A friendlier way of outlining

This post was a special request, and I’m happy to explain my process. I’m going to ask you pantsers to read it too. I may not change your mind, but you might glean a tip or two anyway. Today, we’re going to talk about outlining, but we’re going to do it my way.

Remember the old scientific outline we learned in junior high? It’s basically worthless here, so don’t panic. We aren’t doing anything like that today.

I like to follow a three act structure, but there are other methods you can adapt. The biggest change is to start storyboarding. No more Roman numerals, indents, and lower case progression.

I’m going to place the image here, then we’re going to talk about it.

I use a virtual cork board called Pinnic. I used to use Corkulous Pro, but it doesn’t seem to be around any longer. They tell me one exists in Scrivener. Use whatever works for you, including an actual board, the garage wall, as long as it works.

The first thing you’ll notice is the blue card. I like a mission statement, but admit to not always using one. I keep all of my notes simple, because I like the characters to drive my stories. I might write this on my mission statement: Two dipshits go to Panama to find out what’s happening to all of the construction workers. Magic, Mayhem, Monsters. (Okay, I did use that one.)

Don’t panic over four columns of cards. Act Two is a big one, and gets two columns. We’re going to work in order here, so off to the left is Act One. The card at the top, Northwest if that helps you, is the very first part of the book. Add a line or two about how you’re going to open. Might be the villain, the hero, the world itself.

Down at the bottom, Southwest, is the end of Act One. This is where the hero/heroine/group, rises to the challenge and takes positive steps in that direction. Make a quick note. (On the photo, C stands for climax.) Think of it like the point of no return.

Now you’re going to place more cards between those goals. Your character will need wounds, desires, and stakes. Will you use a mentor? Will there be a love interest? Use as many or few cards as you need here. You want to get from the first card to the bottom of the column. I don’t get too detailed on my cards, but that’s up to you.

Part of the fun with a storyboard is the other things you can add. I use a ton of sticky notes with situations, or good lines that come to me. I also add graphics. There is a cute Mini Cooper convertible pinned here in my board for The Hat. I have an image of Mickey Rourke pinned to my board for The Playground to remind me what my brutal thug looks like.

My app also allows for checklists and other items. I once added the stages of grieving to a board to make sure I worked through them all for a character.

The beginning of Act Two is stepping into the new world. You all know what kind of stories I write, but it works for everything. Maybe your divorced father of three fills out an online dating profile at this point. He is stepping into the new world.

At the bottom of the second column, everything goes wrong. This is a point of failure, maybe characters die. Maybe the kids want to go live with Mom. Make a card, then add cards to get to this point.

Top of the third column is a regrouping, and revelation. The character was wrong about something. Column number three ends with a new plan in place, and preparing to execute it. Follow the process and add cards to get to that point.

I’m trying to hurry, for sake of word count, so Act Three is the big battle and denouement. Start at one, end at the other. Fill in the steps between. If you don’t write speculative stuff this is the fight with the new girlfriend, the reconciliation with the ex, happy ever after.

Your internal cards might involve ticking clocks, dark night of the soul, herald characters, and more. It’s up to you whether these situations are useful to your story.

I love the idea that my app has push pins and strings. These are great for plants and payoffs. I always wanted to use them, but never have. Nobody is grading my storyboard, so all it has to do is work for me.

I also admit to abandoning a board or two as I’m writing. I learn something about the characters, and they take over. Oddly enough, this only involves the internal cards. The important ones, the ones in my photo, always remain the same. There have been times when I stopped at the end of Act One, and started writing the story. Remember, the board has to work for me. I don’t work for it.

You can go as crazy as you like. I keep mine pretty minimal. You could add word counts at the turning points if you like. Maybe you want to go deeper and make a card per chapter. I don’t, but it may be just what you want. The thing is to try stuff, keep what works, and throw the rest out.

You can make the acts as short or as long as they need to be. When you open with your character in the water, swimming away from the giant squid, you set the stakes, fear, desire and all that pretty quick. Other stories, you need more time to spell this stuff out.

Story boarding shouldn’t crush your creativity. Remember, you can always move or delete a card. It isn’t something so rigid that you can’t change things up.

Right now, I have four active storyboards outside the story I’m writing. They make a good place to collect my thoughts, and when they’re ready I’ll write them. This has proven very productive for me. No more of that “what will I write next?” When I have an idea during my commute, I can add a sticky note using my phone after I park. It might be something on a board I won’t write for two years. I don’t have to trust my memory to some fleeting thoughts.

I had a thorough board for Cock of the South. I’ve never had that much detail before or since. However, it allowed me to write up to ten-thousand words per day once I started drafting it. There is a benefit to having a good roadmap.

This is a long post. I hope I’ve demonstrated the value of storyboarding. How about it SEers, does storyboarding sound like something you might benefit from? I’d love to hear from you.

