How an Outline Can Pull You Out of the Metaphorical Mud

By Rachelle Ramirez

Sometimes I get stuck in the writing process. At first, it's just some metaphorical mud I must trudge through. Then, it seems that I've stepped in a big pile of poo that ruins my favorite boots. Then it's quicksand pulling me under; I'm going to die.

When I get to this place, and I remember to take a deep breath, it's clear I need to step back and either consult my outline or, if I haven't already, I need to create one.

The outline is one of my favorite writing tools.

Now, I don't make rules for writing. I won't insist you write an outline for your story before you write the first draft. I understand that we must seize the opportunity to write when the muse inspires. However, you might want to consider writing an outline if, like me, you get stuck in the process of bringing your story to fruition.

Why outline?

An outline allows us more flexibility for the changes we'll need to make as our stories grow; it's a handy little resource that's much easier to manage than a manuscript as a whole. An outline helps us create consistency, continuity, the causality of story events, and flow. It keeps us on task when we aren't sure what to do next. It's a master guide. The best reason to create an outline? We'll finish the story faster.

What if I hate outlining?

We don't have to write an outline like our high school English teachers insisted by describing each paragraph. We can try writing a few different types of frameworks and see what works best for us. There is no right way to outline.

We can create a simple story framework that includes the protagonist's primary flaw, desire, obstacles, and how they change throughout the course of the story.

Alternatively, we could go all out and create an outline that resembles the SparkNotes of our forthcoming novel. Have you seen Sparknotes? If you could write that mini-version of the story that's in your head, that's one heck of a guide for filling in your scenes. I love the idea of this as a form for beginning and evaluating a story. It may or may not work for you.

I trick myself into outlining by thinking of the outline as the first draft of my story and then imagining the story as the improved version of my outline. This process allows me to move around and write the scene that's drawing me in on any given day. I enjoy this flexibility.

I start with something simple and build out and build out and build out.

How does a simple outline work?

Here is my cheat sheet for creating an outline:

  • A flawed and compelling character (internal)

  • Is confronted with an incident or opportunity (external)

  • That reveals or creates their desperate want of something (external and internal)

  • But some force prevents them from getting it in a series of progressively difficult complications (external)

  • So they struggle and push up against that force in pursuit of the want (internal and external)

  • Until they either get what they want by correcting their flaw in the climactic moment or failing to do so (external)

  • As a result of their experiences and actions, they experience an irreversible change (internal)

Can you see how this might be an effective way to build a story scaffolding?

Here is how I built the outline out one more step for a short story I'm working on:

  • A flawed and compelling character (Sheryl, mother of 2, seeks third-party validation with perfectionist behaviors. She's co-dependent with her mother and neglectful of her children.)

  • Is confronted with an incident or opportunity (her mother's doctor calls to enlist her, again, in the mother's care)

  • That reveals or creates their desperate want of something (Sheryl wants freedom from responsibility as her mother's caretaker)

  • But some force prevents them from getting it in a series of progressively difficult complications (the mother is the actual antagonist, enslaving her daughter with the use of guilt, instilling fear of loss while engaging in her addictions)

  • So they struggle and push up against that force in pursuit of the want (Sheryl tries to gain her freedom by bolstering her mother, getting her institutionalized, running away, neglecting her children, and self-sacrifice)

  • Until they either get what they want by correcting their flaw in the climactic moment or failing to do so (Sheryl's mother makes it clear she has no plans to change, and Sheryl chooses to no longer sacrifice for her mother)

  • As a result of their experiences and actions, they experience an irreversible change (Sheryl is free to spend time with her children, she gains self-respect, and she no longer seeks the approval of her mother. She is free)

Here is one more level of building it out:

  • Sheryl is washing dishes when her mother's doctor calls. She puts off care of her son but gives time to the doctor.

  • The doctor puts responsibility for the mother's care on Sheryl and attempts to shame her for lack of attention. He asks Sheryl to provide the mother's mental health history, forcing Sheryl to relive the incidents indicative of her mother's poor choices and burden it has put upon Sheryl.

  • The doctor has no sympathy. He represents the unending care the mother requires. The lack of solution, how Sheryl is wasting her time and talent on someone who doesn't want to get better.

  • The mother is revealed as the real antagonist, but this doesn't sway the doctor's opinion. He criticizes her.

  • Sheryl's mother calls on the other line and adds to the blame, makes more demands, and clarifies that she has no intention of getting sober. She hangs up on Sheryl.

  • Sheryl goes back to the conversation with the doctor, disengages with him, and connects with her children instead. She commits to go on vacation with the children instead of getting the mother into treatment again. She is free.

So, you can see how I could keep building this out with each step until even the dialog is filled in. I'll have my SparkNotes in a short time.

Think you can use this method for your current story? Try it and see if it works for you.

Let me know how you did.




Rachelle Ramirez