, the character makes an important realization that’s been facing them all along and everything wraps up.

Sound familiar? It probably does. The seven-point structure is overall very similar to the three-act structure. It just adds a few more steps to hit to keep you on track. This is great if you sometimes go a little too wild with your story line. However, just be sure that your adherence to each step doesn’t get in the way of fun plot twists.

If you like a classic story line with some sort of underlying moral dilemma, Seven-Point outlining may be for you. Be sure to supplement with some extra character development for a well-rounded story, since this method of outlining is very plot-centric.

The Hero’s Quest Outline

We all love a good quest. Whether it be King Arthur’s search for the Holy Grail or Jason’s search for the Golden Fleece, a quest is a classic and well-loved adventure story. If you want a classic yet organic plot flow, you’re in the right spot.

Each hero’s journey has a departure, initiation, and return stage. During the departure stage, the hero leaves their ordinary life when they receive some sort of call to adventure. They often refuse this call until some sort of mentor or teacher figure pushes them to accept. At the end of the departure stage, they find themselves in some sort of exciting situation that launches them into the initiation stage.

During the initiation stage, the hero experiences trials and frustrations. Something gets in their way, they are tempted to leave their quest, they are captured by trolls or dragons or their own lack of character, and in the end some sort of mentor figure or their own realization once again pushes them on their journey. This push is worth it: at the end of the initiation stage the hero has usually reached the prize.

The return stage is where the hero must return to the ordinary world. They do something with the prize, deal with whatever changes they have undergone on their journey, and thank their mentor figure. They realize how much better they have become for their trials and return to a better semi-ordinary life.

Want to know my recommendation for a great hero’s journey? Don’t stick to the old, overdone plots. Let a young woman go on an adventurous quest! Make an animal your main character! Make the quest something other than the collection or disposal of precious metal! And once you do, send me your story because I’ll want to see it.

The Here-to-There Outline

The here-to-there outline gives you the most creative freedom as a writer. It only has two set points: the beginning and the ending. You can use any medium to create a here-to-there outline. Paint it as a series of pictures on a wall. Write plot points on sticky notes and try moving them around. Use maps, drawings of characters, clippings from newspapers and scrapbook your way to a story.

To make a here-to-there outline, come up with a beginning for your story and an ending for your story. Think about it a little bit and come up with something really good. Maybe inspire yourself by reading some famous first lines or really satisfying endings. Write down your set beginning and ending somewhere and fill in the space in between.

It’s the space in between where things can get really fun. This method is a fantastic way to put together a graphic novel or mixed-media novel. You can draw pictures to illustrate each event and move the events around as your story develops.

This is the perfect way to outline for Pinterest lovers. Create a Pinterest board that tells a story. Come up with a beginning picture and ending picture, fill in the middle with everything that could happen, and then just write it out. Here-to-there outlining might be my personal favorite method because it’s one way to come up with really unique and interesting plots.

The Telephone Outline

Or, as I call it, the “call-a-friend” outline. If you have a writing group or are lucky enough to have a great friend you write stories with, this is the outline for you. Go back and forth with that friend and take turns filling in what comes next.

This is one way to come up with a really entertaining story with a few good plot twists. Other writers may take the story somewhere you never thought of bringing it. If you are struggling with writer’s block, try this outline. All you need to come up with is an outline, and then you can bounce off of other’s ideas.

To create a telephone outline, come up with a beginning. It can be as simple as “Once upon a time there was a frog.” Call a friend and ask them what happens next. As you go back and forth, you’ll see threads of a story begin to come together. Refine the story and then write it!

This is another method that’s perfect for short stories. It’s a good outline to create in one sitting as a way to conquer writer’s block and just create something fun. Try the telephone outline if you just want to force yourself to try a new method of outlining.

Hopefully you learned something new and settled an an outline (or several) to try for your next story. Let me know: Have you tried any of these methods before? What would you add? What are you going to try next?

2 thoughts on “8 Ways to Outline a Story

  1. I’ve read about the Snowflake Method and the Hero’s Quest Methods, but the others are new to me– except the Three-Act Story Arc, which has always been my go-to format even though I’m not huge on movies! This post has some valuable information and inspiration, though!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is amazing how every writer will plan/write a story a little differently. I once was teaching a writing class and gave everyone the same outline, but the stories were so different. Glad you were able to learn something new! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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