Outline: the story skeleton


Jayson Shenk (CC/Flickr)

We’re getting very close to the first draft now. There’s one more thing to do and one more choice to make. The thing we need to do is to convert the chronology into an outline. As I said a few posts ago, the chronology is a list of what happens in chronological order while the outline is the order the story will be told. The first decision to make is where in the chronology to start telling the story. A good rule of thumb is to make it as late as possible. The earliest events in the chronology can often be handled with brief flashbacks interspersed through the story.

The outline should ensure the protagonist spends all their time on the page concerned with the events of the story. There may be chronological gaps if the story events do not happen continuously. An occasional hint about the protagonist’s life may add a little depth, but it will not enhance the story to show them brushing their teeth, queueing for coffee or extracting their burnt toast from the toaster. Your reader is still trying to work out where to set the dial on his own toaster and doesn’t need to know about someone else’s.

How much detail?


Ben Thompson (CC / Flickr)

There’s a balance to be struck between not having enough detail in the outline and having too much. A good outline is like a vertebrate’s skeleton, giving shape to the animal without completely defining what it looks like. The animal may be fat, muscular, rainbow coloured or have lumps and frills that have nothing to do with the skeleton. The sort of shape and colour that can only come in with a complete draft.

An outline with too much detail will turn into the chitinous exoskeleton of a lobster. A lobster’s exoskeleton keeps all the important parts contained inside. The only way a lobster can grow is by shedding its skeleton and growing a new one, which is not what we want to do with an outline in the middle of a draft.

While sn exoskeletal story outline allows no space to exercise creativity when writing the first draft, in insufficiently detailed outline will not fit together and is likely to lead to the story collapsing into a shapeless blob. There’s no magic formula for how much detail is enough, and tends to vary from one writer to another. The only way to see what works for you is to give it a go.

The outline is built around the story structure. There are as many possible structures as you can dream up and plenty you can’t, but the majority of stories fall into one of three. I use them in order of preference below, but I will not alter a story to fit the preferred structure. I choose the structure that fits the story, not the other way round.

Continuous unbroken

The simplest structure. The story simply starts at the beginning and continues to the end with no chronological breaks. There may be the occasional digression while the viewpoint’s mind flashes back to a memory drawn from earlier in the chronology, but that’s it.

Advantages:     The lack of any breaks and short timeframe gives it a sense of immediacy and lends itself to a fast pace.

Constraints:     It only works if all the story events happen continuously, so the story timeframe can rarely exceed a few hours.

Examples:     The Inn of the Two Witches by Joseph Conrad, The Signal-Man by Charles Dickens, Arson Plus by Dashiell Hammett, Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela by Saladin Ahmed, Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death by James Tiptree jr, Cyberpunk by Bruce Bethke (with a brief break at the end).


Continuous broken

The events happen in chronological order, but there are section breaks to denote chronological gaps while the protagonist is not engaged with the story events. The protagonist may thank you as they’re more likely to get a chance to eat and sleep. The gaps covered by the breaks tend to get shorter as the story progresses, increasing the pace as the story moves toward its resolution.

Advantages:     More flexibility than the continuous unbroken narrative and is still simpler than the split narrative.

Constraints:     The section breaks may slow the pace if not handled carefully, and the reader needs to be reorientated at the beginning of each section.

Examples:     Newgate Jig, Selkie Stories are for Losers by Sofia Samatar, Down on the Farm by Charles Stross, Yeyuka by Greg Egan, Fire Watch by Connie Willis, Hooks, Nets and Time by Linda Nagata, London Bone by Michael Moorcock.


Split narrative

The story alternates between two interlocking narratives separated by section breaks. The most common use is that the first section covers the beginning of the resolution, the second section covers the first of the events important to the story, the third section continues with the resolution, and so on. There are other uses, such as the simultaneous telling of two events at different times in the protagonist’s life, or if a story really can’t get away from having two viewpoints.

The alternation is important because it asks a little more work from the reader than either of the continuous structures. If the story is consistent in switching from one story to the other, most readers pick up on the rhythm. If it jumps around without a pattern, it is likely to disorientate the reader to the point they can’t follow the story.

The narrative in the opening section should cover as short a period of time as possible, which keeps the pace up, while the interspersed sections function as extended flashbacks or viewpoint shifts. Both storylines need to dovetail by the end

Advantages:     Far more flexibility than either of the continuous structures, which allows for much more complex stories. If important events in the early part of the chronology are separated by long periods of time, or if their significance was not clear to the protagonist at the time, it’s the best way to describe them in detail without having to worry about the story starting slowly while the reader doesn’t understand why they should care about what is going on.


It’s also useful if the protagonist only starts taking positive action relatively late in the chronology. It can get a bit frustrating to read about someone being buffeted by events for too long, but the split narrative allows the story to start at the point where they start taking action and fill in the backstory later.

Constraints:     The most complex of the three to pull off, and there is a risk of losing the reader. A few lines of orientation are necessary after, and often before, each section break, but without the author’s voice ever intruding to tell them where they are.

Examples:     Steel in the Morning, The Endocrine Tyranny, Cassandra’s Cargo, Portrait of Lisane da Patagnia by Rachel Swirsky, A Spy in Europa by Alastair Reynolds, The Calorie Man by Paolo Bacigalupi.


Mike Carey (CC/Flickr)

This is not an exhaustive list of structures, but there is a reason why these are the most commonly used. They work. An over-complicated structure risks getting in the way of the story, so it’s stick to the tried and tested unless it’s really impossible to tell the story any other way. There can be a fine line between avant-garde and incomprehensible.

Now we there’s one more decision to make before we unleash our creativity on the first draft.


Covert each of your chronologies into an outline. Start by deciding where the story should start. Then decide which structure fits the story best. Now lay out the story in bullet points, including any section breaks.

When you’re done, read what you’ve written and try to get a sense of the structure and pace of the final story. If it needs revising, rewrite the outline. When you think you’re happy with it, leave it for a couple of days and come back to it.

Now switch on the cliché detector and run it over your outlines. This is your last chance to use the detector while it’s still easy to change, so make it a thorough scan. Is this something you’ve read somewhere or seen on film or television? Has some universal platitude snuck in there without your noticing? Is there anything at all that could be made more original? If the red light flashes, change whatever you need to change, going back to the original tripod if necessary, and redraft the outline.

By now, you’re probably sick of rewriting. I promise, more rewriting before you have a complete draft means less rewriting afterward. It’s a lot quicker and less painful to do it before.

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Story development, Writing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow Cockburn's Eclectics on WordPress.com

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 453 other followers

%d bloggers like this: