Thanks to high school language classes, we’ve all been taught to outline the same way:
1. This Thing I’m doing
A)First part of the thing
i. Thing that supports first part of the thing
Or some variant thereof. Very organized, very logical, very hierarchical.
But what do you do when that doesn’t work?
A) Give up, because that’s helpful.
B) Force it to work somehow. Square pegs, anyone?
C) Try a new way. This is probably the best bet.
Here’s an alternative to the hierarchical outline structure: the tentpole outline.
Tentpole moments are your big story events, the stuff that stands out. Or up. They support the rest of the plot—the tent in this metaphor—giving it a shape.
I prefer to think of the tentpole moments as OH SHIT moments. They’re what make the characters react strongly in some way. For example:
Main Character: oh, hey, this is a nice house OH SHIT IT’S HAUNTED better fix that, cool, we did it OH SHIT THE GHOST IS INSIDE ME NOW I can handle this, it’s not so bad OH SHIT I’M GOING INSANE damn it need to get rid of the ghost once and for all OH SHIT I ACCIDENTALLY RIPPED OUT MY OWN SOUL ALONG WITH THE GHOST.
Actually, that’s not a bad story. Dibs.
Caveats to the tent pole outline:
1. Tent poles should be a big fucking deal, not something the characters can ignore or otherwise not doing anything about, unless ignoring it leads to something even worse until they eventually confront it. No straw men here.
2. Tent poles should be related. In The Tale of Ghosty McGhostface up there, every big moment—and the thing that fixes that big moment—leads directly to the next big moment. You can throw random shit in there, but nine times out of ten it will just feel fucking random, like those filler episodes in long running TV shows.
3. Don’t take too long between tent poles, or the whole thing falls down. Also, we get bored. If there’s a lot of space between your big moments, maybe re-examine your story. You might be world-building or character examining or just generally pissing around when you should be telling the story. Which is fine in a first draft; sometimes you’ve got to write it all out before you figure out what to cut. But check for long spaces between OH SHIT moments when you reach editing.
So, we’ve established that I used the hierarchical outline and the tent pole outline, among others. What kinds do you use? And do you ever change tactics mid-story?