Outlining Tips & Story Structuring
Each To Their Own
This is my latest post to aid aspiring writers on my Medium site. I hope you find it useful.
Every writer has their own unique way of structuring/preparing for their next novel. Some people go into great detail mapping every minutiae from basics like character eye colour to what that individual did fifty years before the story was even being told. Others, usually equipped with greater memories or such speed of storytelling they’ve written the thing without having time to forget details, never touch a book plan in their lives. These methods are politely known as planning or pantsing, (flying by the seat of your pants). I fall more into the latter category but do try to take pertinent notes en route. Either way, I say each to their own.
If you are a planner, the only thing required is a good notebook and pen, or a digital notes/outlining program. If you are a pantser, all you need is some peace and quiet in which to write.
There are, however, a few tricks to help with either method and a few good pieces of software too. I hope the two following lists are some help on both scores. Note: I have omitted some of the big boys like Microsoft Word and Scrivener from this post. The reason for this, is I for one don’t like clutter. I often find having relevant information outside of the application you’re writing on frees your mind when using it. This is a personal thing, but it is true for me.
- Recurring Characters. I write hundreds of short stories ranging from about fifty to five-thousand words. I enjoy them. But I have found that incorporating recurring characters into short stories, set free from the confines of their individual novels, can really give you as the writer a taste for that person. You may never use the story: does it matter if you enjoyed writing it? You may really like it and wish to send it out on submission: just change the characters names so they don’t interfere with any long form work. You may really get your teeth into it and wish to add it into the novel you’re writing: great, good for you! All of these are beneficial.
- Names. Sometimes all a book or a character within it needs are appropriate names. The difference between being a ‘WOW!’ character and a ‘MEH!’ character can be the difference between being called Colin or Cornelius. There are hundreds of name reference sites on the internet with pertinent reasons for those names i.e. Oxford Reference. Make use of them. Even knowing why a child is named after an appropriate god/goddess etcetera can assist in a story’s roots and overall believability.
- Tags. I was introduced to the world of tagging by a friend. They said that if you use software where you can replace putting folders of information all over the place, which inevitably wastes time in wondering how and why you put something somewhere, and replace this with simple tagging i.e. #John, a character’s name, you will never forget it. She was right, too. I always do this now. You never forget a story title or the lead character, but you may well forget why you put work in a folder labelled ‘relevant information’ or ‘miscellaneous’.
- Lists. Instead of writing reams of information about whatever, list it. Lists are quick, to the point and easy to read. Even starting details off with a list can help. NB. Many notes applications now include list making facilities just like iA Writer which I’m using now). Just have a go. I think you’ll find it helps.
- Ask. Never be afraid to ask someone you trust of their opinion. Don’t stew and ponder for ages on if something works if someone else can take a five minute look at it and give you an immediate thumbs up or down. Most people would love to help someone whose writing they enjoy.
As I mentioned earlier, there are some wonderful outlining applications available to assist writers. Here is a personal list of ones I have used and can recommend.
iThoughtsX is a multi-platform outlining application. One of the crème de la crème pieces of software in this category, you can do everything from full-scale mind maps to notes, to ToDo lists, and so much more besides. There is a learning curve, but when the software has been around as long as this one, you know you’ve time to master it.
OmniOutliner is available on Mac and iOS and has a fourteen day free trial. It’s hard to list all the capabilities of this outliner — it does so much — so I’d suggest clicking the link and taking a look.
MindNode is reminiscent of iThoughtsX. I would suggest it is easier to learn and cleaner in presentation but doesn’t do quite as much. This is not always such a bad thing.
An often forgotten tool for writers are the integrated notebooks that are preinstalled on computers i.e. Apple Notes and Microsoft OneNote. As well as being very capable notebooks, they often offer indenting, simple formatting and reliable syncing. They are also usually free.
I hope some of the above information is useful to you. Whether you like to plan your way through every scene or just get on with the writing, you will almost certainly end up taking some form of notes on your project. Treat these notes well and they will look after you from ‘pre’ to ‘post’ publication. As always, I wish you well with your writing.
Author of The Eternals Series
Into Eternity (Very Soon!)