Outlining your Story: the misconception of “breaking the rules”

All of my students, anyone who’s even been to one FADE IN: class or a million (hey, it could happen someday), knows that I’m not a follower of rules. Some of them will be surprised with what they’re about to read: planning a story outline is important. Yeah yeah, it’s one of those “rules” that I fight against, but it’s not the actual rule that I’m fighting, it’s how it’s used.

Here’s the deal – outlines are NOT all that bad, if used properly! Ok, I can’t do this. It’s against my nature to follow hard-fast rules, so, let’s call it a ‘tool,’ instead.

To make an outline a useful tool, you just need to learn your own way of “outlining.”

Not every person is the same – in life and in the creative process. Here are some ways that helped me work with my creativity as I was planning my stories. Remember, it’s all about you, so try these out and use them if they work. If not, adjust them or throw them out and try other stuff.

Here goes:

1) Enough to start:
Outline the first 5 pages… or the first 10… or just the first scene. Whatever you feel is enough for you to actually start writing. If you are working on perfecting your outline, guess what? That’s all you’ll have, a perfect outline, not a draft.

2) What the outline SHOULD look like:
Whatever it needs to look like for you to understand it. Here’s what mine usually looks like when I’m writing a script:

opening scene with narrator meeting an awesome little girl (5 years old) who is asking tough questions in class (maybe something about mermaids being real?) and her teacher discourages her but she does something awesome to fight this..

another classroom, this time she’s older – another question. maybe something about sexism. Big concepts, little humans 🙂
(yes, there are sometimes smiley faces in my so-called ‘outlines’)

Then usually I get about 5 slug-lines (scene-headings) and the descriptions get more and more basic. I quickly write the scenes and make decisions as I’m writing (maybe they’re not the right decisions, but I need them to continue to write). I return to the “outline” every few scenes and sometimes not at all! As I get further along, I use notecards that I can move around. Often, there are colors involved to represent each character.

3) Write from the heart – say yes:
No matter when you’re writing, just say yes. Don’t let the voice in your head tell you ‘no’. Get it down on paper and then consult your brain. If your heart and brain are happy with this type of outlining, which means you’re getting somewhere with it… use it! If not, don’t force it. For more on this, check out an article I wrote called Reasons you have Writer’s Block.


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