How Chuck Outlines: An Outline

Did you read that thing that I said about how a failure to outline your story could get you raped by bears or dinosaurs? You should go there first and read that. It’s okay. I’ll wait. (I won’t wait that long, though. I have the patience of a ferret on Adderall.)

Okay! Good.

So, I said, blah blah blah, gruff voice, You Must Outline!

Then I think I waggled my finger or something.

What I did not say, however, was how to outline. Right? So, you need to know that. You need to know precisely, exactly, without error, how to outline your fiction piece, with step-by-step instructions that…

Uhhhh. Hrm.

*crickets chirping*

Right. Ehhh. See, I don’t really know. I’m still finding my way on this, and it may be a process that I won’t nail down for years. It’s by no means a science, and outlines are like snowflakes and terriers: every one is different. (Wait. It is terriers, right? I want to say “fingerprints,” and yet… I keep thinking terriers. It’s terriers. I’m sure of it. Shit, I really should’ve  outlined this thing. Moving on.)

That being said, I do have a process that I follow at present. It’s a fresh and still-evolving thing, which is fine; all of one’s writing skills should remain ever-evolving until they stop beating each other with clubs and start driving Priuses. Or maybe it’s the reverse, depending on your idea of evolution. Or maybe you favor intelligent design. That’s okay in this context, because you’re the intelligent designer, and you need to confirm that your Brave New World actually has a Big Ol’ Design.

So. Here’s what I do. Your mileage may vary.

Step One: Ye Olde Mind Mappe

A mind map is just a flowchart. Or a flowchart is just a mind map. Or something. Personally, I’d love to get a third, even more evocative name in here, like Brainprint, or Thought Labyrinth.

Great thing about a mind map is you remain unbound by rules. The mind map has no law. It is the frontier of your story, the wild yonder where men shoot other men dead in the whispering sage. Except, also? Colored bubbles. Or boxes. I do my mind maps on my iPhone these days, using a little free piece of work called SimpleMind, and I may pair that with Freemind on the PC.

You don’t need to do that, of course. You can draw a mind map by hand, if you so choose, which is probably more fun. You can pencil in unicorns and stars and band logos and shit (Def Leppard Rules!!). I like this handdrawn example, because it has some dude in the corner who will take you on a wild and beautiful Mustache Ride. Oh, the places you’ll go. The things you’ll see.

To reiterate, the mind map hews to no laws. Think of it like Mind Vomit. Start in the center with some larger topic (Project, Plot, Characters), and just start writing down (i.e. vomiting) what comes to mind. A semi-logical flow will emerge. Things will fall to their semi-appropriate branches. In the end, you’ll have a sprawling, clumsy map to your new project, like this:

Shadowstories RPG

See? Not a precise process. And everything on the mind map won’t necessarily end up in the final product. To once more overuse the phrase I’ve been overusing, it’s painting with a shotgun. Purposefully sloppy. It’s an act of spitballing.

By the way, anybody know where the term “spitballing” comes from, as it refers to brainstorming? I use the word, but have no idea as to its origin. I know it’s a baseball thing: lacquer up the ball with spit or lube and you can, erm, penetrate the strike zone. I suspect it’s closer to the schoolyard idea of wadding up paper, gumming it up with saliva, and ptooing it through a straw into Susie Derkins’ hair. That latter act has the whiff of the improvise about it. Plus, it involves paper? Fuck. I dunno.

Don’t feel like you need to do only one mind map. Do as many as you need. The mind map is kicking loose the scree in your brain. Do so until no scree remains.

That, then, is step one. The mind map. Throw your brains at the wall. Spbbbt. Admire the pattern.

The Arc Step Two: The Arc of the Characterovenant

Shut up.

I like to envision a very simple arc for each character. I list Point A. And I list Point B. For each character. Two polar coordinates. You might have, “Prostitute Mom –> Mother of the Year,” or “Guilty Chimpanzee –> Triumphant King of the Jungle,” or “Glorious Narcissus –> World-Weary Hobo.” Each character has a journey, and I like to chart that journey in very simplistic terms.

This, like most of the process, was something I once left to the so-called organic process, trusting that it would come out naturally. It did, sometimes. And it didn’t, other times. More the latter than the former. Without a couple signposts to guide my way, I had no line to walk. By plotting two points on the character’s graph, suddenly a line was revealed. Bend the line to a bow, and poof: an arc.

There may come a time when I do a more complex arc, trying to plot various stages in that transformation. For now, this is good enough.

Two Axehandles Step Three: At The Corner Of Nitty And Gritty

Time for the drilldown. Time for the devil to dance amongst the details.

