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Developing an Outline

By: Jennie Kermode - Updated: 24 Mar 2012 | comments*Discuss
Developing An Outline

Every good writing project starts with an outline. But what does an outline start with? Developing an outline effectively is the first step in transferring your ideas to the page. It's something that will mutate and evolve as you develop your work further, but the bones of it will act as reference points for everything else you do.

Length and Breadth

The first thing to consider when developing your project outline is how long the finished work should be. There are usually two factors influencing this - the length of work you have been asked for (or that you know you can find a market for), and the amount of material you have in your head. Sometimes you won't know how much space this material will take up, and working on your outline can help you to find out.

If you have too much material, and that you need more space to develop it, you have two choices - either cut some of it out or set that ideas aside for a future project and work out something new. If you have too little material, you may be able to expand it by adding sub-plots (in the case of fiction) or theoretical asides and speculation (in the case of non fiction), but this can only achieve so much. A story or argument stretched too thin will always seem weak.

In determining the length of work you're aiming for, you'll also need to think about the breadth. To what extent are you telling a simple, pared-down story, and to what extent do you want to expand to talk about wider circumstances and issues? A story with breadth isn't necessarily a longer one - this will depend on how condensed your writing is - but you will need to take this into account because it will help you work out how material should be arranged.

Shape and Substance

When you were in school you were probably told that every story or essay should have a beginning, a middle and an end. This is a useful rule of thumb, but you don't always need to keep them in that order - and, of course, sub-plots can be woven into the main plot in any number of arrangements. Your outline will help you think about how to approach this, and will help you keep track of the results.

When you're writing persuasive material, you'll often say something about your conclusion at the outset, then go on to explain why you feel that way. Similarly, in fiction, a brief scene from the end of the story often appears at the start. This device creates a narrative hook as readers wonder how things came to be that way. Some writers move around in time in more complex ways as they tell their stories, incorporating flashbacks or deliberately disordered scenes.

If you are writing a piece of work in which you don't strictly obey chronological order, it can be useful to have two outlines: one detailing events in the order they happen, the other listing them as they will be encountered by the reader. You can then compare the one to the other in order to decrease the likelihood of making mistakes.

Having a strong outline for your work means that you don't necessarily have to write your scenes in chronological order either. If you get stuck with one, you can move onto another. Just be sure to update your outline as you do so, so that any references made in the 'future' to what has gone before get incorporated back into the 'past'.

Character Outlines

Some writers also find it useful to have individual character outlines to work with so that they can keep track of motivations and make sure each character moves through the story in an appropriate manner. It's useful to mark these with dates or times so that you can easily compare them to your main outline.

Developing outlines is especially important for new writers as it will help you to visualise the entirety of the project you're working on, something which otherwise takes a lot of practice. Drawing up your outline before you start and adding to it as you progress will teach you useful skills that you can apply elsewhere in your writing.

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