Aug 10


Check out the infographics of the seven main types of outlines (thanks to and think about how you might use them.

If you’re here, it’s probably because you want to learn a thing or two about pre-writing. Pre-writing is sometimes referred to as “outlining,” “planning,” “storyboarding,” or any number of other names. All of those things fall under the broad category of pre-writing. Things you do before you create a real “draft.”

Everyone has a different style when it comes to their writing process. The one main thing that determines which method you ultimately choose, is whether or not it works. What we’re going to do, is take a look at a few different methods, with the help of our friends at, and then take a couple of them out for a test-drive.
1. The Traditional Approach

This method involves dividing your story up into smaller parts, and creating mini-summaries for each part. This is great for longer stories, especially if you already have a good idea of where your story goes.

This method is ideal for getting all of your thoughts down, when an idea starts coming and you are worried that you’ll forget it.

There are many variations on this method--some people find that writing each chapter on a different page, or a new index card helps them stay organized; some writers find it beneficial to organize their mini-summaries with more structure, while others do not.

2. The Synopsis

This method is closer to a stream-of-consciousness approach (moving through the entire storyline at top-speed, trying to get all of the ideas out). The synopsis approach is a bit more refined than that, and focuses on creating a concise representation of your story that will help you, as the writer, remember the myriad details you ultimately want to include.

This method is especially useful for shorter stories. It can also be used to help plan further pre-writing techniques. A progression from a synopsis to a more detailed outline is common. (Some authors even complete that pattern in reverse, creating synopses as a later step to help promote their story.)

The trick to this method is to be aware of the most important elements of the story--not all stories will be driven by the same elements. Some stories depend on setting, characters, conflicts, mysteries, or other devices--some stories will hinge on different aspects or combinations of elements. If you haven't yet determined the driving forces behind your story you will figure them out by the time you finish a synopsis.

3. The Snowflake Method

This type of outline can be either highly organized and systematic, or messy and free-wheeling. The general idea is to start small, and expand out. This is great for when you come up with a specific idea for a story--a conflict, perhaps--and you want to explore the idea more. For some, this method is an active brain-storming exercise, in which the author is organizing and creating ideas at the same time.

The great part about this method is that in its more detailed format, it forces the writer to consider many different parts of the story.

The process generally starts with a one sentence summary of the story. Next, a full paragraph summary, and summaries for each character. (Each character should have a motivation or need of some kind; be faced with a conflict)

From here, continue to expand. Take a look at your one-paragraph synopsis. Does it need to be altered? Expand that summary so that each sentence is a paragraph. Eventually you will be expanding to individual scenes, and you’ll be ready to write a full draft!
4. The Three-Act Structure

This method of pre-writing is useful for organizing a story that hasn’t been fully developed yet. One of those stories where you know you have something, but you’re not completely sure what, yet.

This is another method that involves organizing and expanding at the same time. This method helps to make sure that your story has a dynamic plot-structure, and follows the basic three-act structure. Basically, you want to create a main conflict, with action that builds up to a climax, and ends with a resolution. This is a very simple description of a story-line, and can help writers to scaffold the ideas they have onto a concrete structure.

You may want to create more stringent guidelines for your outline--perhaps you want to include the plotlines of each character for each act, or maybe you decide to include a sub-conflict in each act. That depends on the writer, and, ultimately, the story.

5. The Hero's Journey

This method is somewhat more specialized than many of the others, and lends itself well to a certain type of story--namely, the Hero Story.

While this may seem restrictive, there are many stories that follow this basic format--and they don’t all end up sounding the same either!

The basic structure of this model is three parts. Part one, the hero receives some sort of call-to-action but refuses--“I’m not in that business anymore…” In part two, the hero finds motivation and undergoes a series of trials--training montage! In the third part, the hero triumphs over evil and returns to the life he or she used to lead--or something close to it.

This is a great model to expand from, if all you have so far is the basis for your hero story. And remember, a hero story doesn’t have to be a cliche!

6. The Freytag Model

This model is similar to the hero’s journey, and the three-act structure. It gives the writer some structure to guide their organization, but leaves the specifics up to the writer. If you want one section to be longer or shorter, that’s up to you. You can also skip over large sections with just a quick note, that will be expanded upon later. But the underlying goal is to make note of the over-arching sections of your story.

This model aims at creating an exposition or introduction (setting the stage); rising action, or development of conflict; climax (where the conflict comes to boiling-over point); falling action (the response to this conflict); and denouement (the resolution and tying up of loose ends).

With these sections accounted for, you have a pretty good idea of how your story is going to fit together, and you can add more details as you go.
Check out what Kurt Vonnegut has to say about the Shapes of Stories.

7. Draft Zero

Draft zero. The draft before the draft. This is the anti-outline, and some people find it liberating, creatively engaging, and hectic.

The point of this method is to just write. Ramble your story, and don’t worry about mistakes. They will be fixed later.

While using this method, feel free to use symbols, cross-outs, drawings, notes, and whatever other short-hand devices you might know. The point is to just get the story onto paper.

Some writers enjoy this method when they have been thinking about a story for a long time and know where it will go. Other writers use this method to try to fill in the blanks of their story on the fly.


But do real authors actually do this stuff? Do you really need to do all this planning if you’re a good writer?


Just like us, depending on the writer, and the type of story, famous authors use all sorts of pre-writing methods. Many stories will go through a number of these pre-writing methods before developing into a full draft.

Some authors start relatively sparsely:

(Henry Miller's Tropic of Capricorn plan)

While others end up with rather complex outlines:

(Joseph Heller's plot chart for Catch-22)

And some stories require a bit of creativity to outline effectively:

(Jack Kerouac's outline for what would become The Town and the City)

One thing is constant--good writing comes in many stages. No one writes a good story on their first try.

(Thanks to for the images!)

Check out some more hand-written outlines and diagrams from famous authors here and here.

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