At this stage, I write the whole thing down. From start to finish, I start at Point A in the piece and work to Point Z. The document begins its life as an outline (bulleted items) and grows into something resembling a film treatment. It might start at a couple pages, and can grow to being 30 or 40 pages by the end.

I use Microsoft Word to do this. Largely, the outline at this point is a sequence of events, but I’ll then rock the comment bubble function to give each scene its character and thematic beats, too — how does this scene build to a deeper meaning, how does it reflect a character’s arc, and so forth. I’ll also try to note when a scene marks a “pivot point” — meaning, a shift in that character’s journey, moving them from the two polar coordinates noted in the character arc. Each arc doesn’t necessarily have one pivot point (shorter works will; longer works will have more gentle pivots, creating a larger, wider arc).

I’d love to rig it up so I have multiple documents and outline sequences running in parallel on screen. One line tracking the plot, one the character beats, one the thematic beats, and so forth. The desktop has a big enough monitor to probably encompass that, but right now I do all my writing on the trusty ol’ laptop. Plus, I’d have to coerce Word to do my bidding, which isn’t impossible.

What would be impossible would be trying to do all this with by hand, in a notebook. I’d love to. But have you seen my handwriting? It looks like letters trying to rape each other. I can read it on a good day. On a bad day, it looks like an illegible bomber’s manifesto inked in pigshit.


With any and all of this — map, arc, treatment — it’s important to realize that you are not constrained by this. Just as, in real life, you may drive and follow a map or GPS instructions, sometimes you take a shortcut or a side trip. Nothing wrong with that. The great thing is, just like how the GPS will attempt to get you back on track, your pre-existing effort will show you how to move back to the story when the time is right.

CinnamonStep Four: Variety Is The Spice Of Life, And The Spice Must Flow

Even as I tell you, “This is what I do!” I still do differently. Each project I’m rocking right now has its own unique needs. Some see multiple mind maps through the course of the process. Some demand some ancillary notes between the character arc and the outline proper. Some demand that, during revisions, a new scene or stretch of words needs a quick outline just to make sure that all is in order (and this is particularly helpful when you’re working with one or several writing partners — it’s good to make sure nobody’s got objections; both the film and the TV project need to have elements put out on the table to get a thumbs-up before we ease forward).

Point being, just be ready to feint left or jump right.

Autoportrait: Brainiac This Sounds Like A Lot Of Work And It Sounds Stupid And You’re Stupid And Your Face Is Stupid

My face is stupid. Too true.

(I should actually dig up old childhood photos of me. A period existed, when I was between the ages of… I think 2 and 3 years old? Any pictures taken during this period have me staring utterly slack-jawed in front of the camera. It’s very clear that nothing is going on upstairs. That child’s braincase is an empty toybox littered with spider bodies and dry leaves.)

Right. Why do this? It does sound like a lot of work.

It is.

It’s also less work than doing it the other way.

Think about it. You’re writing a 120 page script, or a 300 page novel, or whatever.

Option one: write it raw, write it organically, realize it isn’t quite right, and rewrite most or all 120/300 pages.

Option two: write some manner of outline, hammer out the details in under 40 pages, and then write the project.

You may have to rewrite the outline-slash-treatment, but that’s a lot, lot easier than rewriting your entire project. Moreover, doing lots of prep-work in the beginning will give you a much stronger first draft. It’ll be a more confident draft, a draft that found its feet early. I promise.

(It’s funny. Writing is one of the few jobs where people expect that the rules don’t apply. This process, roughly, is present in nearly every other job — especially those that demand some level of creation. Artists sketch. Sculptors adjust the armature. Architects draft blueprints. Engineers cobble together complex designs. Can you imagine if they didn’t? Would you want your office to be in a skyscraper that some wifty architect built with unplanned, organic whims?)

So, this is my process. Yours can, and should, vary. I’d love to hear about it, though. My brain is always accepting new ideas. Share in comments, if you got ’em.


    • I have a bad brain, and would please like a new one. Thanks.

      First read on that comment: “A pubic service.”

      Though, when I worked at the library (well, just before I got there), a flyer or webpage (not sure which) went out that had the term, “Pubic library.”

      Good times, library. Good times.

      — c.

  • Fascinating, Captain. You have even inspired an iPhone app purchase.

    I have been using Evernote as well, though not nearly as much as I should be. As I try to pull thoughts together for a rewrite/redesign of an old RPG, I am in need of a process that will translate out to those I collaborate with.

    • Excellent!

      Evernote is great. I so far *generally* only use it to capture cool web pages for later — so often I come across something, and I think, “This could one day be a part of a great story,” and then I click away, away, away.

      Now, Evernote lets me clip it. Which is nice.

      — c.

  • I love seeing how this works in your brain, filled with dead spiders or not. (Or was that just as a child? I won’t judge.)

