Two posts ago, I introduced the concept of outlining as a function of planning your next book, and in my last post, I began to present you with a buffet of possibilities you might mix and match between, with the idea that you could research further into the one or few that appeal to you. As it turned out, I had rather too much to say about too many possible options to put into just one post, so I had to break off about halfway through with the promise to finish in this, my latest post.
If you missed the previous methods of outlining, we covered the Bullet Point, Sticky Note, and Index Card methods, some of the apps and software available, and the Hero’s Journey, an organizational metaphor which might just provide a structure upon which to hang one’s outline. [You can read that post here.]
This week, I have four more outline options for you to consider.
If this method sounds a little biblical in nature, don’t worry, we’re not suggesting you carve anything onto stone tablets (unless you actually enjoy that–in which case, I admire you and your wrist strength very much). It is perhaps appropriate that the Five Commandments method would evoke visions of bygone days, given that it’s a well-respected outlining practice with a long legacy of usage. As with my last post’s description of the Hero’s Journey, this is an outlining practice distilled from an organizational metaphor. This one, as we’ve already noted, evokes the sense of a sacred text, but what it describes is the standard five-point plan often taught in high school and college classrooms to creative writing students. The points are:
- Inciting Incident
The general idea is for the writer to use these “five essentials of a good story” (as one of my professors once put it) as a starting point, or as a framework upon which to hang the coat of one’s entire book. Functionally one can make that outline as simple or as complicated as is useful–simple phrases or entire paragraphs answering to the implicit questions posed by each point. I absolutely must recommend checking out Joslyn Chase’s “How to Write a Book Using an Outline,” which covers both the Five Commandments method in detail as well as the next one I’m going to summarize here: the Nine Checkpoints. (She also points to some additional resources to flesh out your understanding of outlines, which is always nice.)
The Nine Checkpoints method sounds a bit more bureaucratic than biblical, which can be either freeing or somewhat discouraging in the way of standing in lines at the DMV. In reality, it’s simply an unpacked version of the previously described commandments, only instead of five points around which to cluster one’s ideas, there are nine:
In this outline method, one can look at the hook, backstory, and trigger sections as equating roughly with the Five Commandments’ “Inciting Incident” point, with the crisis, climax, and resolution sections all have exact correspondence. The only loose points remaining, then, are the struggle, epiphany, and plan sections. It’s easy to see the correlations and divergences between the two methods; what’s less easy to see is the organizational metaphor behind this outlining method. In my mind, each checkpoint in a line of checkpoints carries equal weight and priority, which may or may not reflect how I actually feel about the work I’m writing. Perhaps I know with absolute certainty what I want for one or three or eight of the points, and the others are able to flex and be sculpted around those certain ones. Perhaps I don’t. It all depends on the specific demands of the work in progress.
Before this last month, I would have ended my list of suggested outlining methods there, with a Cold War or Man From U.N.C.L.E. reference regarding checkpoints. But then, while researching additional resources to point you to, I stumbled across this excellent piece on Sharon Watson’s blog, “Fun with Outlines. No, Really.” (Putting a positive spin on things is one sure way to always hook my attention!) Watson’s post on outlining introduced me to the idea of the Grocery Store method, as well as the final one I’ll summarize, the Restaurant method. What I love most about these methods is that they flow naturally out of a more intuitive writing process, and they flex in exactly the way that I hinted at earlier. This is not to discount the value of a more evenly-weighted lists or principles around which to circle an outline, which I feel have significant benefits in ensuring even pacing and a sense of “completeness,” particularly if one is drafting a work of creative nonfiction or memoir. That said, I might just love the intuitive means of the Grocery Store method best.
Grocery stores are easy to picture in the mind’s eye. They’re organized in intuitive ways, with snacks near drinks since they tend to be consumed together, and household cleaning supplies near pet supplies since, well, half of caring for a pet is cleaning up after her. (I’m putting off vacuuming right now. Why do cats have to have so much fur?) It’s also easy to put yourself in the mindset of a shopper in a grocery store: you go in with a few items you have to get on your list, but a couple of other things catch your eye as you walk up and down the aisles. This is where you need to be in order to use the Grocery Store method to outline your next book. Then, all you have to do is picture the contents of your work in progress as the produce filling the aisles. You can reflect this structure in a bullet point list (taking us alllll the way back to my first recommendation in respect to outlining!), or you can mock up a visual outline more along the lines of the Sticky Note method: sketch some aisles, and fill them with all the information you feel is important going into your book, leaving room for extra items to fill out the shelves as you get underway.
Last but certainly not least, the restaurant method is another outlining option I first read about in Sharon Watson’s outline post. This one is a little harder to visualize mentally, since Watson is sharing tips as an educator with other educators in mind, and her worksheets are designed with high schoolers in mind. The challenge she issues to her students is to picture the variety of restaurants and how they’re arranged, from a fast food restaurant to a buffet to a sit-down gourmet restaurant. In a sense, I can see this as a useful starting point in the quest to outlining your next book, as it may present you with a range of organizational metaphors from which you need only pick one to develop further using one of the other methods I’ve described over the last two of my own posts. I did think it worth including, however, simply because of its novelty; we’ve all heard of sticky notes and bullet points before, but have you thought of using a restaurant to outline your work before? Chances are there are some seeds of possibility there.
Looking for yet more information on outlining, and how to make it work for you? I’ll be back in two weeks to close out this series and to answer any questions you might have.
Thinking of you always. ♣︎