A Writer’s Notebook: Descriptive outlines

Recently, I had the idea to write a new short story in a particular style, a genre I have practiced before but a long time ago. I’m out of practice. So I dug up some old examples and some new ones, and I started analyzing them for clues as to how to proceed. And then I struck upon an old technique, one I don’t use nearly often enough, that would not only help me understand the genre better but also help me construct my story.

I’m writing a descriptive outline.

FYI: This isn’t the outline for the story I’m working on — I’m still in the middle of that piece, so this is just an example for the sake of today’s post. And I’ll explain the process more below, but a couple of things to know about this outline: The notation “P1” technically refers to “paragraph 1,” but actually it’s addressing small sections of text, which might contain multiple small paragraphs (this is especially important in sections of dialogue, or I’d wind up with something like 247 paragraphs to describe). When a section does contain multiple paragraphs, I’ve indicated that with notations like “P3-?”. And the notation “< SB >” means “space break.” Finally, I’m cutting this outline short because including the whole story would make this post unreadably long, and besides, I hope you actually read the story itself, so I don’t want to give anything away. The rest, I hope, is self-explanatory.

P1: Set-up (past tense), sense of scope (lots of people) but whittled down to two main characters in first few sentences: the narrator, and the second main character (#2).  End on complication/source of initial (past-tense) conflict.

P2: Short background/introduce secondary characters (note the near-absence of the most important secondary character, who I’ll call #3).

P3-?: Lead from background into scene.

  • Use dialogue to develop conflict and convey more about main and secondary characters.  (Narrator is protagonist; #2 — here, best friend — is essentially antagonist)

P4: Shift from dialoque to action, then go into detailed background of #2.  End on strange/quirky detail; use a stand-alone one-liner to shift into second phase of background….

P5: Second phase of background = history of second main character’s relationship to narrator.  Keep it brief, but also use it to hint at the nature of the main (not initial) conflict.

P6-?: Return to scene from P3&4.  Re-introduce the situation that was initially mentioned at the end of P1.

P7: End section on image symbolizing the central sub-conflict of section one.  If possible, also make the same image indicative of main conflict.


P8: Shift to present tense.  Open on stand-alone that states the second (present) sub-conflict.  Then a paragraph opening with a brief setting description and finishing with an illustration of the second sub-conflict (between narrator and the most important secondary character, #3)

P9-?: Move into a scene, with a mix of action and dialogue, that serves as an example of the sub-conflict.

  • Revisit the original setting from the past-tense section.
  • In the middle, announce the return of #2, who brings main conflict into play
  • at end, illustrate main conflict with brief dialogue between narrator and#3

P10: Scene continues, but it’s transitioning into main action.  #2 arrives and narrator moves allegiance from #3 to #2.  End on metaphor for (dangerous) liberation

P11-?: Travel narrative.  Include some specific details of places, sights, things done or picked up along the way.  A few lines of dialogue, but focus on the journey and the action.

  • Drop in reminder of sub-conflict and important secondary character

P12-?: Flashback involving narrator and #2.  Preferably a reference to first sub-conflict from section 1.

P13-?: Return to journey, but it’s paused:

  • conversation between narrator and #2
  • some revealing details about #2

P14-?: Return to journey (moving):  Change directions — physically go somewhere unexpected (and perhaps take the narrative somewhere unexpected as well)

P15: Abruptly stop journey:  Richly describe destination

  • move narrator into center of mysterious destination, both he and #2 waiting….

P16: End on a promise (hopeful or ominous, either way) of things to come….


P17: Shift to future tense….

This is partly born from a discussion over on the blog How Not to Write, in which the author Jamie Grove talks about not only the importance of outlining but also the importance of dispelling the myth that outlining is limiting, that it’s rigid, or that it must follow a particular format. All it needs to do, he argues, is work for the writer — it is a tool, like any other we use, to help us move through the writing, and it can also help us organize our writing. (There are some great ideas in the comments about ways to approach outlining, so make sure you check those out. Full disclosure: I left a comment there, too, though I’m not claiming my ideas were “great.”)

Here, I’m working with a kind of combination of the descriptive outline and the prescriptive outline. The prescriptive outline plans and, as closely as possible, tries to “predict” how a text should be written. A lot of people, myself included, don’t like them because we view them as limiting — we feel tied to the outline and can’t enjoy the process of discovering a draft as we write it. But the descriptive outline comes at the problem from the other side:  It diagrams a text that already exists.

It’s useful for all sorts of purposes, including both analyzing someone else’s published stories and breaking down your own drafts in preparation for revision. I love the descriptive outline for both these reasons, and I’m surprised at how long it’s been since I’ve done one. In fact, I can’t recall ever having written an outline for a short story — only for novels and, occasionally, essays.

But today, I’m actually using this exercise as both a descriptive and a prescriptive outline. In other words, once I describe an existing text in outline form, I’ll use that outline to guide my own new story.*

Imitation is an old writing technique, and people have a lot of mixed opinions regarding it. Some people view imitation as the best way to learn writing; others view it as cheap, as derivative, even as plagiarism. (Watch the last half of the Sean Connery/Rob Brown movie Finding Forrester for a great example of both these views.) I actually believe both perspectives. I think imitation adhered to too slavishly does produce horribly derivative work, and I can usually spot such work a mile away. But I also believe that if an author knows how to use imitation as an exercise, as a springboard to new ideas, then it can produce some amazing results, and the author gets to learn a few new tricks along the way.

The outline above, in fact, is of a story that comes from that latter camp. It’s of “Triathlon,” by Tom Franklin, from his collection Poachers. I chose it mostly because it’s one of the most perfectly structured stories I’ve ever read, and I love breaking it down into its pieces. But I also chose it because Franklin freely admits it started as an imitation: Franklin began “Triathlon” as a variation on Rick Bass’s brilliant “Redfish” (from his collection The Watch). If you read both stories closely and back to back, you can see some of the influence of “Redfish” on the first couple of pages from “Triathlon,” but the point is that the influence is confined there: It was a springboard only, and through constant reworking and revision, Franklin developed a completely unique and, I think, equally brilliant short story that has nothing at all in common with “Redfish.” He used what he needed, learned what he could, but he made the story his own.

That’s how imitation ought to work, and if you use this exercise, it’s how your story ought to work, too.  Use the descriptive outline to learn some things about structure and to get you started with the writing, but don’t feel tied to it.  Let yourself and your story develop as you begin to convert — no, rewrite — that outline into your own story. (I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for you to rewrite the story, to make the story your own! If you don’t work hard to break away from the initial outline, you’ll wind up with a pale imitation of the original, at best, and you could find yourself plagiarizing. Learn from the outline, but don’t just steal the story!)

* Note: The trick to making this work is to write your descriptive outline in the broadest terms you can, keeping an eye on specific techniques of craft rather than on plot or character details from this particular story. Though, if you’re writing fanfic, you could do note the plot and character details, too.) [back to exercise]


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