An Alternative to Detail Story Outlining

An Alternative to Detail Story Outlining

By: Leo N. Ardo

Are you a detail outliner or seat-of-the-pants writer?

At a recent writer’s conference, this question was posed at a breakout session. The room was split, about 60:40 (outliner: seat of pants). What followed was more interesting.  As the writing progressed—the outliners drifted away for their meticulous outlines and were winging it. The seat of pants writers lost valuable time as they reviewed earlier text to find continuity details. Many wished they had outlined their story.

The early days of my writing career were influenced by a manufacturing environment typically driven by procedures, forms, and lists. I began looking for similar items in the writing “industry”. The search led to forms that were nothing more than a labeled sheet, to forms with so many small boxes that even coded notes would not fit.

Offered here is a middle of the road, flexible alternative.

Characters drive stories. Magazine articles, how-to books, and blogs recommend that writers have a solid understanding of the lead and secondary characters. Some authors spend weeks defining their story’s characters before they write the first word.

A Character Map (a spin-off of Mind Mapping) is a great way to define characters and their interactions. (See attachment).  It’s simple, does not stifle creativity, and can be fun to create. The two recommended office supplies are 11×17 paper, and colored pens. Draw a center circle and print the story title inside. Draw a line from the circle toward the paper’s edge. Near the circle label the new line with a character’s name. At will, begin writing character notes and connect them to the main “branch”. Sub-branches can be used for different scenes, or to provide more detail about a particular character feature. Feel free to doodle.

A Story Summary is recommended. Add as much detail as you wish that will fit on less than two pages. (See attached). Recommend wider margins for notes as you change the summary—lately, I have found three inches on the right side should be enough.

Before writing the first word of each chapter take time to joy down notes of what to include. This can be as detailed (or not) as you want. Include key information, actions, what character details will be revealed, etc. A blank tablet, pencil, and eraser (for me, this gets more use than the pencil) are the only supplies needed. (The attached is a typed version of my handwritten notes).

This system is not for everyone. But, it does provide:

–       Character details

–       A flexible summary that can act as a guide

–       Freedom to take story in any direction one chapter at a time

–       Reference material






Hoping life blesses you with good stories!

                                                         Leo N. Ardo

As a young boy, I can recall sitting with my father at the local gas station listening to the stories, and thinking what a wonderful life. In reflection, we had everything that mattered: good friends, comfortable life, sense of community, … and good stories.

Several short stories can be found at the blog listed below.

Another passion is photography, which I find to be similar to writing. A photograph tells a story—1000 words worth. Like an author, the photographer has to make judgment calls when framing—what to include, or exclude. Altering the position of the camera changes the exposure and may reveal flaws, much like a writer’s pen enlightens the reader by revealing character flaws.

When the world is closing in I pack up the fly-fishing gear. Fly-fishing has a required calming rhythm to cast a fly where it needs to land.

Saved for the happy ending: luck has blessed me with the girl in my dreams. We enjoy family, movies, travel, reading, golf, and biking. We call Utah and Wyoming home to be near our families.


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