Streamline your Outline

Between the basic outline and advanced outline articles, I give a bunch of solid tips in approaching outlines. But, since there’s always more to learn, here’s three more when building out your comprehensive outline.

#1: Unpack Details

Outline level details (the first level of detail as discussed in the advanced class article) are fine for your skeletal outline, but when you’re working on your comprehensive outline, you don’t want to leave concepts condensed together… you want everything out in the open, so you know exactly what you’re dealing with.

Think of it this way; if you were packing for a vacation would you feel better prepared if you had all your clothes laid out on the bed, OR if you had four pairs of socks, three shirts, two pair of pants and everything else was supposedly packed by your friend and sitting on the bed in three other suitcases (none of which you were allowed to open and check)?

If you’re a rational, sane person, you’re probably thinkin’ option a.

When it comes to writing your comp outlines, unpack the details.

“She tells him the story of how she and Lucia joined the gang and got into trouble together.”

While you don’t want to focus on script level details (making the outline too cumbersome) the above line is too condensed and needs to be unpacked. The line references “a story about joining a gang and getting into trouble.” That could mean anything.

When you get to executing the script and read this line in your outline, you’d hit a wall; unable to move forward, until you figured it out. Even worse, unpacked details are the lurking place of plot holes and inconsistencies. You get to the spot where you need to figure out the specific details and come up with something accidentally contradicting previous or future material.

For these reasons, when writing your comprehensive outline, use broad strokes to explain what that story is…

“She tells him how she first ran into the gang, trying to buy liquor at sixteen. How she had a thing with the leader, Cue Ball, and officially joined in the summer of ’69. Her story culminates in a retelling of the night she and three gang members broke into the 139th street supermarket and were arrested stealing a cart-full of frozen turkeys.”

Sometimes you can leave Outline level details in your comprehensive outline.

“Chief chases Lucia through NYC on motorcycles.  Lucia escapes.”

Here, I left the entire nature of the motorcycle chase packed up.

While it would be best to unpack it–to capture distinct and purposeful narrative in the chase itself, if I left it condensed, it probably wouldn’t cause any problems for me, because the nature of the chase itself; what streets they race down, whether they jump over cars or crash through windows, none of that are likely to have lasting consequences on the rest of the story.

The critical information; they chase on motorcycles and Lucia escapes, is all I need.

(Of course, there’s still potential for a plot hole or inconsistency to arise. But sometimes it’s ok to take a little risk.)


#2: Talkin’ Talkin’ Talkin’

Story is primarily revealed through action.

It’s much more interesting to see the samurai cutting down a dozen enemies single-handedly, rather than hearing said samurai tell the bartender of his exploits later that night.

Even writers who know you should always keep dialogue to a minimum in a comp outline, often get caught up writing sections where all the narrative drive condenses in dialogue. This should be avoided.

When it comes to dialogue, you actually want to do the reverse of #1 and pack that crap up.

The outline isn’t the place to put down thirty lines of back and forth between Sandy and Joe. Instead the outline should simply state, “Sandy and Joe argue.”

You have to teach yourself to focus away from dialogue driven outline development, and toward action driven development.

“Sandy thinks the plan is a horrible idea and tells Joe he’ll find the boss himself. Joe tells him, it’ll be too difficult to do alone. Sandy explains his secret and tries to convince Joe to change his mind. Joe says he’s had enough and storms off.”

Regardless if you pack your dialogue up or not, focusing on dialogue driven scenes, is the fast track to Talking Headsville… population: zero.

Just look at the paragraph above, what could you do with that?

The only thing you could do with that, is make something up. The text alone gives you NOTHING to work with.

In cases where you absolutely need to put the narrative drive in dialogue, make sure you take the time to go back and support it with specific action.

For example;

“Sandy thinks the plan is a horrible idea. He works a heavy bag with a flurry of intense punches and tells Joe he’ll find the boss himself.  Joe tells him it’ll be too difficult to do alone and he’ll wind up like the bag, then proceeds to slice it open with his switchblade. Sandy pulls a 9mm out from behind his back and slams a magazine in the pistol. He explains his secret and tries to convince Joe to change his mind. Joe throws his knife into the floor, says he’s had enough and storms off.”


#3: Story over Space, Unless you’ve gone Full-On Alan Moore

Here’s what I’m talking about…

You sit down to write up your comp outline, and you struggle with whether or not you’re putting in too much content or not enough content.

Even when building from a skeletal outline, with an array of specific signposts to guide you, how do you know if you’re writing in too much or too little?

For example, again pulling from the Robot Kids skeletal outline in Storycraft, 10th Core Concept plotpoint reads;

“Kai and Molly must move through various clan territories, meeting and dealing with old acquaintances.”

So you go to unpack this in your comp outline and sit there scratching your head, thinking to yourself, “Self, how many territories should they move through… how many people should they meet… does this section of the story consist of 1 scene or ten?

This can be difficult to tackle, especially for the less experienced writer.

Ultimately, if you have no deadline, if you have no intended medium, it doesn’t really matter.

Even when you have a deadline or medium in mind, I always recommend you focus on the story itself and not concern yourself with space during the outlining phase. Focus on the story. If it lives in a 10 page outline, let it live there, if it lives in a 50 page outline, let it live there–give it what it needs.

Editing is a part of the process.

 These will help keep you efficient in your task:

  • Remember one of the golden rules of writing, you must always know what you’re trying to express narratively at any given moment. If you’re not actually supporting the narrative with a scene you’re outlining, you’ve got a dead scene.
  • Use yourself as the test audience. Make sure each scene is fun and entertaining. “No tear in the writer, no tears in the reader.”
  • Make sure you hit your structural point.
  • Be aware when sections of the outline go out of balance. For example, most of your plot points are captured with one page of writing, but your inciting incident has ten pages and the climax has one small paragraph.

Sending Kai and Molly through the first territory is going to be a blast! The second was really fun to write too… the third one required a lot of thought… the fourth one was really difficult… by the fifth one it’s starting to get a bit old.

And now that I think of it, the last two really said the same thing narratively as the second scene.

Well, hey… I bet you already see exactly what the story is telling you it needs from this section. Now maybe the story lied. Maybe when you go to script, you’ll need more or less, but you can cross that bridge when you get to it.

No need to stress and try to force anything at this stage. 

The caveat to all this of course, is if you catch yourself going full on Alan Moore (and enjoy doing it). Writing and detailing a story that is obviously, without a doubt, absurdly too much for your intended medium, or simply too much for a specific point in the story. This type of outlining is just wasting time.

If you’ve got time to waste, knock yourself out. But if you’ve got other things to do in life, reel yourself in and find your equilibrium. ▪

About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S.  Visit for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.