Hi everyone, welcome back to my Write With Me series on the Writer’s Corner! For this post, I’m going to be focusing on outlining/planning my short story.
If I’m being honest, I feel like most of the time I fall on the pantser side of the pantser-planner scale when it comes to writing. And if you don’t know what a pantser is, it’s someone who tends to write with little to no planning whatsoever, while a planner likes to obviously plan before they write. I tend to have a general idea of what I want the story to be and just write from there, but I’m also a planner because I plan a lot when it comes to my characters. Outlining characters helps me flesh them out and get to know who they are. Because of this, I feel like I’m a weird in-between when it comes to being a pantser vs. a planner. But since a short story is, well, short, and I am more limited when it comes to my word count, I definitely want to outline the plot more extensively than I usually do.
Outlining the Plot
Whenever I have tried outlining, I would follow the 3-act story structure and organize my outline that way. If you haven’t heard of the 3-act story structure, it looks like this:
ACT ONE: Establishes the world the story is set in and introduces your character(s), so basically this is where a lot of your exposition is. This act should also include/end with the inciting incident (the thing that disrupts your character’s life).
ACT TWO: Starts the rising action aka the thing that builds the momentum in your story. This act includes various hurdles that your protagonist must overcome in order to reach their goal.
ACT THREE: Leads into the climax where your protagonist should face the problem and reach a solution, and from there is the falling action and conclusion to the story.
Now, you can actually get even more specific when it comes to what goes into each act. For example, Abbie Emmons, a YouTuber who focuses on giving writing advice and tips, has a 3-act story structure template that is a lot more in-depth, which you can find here. I tried to use it once, but I don’t tend to go into that much detail when I do plan things out, but perhaps this could help you guys out!
If you’re not a big fan of the 3-act story structure, there are other story structures out there! For example:
Freytag’s Pyramid is a story structure meant more for dramatic stories or tragedies. It contains a lot of the same aspects from the 3-act story structure (introduction, rising action, climax, falling action) but ultimately ends in some sort of catastrophe.
The Hero’s Journey is a pretty common story structure that most people will recognize in The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. This structure has three stages (like the 3-act story structure) but features some specific steps that you don’t necessarily need to follow to a T.
Dan Harmon’s Story Circle is a structure that Dan Harmon created with inspiration from The Hero’s Journey. This structure can be applied to a story overall but can also apply to just characters as well as their arcs. Overall, this one is pretty universal, and you don’t need to be writing a specific type of story to use it.
One thing to keep in mind is that story structures are merely meant to guide you when writing a story, so don’t think that you need to hit every mark.
Just in case you wanted to see what my outlines generally look like, here is an example:
In this case, I separated my outline by act, further organized that act by chapter, and then provided a brief synopsis of that chapter. This was for a full novel though so it made sense to include chapters, but with a short story, I might just want to separate it by introduction, inciting action, rising action, climax, falling action, and then conclusion.
Getting to Know My Characters
One other thing that I include in my outlining phase is getting to know my characters since a big reason why people like stories are for the characters. This is honestly the step where I take the most time just because I tend to go a little overboard. Like I’m that writer that will create Pinterest boards for my main crew of characters—don’t judge me, it's really fun to do. Honestly, I recommend creating some for your characters if you’re a more visual person/care about aesthetics, but here are some other things you can do to really get to know your characters.
The first thing I like to do when I start a new project is to create a character profile for each of my main characters. These profiles just have some basic information about the character like their name, age, birthday, pronouns, etc. I also include the overall background of my character, which gives me a better idea of how they see things from their point of view.
I tend to get really specific with the character’s background if it’s my protagonist or anyone who is going to spend a significant amount of time with my protagonist. With side characters, I tend to keep it briefer, especially if that character is static rather than dynamic. And if you didn’t know, static characters are ones that stay the same throughout the story while dynamic characters go through significant changes.
Another thing I add to my character profiles (if they are major characters) is a character questionnaire. These questionnaires can range from completely fun questions to more thought-provoking questions. It’s entirely up to you which questions you want to use. One that I have used before and enjoy using is one created by Abbie Emmons, who was mentioned before in this post. One thing that Emmons stresses is important about your main character is that they should have some sort of internal conflict. One way she defines this internal conflict is by your character having a misbelief about the world that causes problems to arise for them, so one of the things I add to my main characters’ profiles is their misbelief and how it came to be (usually it comes from a fear that they have). Emmons goes into further detail about this in her video here if you want to check it out.
My character’s misbelief and fears are mostly internal things, but I feature some external things as well. For example, I’ll include things like their go-to outfit for most days, their favorite pastimes, and their music tastes—even if these won’t necessarily be seen in the story. You can even take these seemingly small interests to another level by doing things like creating music playlists for your characters! Creating playlists for my main characters can be a pretty fun (and time-consuming) activity. Music taste varies from person to person so I love just thinking of what kind of music my characters would enjoy. I also love finding songs that best suit their situations and what I would imagine they would relate to. If you want examples, you can just search “Character Playlist” on YouTube and you’ll find a lot of playlists created for a certain character or a certain type of character (villains would be a great example).
The outlining/planning process can take a lot of time, but I find that most of the time it does help out a lot when you actually start writing. What about you guys? Are you more of a pantser or a planner? If you’re a planner, what does your process look like?
About the Author
Born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada, Loraine Garcia is currently a blog editor and writer for The Love Yourself Foundation. She is also studying English with a concentration in creative writing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She spends a lot of her time either crying over books, writing, or playing video games.