Outlining Short (or longer) Works


Getting  organized can really blow.

Typically, I don’t outline short stories. That isn’t because I don’t think I need them. Frankly, I think any story can benefit from a bit of outlining. Rather, I use short stories as stretching exercises; since I am by nature organized, I use shorter pieces to expand my extemporaneous writing style. In other words, I go all Stephen King on them (minus the hard drink).

For you more free-wheeling types, you might try the converse. Use short pieces to try your hand at structured writing. You may find you like it enough to add it to your repertoire. I think too many writers view structure as the enemy – as if somehow it will put your imagination in a corner. Nothing could be further from the truth. The right amount of structure (right for you, that is) allows for a framework that lets your mind run free. It allows you to tap into the deepest parts of your imagination without having to worry about whether your story will stay cohesive. Done correctly, it is no more confining than say, deciding you are writing a gothic romance rather than a contemporary one. How would your story unfold if you decided that you don’t need to adhere to a time setting, genre, or even a set of characters?

Your story would suck.

See, you are already using structure. Plotting structure is no more confining. In fact, it is during outlining that my mind is the most free. Outlining is the time I allow myself to engage in brainstorming. Here is where the best “what-if’s” come out. In addition, outlining allows me to chop out the dead ends before I use up too much mental energy barreling down the wrong path.

With that in mind, let me offer up a suggested approach for a short piece.

 1. Setting – Setting is not just the “where” of the story, it is the “when,” the “why,” and more. The setting, in effect, sets the backdrop upon which your story is painted. It comprises, among other things:

a. Location (where) – ______________________________________

b. Time (when) – _________________________________________

c. Historical/Political/Societal context (if relevant to the story or the readers’ understanding) ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­______________________________________________

d. Environment – what do we see? smell? hear? feel? taste? – _______________________



e. All of which leads to Mood. What is the mood of the story (or main character), given the setting? _____________________________________________________________________

 The setting can encompass something as broad as a societal norm (e.g., a dystopian society’s set of rules) or a narrow as a place (sunrise in the Sahara). This should shape the story being built upon it.

 2. The Big Suppose – What is the main “suppose” in the story, the big idea? For example, “Suppose there was a society in which only one child could be born per woman.” The big idea of your short piece is probably a single suppose, but longer works could have several. In addition, the main idea should stimulate smaller ones, or lead you to explore what conditions are necessary for the Big Suppose to happen in the first place.

a. The Big Suppose – Suppose … _____________________________________________


 Try Robert Bloch’s Psycho’s Big Suppose: “Suppose there was a creepy motel owner who killed single women, but believed his mother did it?” This naturally leads the writer to start asking follow-up questions: Why would he kill? Is his mother still alive? Was she the murdering type? How do the victims get to the motel? Can I slip in a naked shower scene to pull in male readers? It gets silly, but fun, if you have the right attitude.

 3. The Major Conflict/Problem – What is the major obstacle that your protagonist will need to overcome? ___________________________________________________________


 a. What events  make the conflict worse or builds suspense? ______________________


 b. What can resolve the conflict? ____________________________________________

 c. How does the story climax? _______________________________________________

 d. Who is involved in the conflict? ____________________________________________

 Remember, this is the main conflict, but there should be secondary ones. No one wants to see a protagonist winning all the time. Neither do they want to spend a weekend reading about a gigantic tool loser. Let them win sometimes, but put them through the wringer. These are the actions that will elicit reactions. More about that later.

 4. Characters – Seems intuitive that you need to have stars of your story, and it is. However, here are some things to think about.

a. Protagonist (Hero) – This is your star. The readers will need to care about what happens to this person or nothing you write will make a bit of difference. I recommend spending time developing the traits of all your main characters, but more thought should go to this one. There are two ways of doing it – having a broad brush and letting the details naturally fall into place, or thinking about and writing them out in advance. I do the latter, not to restrict things, but so that I have something to check against later, just for consistency. I change this all the time, until about midway through the story

b. Antagonist (Villain) – This actually doesn’t have to be a bad person. In fact, it’s better if there is a little gray (or even goodness) in them. However, conflicts are more appealing if the hero struggles against not just a thing, but a who.

c. Main Secondary Characters – Love interests, BFFs, Bearers of suckage (obstacles) – Don’t try to be all-inclusive, just map out a few you can’t afford to forget. This is your playbill.

d. For Each Main Character, fill out the below:

  i. What is their background? ____________________________________________

 ii. What is their personality? Introvert/Extrovert? ____ Planner/Impulsive? ________ Logical/Emotional? ____  Organized/Free Spirit? _____  This alone will give you a big picture personality type (Myers-Briggs) that you can use to fill out your character. I can point to more info if you want (just drop in a comment).

 iii. How do they talk? Are they educated? Formal? Ghetto? Foreign? _______________

 The cool thing about using the character types like Meyers-Briggs is that you can quickly determine what types are compatible with your star, and who (and how) will grate on their nerves. Having this in mind makes dialogue flow much easier.

