What is an Outline?

I’m more of a pantser than a plotter. I always try to plot out a story, but along the way things change—characters take over. When I started my writing career, I had to submit a synopsis and the first 3 chapters, so, I created a rough outline for myself and wrote a synopsis. However, my editors quickly learned that when I turned in the book, it was not going to be a step by step repetition of the synopsis I’d submitted. Which was fine with them, as long as the final version didn’t veer too far off course and the story worked.

In less than two months I’m conducting a workshop on outlining a story. I’m also, right now, starting a new suspense, so I’m working on an outline for it. At this moment I only have a vague idea of what will happen in this story. I have an initial incident that leads to more incidents, and a vague idea of how the story will end, but that’s it. Although I could just start writing, I really would like to know in which direction I am headed. I also need a time line for the story. Will it take place in a few days? Weeks? Months?

I need an outline.

So, I decided to see what information I could find on line about outlining.

For fiction writers, there are several approaches to outlining.

  1. The 3- to 5-page synopsis, paragraph by paragraph summary of the story.
  2. The Snowflake method
  3. The Hero’s Journey method
  4. The 3-act play method, with beats
  5. Skeletal Outlining
    1. Similar to how we did it in school
    2. The main idea for a scene followed by what happens next
    3. Action/reaction
  6. The Freytag Method
    1. I’m not sure I understand that one
  7. Mind-Mapping
  8. Computer templates you can download where you simply fill in the blanks

Check out some of these on-line sites:


Notice how each headline lists a different number of ways.

There’s no right or wrong way to create an outline. If you’re submitting to an agent or editor and given guidelines on what they want, do it that way. But if this is simply something that will help you figure out where your story is going, choose what works best for you. Try a couple methods. Combine methods. An outline is merely a tool to help you; don’t get hung up on the process.

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10 Responses to What is an Outline?

  1. Melissa Keir says:

    I find outlines to be very helpful when you know what is going to have to happen in the story so that you don’t miss anything. I agree that there isn’t really a ‘wrong’ way to outline. 🙂 Thanks for the topic and you are going to do great at your workshop!

  2. Sue Myers says:

    Maris, you always have the best posts on writing. I’m not exactly an outliner. When I start a new story, I must know the beginning, the end, and have a few ideas what’s in between. Of course, things can change. What I have found most helpful is having 2 to 10 page histories on all the main plus some secondary characters. This tells me how and why they make the choices they do. Have you ever found that your characters take over and tell you what’s happening?

    • Maris Soule says:

      Sue, my characters often take over. As you said, if you have a good idea who they are (likes, background, etc.) I usually let them run with the story. They know what works for them.

  3. Diana Stout says:

    The Freytag method: Think of a line graph where you have several lines going up, then going down. Looking at the graph, it resembles a picture of several pyramids. You might know it better as a roller coaster-type outline. The highs build to the major scene points in the story that elicit the most emotion, with the sequels becoming the low points. Each point gets higher than the one previous until the climax, which is the highest of them all. I guess I employ the Hero’s Journey from the get-go but do so using the Snowflake method. 🙂

    • Maris Soule says:

      Thanks, Diana, the way you describe it, I have used the Freytag method, at least in part. I, too, like the Hero’s Journey method. I’m still learning the snowflake idea.

  4. Bonnie Alkema says:

    Hi Maris,
    I think your posts on writing are a “how to” book!

  5. HiDee Ekstrom says:

    I’m still trying to find my best outline method. I’m a pantser so doing too much outlining douses my creativity. I’m still learning how to juggle it. Thanks for another great post!