Creative Process #3 – My Outlining Strategies

In my last blog on my creative process I spoke about writing with the end in mind in order to avoid my 20,000 work purgatory. I wrote about the importance of having a goal in mind and managing my writing activities toward that general goal. It is the singular most important part of writing that allows me to actually finish a piece. But, it is still only part of the equation. Managing my writing activities comes with its own challenges.

“Free-flowing” it, as I have been known to do can often times for me result in tangents that create problems later on in my manuscript—hanging story lines, unfinished sub-plots, nonsensical sub-stories and characters with no purpose but to confuse the reader. So, I find it important to provide myself limiters during each section as I write – general but important governors that keep my stories on track. I do this through the use of generic outlines.


Often times, I modify from the quintessential model – the Hero’s Journey as laid out by Joseph Campbell (sometimes called monomyth). The formulaic structure can be seen in many different types of storytelling from drama to literature to fiction. It however is not the be-all and end-all. If a story that I intend to tell does not fit in the classic structure and deviate accordingly. Often times, however, when I look at the finished story, many of the classic elements are there.

An example of a classic outline (my unworthy adaptation, of course), utilizing key components of Campbell’s hero’s journey follows:

  1. Hero in her normal world.
  2. Call to action (disruption) –
  3. Hero’s denial / refusal of the call to action
  4. Hero meets the mentor / ally who helps him accept things and provide training/mentorship.
  5. Stepping across the threshold and taking on the mission.
  6. 1 or 2 chapter of conflict building—character is defeated or nearly and gets really pissed.
  7. Hero is going after the bad guy (2-4 chapters-sometimes more) (Tests)
  8. Prepare for the Big Deal (1-2 chapters)
  9. Dark damn days (Hero is nearly defeated and considers jumping ship)
  10. Hero finds the courage (define what motivates her) to go on
  11. Hero Defeats (or otherwise banishes) the evil doer
  12. Hero is reborn, with a new understanding of the world and her own purpose
  13. Hero Takes home the elixir (return) – Or continues on with newfound powers (knowledge)

shutterstock_23130568Campbell argued that generally all (or mostly all) mythic heroic tales follow this structure. I am not sure I believe that, but it does provide a nice starting place when developing directional outlines. From it, I can now modify the outline and add additional layers, remove stages, or whatever I want, in order to prepare the outline that fits my story, and takes me from my character’s starting point to her end-state.

Now, this may at first seem formulaic, but I assure you it is not. This general outline serves as a starting point, to put a stake in the ground, so-to-say. From here, I will adapt the outline-but never in overly specific terms—to address my end-state. I need enough flexibility in the structure to allow my characters to take my story wherever it needs to go. And when I find my characters are deviating, I ask myself if it is appropriate or just me being lazy or undisciplined. If the character’s direction is true, I adapt the outline and the end state alike and continue on. If I don’t do this, I wander the story forever. I’d rather be Magellan than Odysseus, thank you very much.

Well—that is my outlining method in a nutshell. Pretty simple and sophomoric–but its meant to be that way.  Hope it was interesting to you. Let me know your thoughts, and how you do your own outlining.


as always, I’ll keep the lantern lit:


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