 4. Point of View (POV) – What POV is your story in? In general, stories are told in past tense. Pick one viewpoint per section, chapter, or even book.

a. First person past – A character is telling the story. “I went downtown …”

b. First person present – If you want to go all Hunger Games on your reader, try First Person Present – “I go downtown, and Bob is there. I hate Bob.”) Harder, but you’d be surprised how much quicker the action flows when you write like this. Be careful, however, it can get pretty hokey fast. I often write action sequences this way, and convert them to past tense later.

b. Third person – A narrator is telling the story. “Brady went downtown.”

c. Second person – Don’t. No. Bad writer. Bad.

d. Third Person Omniscient – this is where you are in everyone’s head at once. It is hard to pull off effectively, and even then it’s problematic. Amateurs often write this way, so even if you are skilled, you run the risk of having readers (agents) think you have no idea what you are doing.

 5. Action / Reaction  – According to Evan Marshall, every scene is either an action or reaction. To me, this is the key to laying out a plot. You don’t have to fill in each section in detail. In fact, you can limit it to a sentence or two that explains where in your plotting the section you are writing falls. It should include the Setting (where), Character (who), and the POV (how). The what will be determined in the scene itself. Why the action unfolds is based (at a high level) on your overall Suppose, and at a lower level by the flow of the action itself. Start with your opening, and lay out the plot in sequences as follows:

 a. Action – This is what happens. Unless it’s your 1st scene, it should relate somehow to the previous scene (or a prior scene if you have multiple plotlines weaving through the story).

  i. Character, POV,  setting, relation to prior scene _______________________________

 ii. What is the character trying to do? __________________________________________

 iii. What obstacles are in their way? ___________________________________________

 iv. How is success further complicated (arguments, fear, etc?) ______________________


 v. What does character do to try and overcome obstacles and complications?  _________


 vi. How is it resolved? Success? Failure? Things get even worse ____________________


 In summary, this is WHAT HAPPENS to character. The character does stuff, and bad things happen. Sometimes good things, but not always … please.

 b. Reaction – This is a response to the prior action. It can be a chapter, or just a brief scene within the next chapter that shows the events don’t happen in a vacuum.

 i. Character’s emotion state – in response to how Action was resolved ________________

 ii. What does character do in response (review? react? regain control of emotions? analyze?) How they respond will be determined by the severity of the action, and their personality type (which you’ve previously profiled- right?).  _____________________________

 iii. Character takes action or formulates plan ____________________________________

 In summary, this is HOW DOES CHARACTER RESPOND? Their actions should set up the next scene. Using this method, you should be able to logically follow a plot to its conclusion.

 6. Flow – I like Evan Marshall’s 3-act play flow model. It’s simple, and if you study movies and TV shows, you will find a remarkable consistency with this. Think 25%, 50%, 25%.

a. Start – this is time zero. For a 10,000-word story, this is word 0. “Once upon a time…”

b. First Failure/Surprise – 25% in. Here, at about word 2,500, our hero is hit with their first major setback. This should be the conflict wherein we the reader now understand what the story will be about.

c. Middle Half- Stuff Happens – for the next 50% of our story (5,000 words), more things happen. They follow in action/reaction sequence, building to the ultimate climax. There have been little (or major) setbacks along the way, and some victories as well.

d.Climax – At 25% from the end (7,500 words in), the MAJOR FAILURE happens. Our hero is devastated. However, they rise heroically, and spend the last 25% of the story achieving victory. (Or failing miserably, if you hate happy endings.)

 If you don’t believe me on the flow, watch a 60-minute drama. See if the big commercial break that follows the climax doesn’t happen at 15 minutes before the hour. Of course, with anything else, your mileage may vary. Feel free to adjust this as needed, or in accordance to your own personality. For short works, I don’t use action/reaction as much, but in the actual writing, I keep that sequence in mind. Let me know what worked and didn’t.


3 thoughts on “Outlining Short (or longer) Works

  1. ceciliag says:

    My reader seem to working today and there you are. This is all good stuff. I also free wheel way too much and desperately need some structure in my work and in my day for that matter!! Have a great day Bill.. c

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