76 thoughts on “A friendlier way of outlining

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  4. This is really helpful! Thank you 😊 My outlining method is similar to this, but I feel like the storyboard layout would be better for me than pages and pages of linear outline. This is much easier to visualize as a three act structure. I’m going to try to apply this to my current WIP!

    Liked by 1 person

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  6. Jenny Crusie swears by storyboards and even adds cutout pictures to better visualize the direction she wants to go. I’ve always been a pantser but can see the value in planning, even a loose idea to help when I get lost (which happens a lot! lol)
    Thanks, Craig. I’m saving this post for future reference.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Well, darn! Far too lazy and too cramped for workspace to do the physical thing, but I’ll Google around for a Windows-friendly corkboard. Will let you know if I find something, in case anyone else has the same issues. going off to pout now 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Reblogged this on The Write Stuff and commented:

    A great post from Craig Boyack on the Story Empire Blog, explaining his system for organizing his storylines. Easier (and probably more organic) than a full-on outline, yet a way to stay on track. I’m definitely giving this one a try! Check it out for yourself. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks so much for this one, Craig. Because I don’t like working with Scrivener (too many ways for my tiny brain to get distracted from actually writing), I haven’t been using anything other than my What-If sheet. It worked well in the past, but the book I’m on now has had so many interruptions due to things like giant TREES falling on my house that I’ve been losing my focus. I think a simple bulletin board would be a wonderful way to get organized again, and I like your system, too. Going to download Pinnic immediately. Sometimes, SEEING what I’m aiming for is very, very helpful to me. Sharing this, too. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Great visual aid. I think you’re on to something there, for writers who take the hybrid approach.

    “Outlining” is anathema, to me. Throughout my academic career (including graduate school), if I was tasked with submitting an outline, I had to “pants” the whole assignment, and then draft the outline from what I’d written. Then, because I already had the paper written early, I could take my time polishing it. (Always got the highest possible marks for my output, too.)

    The same sort of thing happened with my first novel. When it was about 85 percent complete, I did do the sticky note/index card thing, to check on the continuity of the story (only had to make one small change). I kept the notes/cards in a deck, however: that novel ended up being of minor epic length, so I wouldn’t have had enough wall space anywhere in my house for a story board!

    Liked by 1 person

      • You can add them to the text view of the corkboard, but I don’t think you can add them to the corkboard itself. (You can toggle back and forth between views.) But there are so many things Scrivener can do that I don’t take advantage of, that maybe you can and I just don’t know it. It’s a great tool and I love it, but I know there is far more I could be doing with it.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Thanks for this post, Craig. I was very interested in seeing it. Yes, gang, I’m the one who requested this post. Why? Because I’m a dyed-in-the-wool panster but pantsing didn’t work so well for me on the book I just finished. I made my publisher’s deadline with hardly any leeway to spare. It’s made me realize I should take a harder look at storyboarding and how to apply it. Pantsing has it’s benefits too. I had a whole set of secondary characters and a plot line appear as a result in my current WIP. That might not have happened if I’d done an outline. Yes, I know you can veer from the outline, but I’m probably more likely to stick with it. What I have learned is that if you’re going to write to deadline it only makes sense to have an outline in place. I’m getting ready to start book three, and now is the time to plot beyond the vague concept I usually do. Craig, this post has been extremely helpful in showing how I might do that. Thanks for the info!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I always begin my outline in a notebook and then transfer it to Scrivener. I used to do a color-coded timeline, but now I do color-coded scenes instead. It’s really the same thing, just laid out differently.

    Before I switched to Scrivener, I played with a free online tool called Hivewords, which basically does the same thing. It’s easy to use; it just looks a little different. The free part of the app is quite robust, but they have an upgraded paid plan, too. (More info: https://hiveword.com/novel-organizer,)

    I love seeing how everyone plans their stories. Your way, Craig, isn’t much different than mine; it’s just a bit more visual, I think. I know you have a Pinterest account now; might I suggest taking pictures of all your completes storyboards and creating a storyboard board? I’d also put each pic in the respective title’s board. Sometimes readers are interested in the plans, too.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I’m a panster, well I call myself a planster. I do a bit of planning but want to allow the characters and the story to take on a life of its own. I like your idea. I’m especially intrigued you were able to write 10K per day once you had all the details. I’m not so far into my WIP that this approach wouldn’t work for me. Great post today, Craig!

    Liked by 3 people

  13. I’m a character and plot timeline kind of organizer. I create a page in a journal for each of my characters to flush them out, and then I create a plot timeline about what I expect to happen in order. Then, I start my rough dialogue plotting (I tend to think in dialogue). And the writing begins from there. So far, that process has worked for me. 🙂

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  14. I have been doing a lot more outlining lately, but either I am doing it wrong or this current book is going to be very complicated! I have the feeling it will work very well, once I get the hang of it…

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