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Plotline 101: The 7 Types of Outlines

When I first started writing, I had no idea that there were 7 different types of outlines that you could use to help plan your novel. At the time I was still in school and was used to the basic Roman numeral style outline used for essays. Naturally, I thought that this was the only way to outline for any kind of project- including book writing.

Finding out that this wasn't the case opened a lot of doors. I've never liked outlining for my stories and didn't necessarily know why because I loved planning everything else. Being Type A at heart, I love organization and keeping things orderly. So outlining for my book shouldn't have been any different right?

Finding out this wasn't the case frustrated me and affected my writing. Avoiding planning brought me problems in the editing phase, which in turn made me question myself and my approach overall. That's when I started researching alternatives...and guess what? I learned that there's no "wrong" way to outline. If it works for you, then it works. Trust your process!

But in case you need a little push in the right direction (like me), here are 7 of the most common types of outlines:

We'll be breaking down each of the seven in a little more detail below, but first- how do you pick which one is right for you?

The answer to this question is that you simply have to try it! Play around with each. Feel it out, see if it vibes well with your personal writing style. If it doesn't seem right, try a different one. Chances are one of these seven will fit your personality, but if they don't, don't get discouraged. There are other types of outlines out there that aren't mentioned here. You may even need to make your own hybrid version. The point is to find what makes sense to you so don't be afraid to mix and match. After all, no one sees your outline but you!

WHO: This approach works best if you prefer a structured, highly detailed outline.

WHAT: An outline where your story is divided into chapters and summarized, in 3-5 sentences, piece-by-piece.

HOW: You can format it in a few different ways. You can write it down or type it up section by section, or altogether with divisions. Pro tip: If you write it down on index cards you can use them to spur new combinations of events when you get stuck. Simply reshuffle for a new set of possibilities.

WHY: Using this method ensures that all of your ideas make it into your outline. It gives you a clear understanding of your story all the way through and provides strong guidance throughout the writing process.

WHO: This approach works best if you are a pantser or spontaneous writer who doesn't like a lot of rules or structure, or if you're looking to brainstorm before starting your traditional outline.

WHAT: An outline that focuses on the stream of consciousness, but with slightly more structure.

HOW: Write a summary of your entire story all the way through, sort of like a "mini-story" that condenses all the main points in order.

WHY: This method works for various purposes. Most writers seem to use it as a pre-outline step, as it allows you to tell yourself the story before you begin figuring out the specifics. It can also serve as a general outline for those who wish to do less outlining but still need their thoughts to be written down and organized to some degree. Lastly, this outline serves and important role later on when you're trying to get published, as most publishers and agents ask for a synopsis when you query.

WHO: This approach works for all types of writers. It can be as organized or messy as you choose.

WHAT: The concept of this outline was created by Randy Ingermanson. It is the practice of starting small and expanding, like the structure of a snowflake.

HOW: Begin by writing a one-sentence summary of your story. Then summarize each of your characters. Include things such as their names, storyline, goals, conflicts, and epiphany. You can personalize this approach as much as you want. You can add in settings, or even use it to flesh out a specific chapter or scene.

WHY: This outline approach allows for organization and creativity to coexist. It can be used to brainstorm as well as plan. The best part about it is that it forces you to consider many different elements within your story.

WHO: This approach is for those in search of a lot of structure.

WHAT: The most common type of outline, it creates three acts- a beginning, middle, and end. Within them you must have specific elements such as a conflict and a resolution.

HOW: Divide your story into the three sections. Categorize your events and identify the main conflict. The beginning section should consist of your introduction and rising action. The middle, your climax and falling action. And the end is your resolution.

WHY: This approach is most useful when you have an idea but know it needs more development. This provides a crystal clear guideline for plot structure and can also help you delve further into your story. You can include character arcs and subplots in your planning for a more complete experience.

WHO: For those who are writing a single perspective hero or heroine based story.

WHAT: Also an outline based on three story parts this one consists of: A call to action that is either accepted or refused, a series of trials, and then a triumph over adversity.

HOW: Think about all the major hero stories- Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars (just to name a few) and you'll see why the hero arc is so popular. All of these stories follow this plotline structure, but they all came out startlingly different. Utilize your imagination to pull your writing away from this basic structure while maintaining its integrity.

WHY: If you're writing sci-fi or fantasy, this will most likely be your go-to because it's tried and true. Realistically anywhere you have a hero, a quest, and a villain to defeat you'll find this outline style behind it.

WHO: For writers who enjoy a looser structure.

WHAT: Named after its maker, this outline is similar to the Hero's Journey and the Three-Act structure. It's a five section storyline consisting of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. Mainly where this outline differs from the others is that it provides the basic structure but leaves the specifics up to the writer.

HOW: Follow the main headings, but beyond that you're free to do as you please. There's no specific length for each section, you can make short notes and expand on them later. Basically the purpose is to give you an understanding of what happens in each section so that you can add details as you go.

WHY: This is a good format for if you already have a full understanding of your story, but need a loose outline to keep you on track.

WHO: This one is for the pantsers and the writing rebels who find outlining counter-intuitive.

WHAT: An anti-outline that's primary focus is on speed.

HOW: This is as crazy as it sounds. Essentially you write as much as you can, as fast as you can. Spelling, grammar, and page numbers don't count. You can use symbols, shorthand, etc. The point is to get it down on paper and see what you have when you're done. You might end up with a detailed rambling summary or you could end up with your first draft, you won't know until you try.

WHY: Some writers find this approach freeing. When you aren't worried about anything other than creating, it can lead to a bountiful experience. If you're a free spirit and already know where your story is supposed to go, I recommend this approach.

The wonderful thing about outlining is there's no "wrong" way to do it. Once you've found what works for you, it means that you have a system that you can rely on permanently. It will guide you through the brainstorming stage all the way through to the end of your story. I hope this post helps you figure out which of the 7 types works for you. Happy writing!

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