Adventures in Outlining (And Possibly How Outlines Can Help YOU Too)

Before I started writing a larger work (the historical novel I’m chipping away at), I didn’t think much about outlines. Sometimes I’d jot down a few key events for short stories, but I usually just adjusted as I went. With a short story, this is easy to do. With a novel, not so much.

As I’ve delved deeper into my current project, I’ve come to realize that an outline is critical. Now I am sure there are lots of people who aren’t into outlines – we all have our own writing styles and habits and outlines may not work for everyone – but from my (admittedly organization-obsessed perspective), I can’t imagine plowing into this book without one. Daily Writing Tips has a great post written by Idrees Patel that goes over the pros and cons of using an outline if you’re not sure if it’s right for you and/or your current project. For me and my current project, I’ve learned that I undoubtedly need an outline.

Beloved Index CardsFor the first few weeks after I came up with an idea for a novel, I worked away at what I thought was an outline: I was wrote my character’s names and a few personality traits on index cards, and then organized them by event and place. This was a great way to allow my story to start bouncing around in my brain, and a great tool for building out secondary characters and scenes, but after a few weeks of working with my increasingly dog-eared cards, I realized I was stuck. Although I still felt good about the story I had brewing in my head and growing on my cards, I realized that I was stuck with a list of characters and events, with little feeling or emotion in between. For a few days I reassured myself by blaming historical research for getting in the way, but then (thankfully), I stumbled across a post on a blog called Arcane Roads.

Paper Snowflake - Outlining MethodFantasy writer and Arcane Roads blogger, Mark, wrote about his experiments with outlining, and mentioned the ‘Snowflake Method’. The Snowflake Method was designed by author Randy Ingermanson. At it’s simplest, the Snowflake Method is a very organized way to go about creating an outline for a work of fiction, and in the process, uncover the parts of a story that are working and the parts that aren’t. I won’t go into detail about how a writer can employ the Snowflake Method, because Randy does a fantastic job of that (considering it’s his idea and all) and you can read all about it here, but the basic idea is that you start with a short sentence that describes your story, and grow that sentence into paragraphs and eventually pages that (you guessed it) outline your book.

Thus far, I’ve only attempted Step 1 (“Take an hour and write a one sentence summary of your novel”), and it took a lot longer than I imagined it would, but the pay off has been huge. When I tried to sum up what I believe will be a novel-length work in one short sentence, it forced me to get to the core of what I am writing about. I stripped away everything, all characters except the main, all the scenes I’ve been dreaming up, and all but one setting. This process made me ask myself some hard questions: What is the most important part of this book? What is the theme? What are the most important events?

This process wasn’t easy, and I don’t think I’m finished with it just yet (otherwise I’d be tempted to share my sentence), but it has changed the way I think about my book. Luckily, summing the story up in one succinct sentence has made the story more tangible to me; I am starting to get a feel for the tone of the story, and the main character is growing into a realistic person in my mind. I imagine that if I had tried this process with some of my other story ideas, the result could have been the opposite.

One SentenceI’m not sure that I’ll follow the Snowflake method all the way through (although I’m going to continue with it until it goes the way of my index cards), but I am eternally grateful that it bumped me out of my rut.

If you’re working on a story (large or small) and feeling a bit lost or stalled, perhaps trying the Snowflake Method could help you too!

Have you ever tried the Snowflake Method? Did it work for you? Did you follow it all the way through to a competed book?

*Thanks for stock.xchng.com for the following images: Paper snowflake can be found here, and the writing hand here.

** You can learn how to make the index cards shown here.

2 Responses to “Adventures in Outlining (And Possibly How Outlines Can Help YOU Too)”

  1. I might add that outlining can be done at any point. It is not a process reserved for only “before” you start the first draft. If you are a discovery writer and have already forged ahead with 40K words of your WIP, you can still pause and outline the rest of the story. The Snowflake method is one way to outline I’ve discovered that has helped me.

    • That’s a great point Mark! And a good reminder that we all don’t work in the same way. Thanks!