    See, I’m a number’s oriented plotter. Characters spring fully formed from my brain, but on till I’ve taken them for a short story test run or otherwise exercised them, so trying to start with a character arch would murder me.

    I don’t mind map well, because that’s just not limiting enough. For some reason, I need my creativity dragged into the basement and put in a ball vice until it yelps and does what I want.

    So I start with the plot. I arc the plot first, often by word count. (Scary, I know.) “I want thirty chapters for this, at 100k, give or take, that’s going to take this many words a chapter, and then this many possible scenes per chapter at this many words peer scene.”

    And then I break out the index cards, one for each scene and put down ANYTHING that sounds awesome. Anything that roughly fits in what I’m going to do with the story. Then I arrange them around in an order, get rid of cards that look like crap now, and fill in the blanks.

    Bullet pointed outline follows, and a whiteboard story arch following a swiggly line of rising and falling action.

    At this point, I’ve gotten an idea of the characters and point A, and start putting their own lines up to follow the story arc to see where they fit on it. By the time I’ve got those things going together on the whiteboard or in the Word outline or carved into my flesh, where ever the master outline is, I’ve already started writing early chapters or scenes to make sure I really mean it.

    Everything is fluid, of course, and nothing looks like it does when I start by the time I’m done, so I guess it’s still a creative project even if it looks more like building furniture.

    And now I’m rambling too. This is your fault. I’ve caught your idea diarrhea. I should write this out in a way that makes sense some time to compare and contrast on my own blog. Hmmm.

    • Mena:

      See, good stuff. I like the idea of plotting out word count (or in the case of scripting, page count).

      I might try that.

      Also: sadly, the head is still filled with dead spiders and dry leaves. They’re just getting deader and drier, actually.

      — c.

  • In college, my creative writing instructor always told me to “just write” and “let the characters surprise me.” I thought she was nuts. That you, sir, for the validation.

    I can’t work on the big ideas and the tactical issues at the same time. One distracts from the other. As you said in the previous post, writing is a craft. When I sit down to write, I need to focus on the words, not the plot or the character arcs. Those need to be straight in my head already.

    In fact, I used to outline in a plain text file so that I wouldn’t even be distracted by formatting. (Now, I use Google Docs, which is pretty much the same thing.) I add bits of dialog and notes to the outline until it reaches a critical mass, then I write a few paragraphs and it all just grows together from there.

    It’s good to know I’m not just a big science nerd who doesn’t get the artsy kids.


    • The Good Reverend Bayn —

      Glad to help. 😀

      Writing professors are a mixed bag. The ones who treat it like a craft, I like. The ones who treat it like an art, I don’t. I had both in college. One I loved, and he helped me hone my skills and get my first piece published at age 18. The other… well, I used for negative lessons only. As in, “Don’t do this, don’t do that.”

      The funny part is, people assume that by outlining and doing prep work, you’ve somehow robbed the piece of its magic. Characters will still surprise you. Events will still change course. You control the story, but your subconscious mind will still have its say. But, once you’ve outlined, you’ve granted yourself greater freedom to improvise, not less. If you know your destination, or the landmarks along the way, you know how to course correct. Or, if you change those landmarks and destinations, you can see how the cascading effect changes the rest of the story because the outline already lays it all out for you.

      — c.

  • We outline similarly. Though, what you call “Mind Vomit” (not surprising, incidentally. The background on the Storyverse is “Space Vomit,” um. I’m sure there’s more follow-through here. I’m sayin’ you have a “vomit” thing. Like bulimia but with fascination)…anyway, what you call “Mind Vomit” I call “Tinker-Toy sketches” because they look like the sticks and wheels from Tinker-Toys. But that infringes on copywrite. Don’t tell.

  • I used to write my outlines in a word processor, but discovered a better way.

    Once your outline becomes large (50+ pages) you start thinking “where am I gonna put this quote for character x”, then you gotta search for the character, scroll around, etc. This starts taking up a lot of time. Doing outlines in Kabikaboo (free) totally solved this problem for me.

  • I tried the “bottle the lightning” approach earlier this year and now I’m rewriting the whole thing, to your point about rework. I did a search on your blog under “outlines,” looking for a piece you did a few months back I wanted to come back to, about all the different versions of outlines. These are also good, these two from 09 and it’s funny how little your voice has changed (in a good way) having started reading your blog this year, and going back now to 09. I agree on the Stephen King thing too, especially with The Stand. Just blow everything up! And I think the same happened with Mark Twain, with Huck Finn, sending a black guy the wrong direction down the river in search of freedom. Now, on to the work — thanks Chuck and congrats on the opening of the film tomorrow.

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