“Lisa” you may be thinking, “You can’t outline a story with rocks??”
To which I say: yes you can. and you probably will be by the time you finish reading this post.
See, a couple months ago when I was struggling to start writing Broken Wing, one of the things I was wrestling with myself over was the fact that I am, at heart, a panster. I write with little to no pre-planned, outlined, plotted, spread-sheeted, blue-printed master plan. And as much as I dearly love my panster ways, sometimes I do wish I had a little more structure to my story planning.
This is my third time writing Broken Wing, so it couldn’t be panstered even if I wanted it to be. Even without purposely planning and plotting, I already knew most of the story and what needed to happen and which characters came in when and who betrayed who, and etc. etc.
And my panster-y brain just didn’t know how to work with all of this information up front.
So, unwittingly, I came up with an outlining technique that I call The Big Rocks Outline. I’m sure most of you have heard the saying that you can fit more rocks into a jar if you put the big rocks in first, then the medium sized rocks, and then the pebbles, and then the sand. Whereas if you try to put the sand in first, you can’t fit half of the rest in after.
This is the general concept of this outlining technique. And I do believe it can even work for pansters who don’t know every twist and turn of their story.
This is what it looks like, mostly filled in. See? That’s not terribly scary and intimidating like a real plotting spread-sheet thing of Doom.
So. Let’s dive right into this thing and pull it apart.
First, you need to decide what your Big Rocks are. What are your MAJOR PLOT POINTS OF DOOM THAT WOULD MAKE THE STORY FALL APART AND DIE IF YOU FORGOT ABOUT THEM? Those are your Big Rocks. Your basics. If you were writing this story on an index card, these are the bare bones basic plot points you would write down. For me, it looked something like this:
That’s it. No Blaine. No Calvin. Not even any page time for Elias. And yet I could write my ENTIRE STORY if I only hit these main points. It was such an eye opener to realize exactly what the bare skeleton of my story was; what the most important parts were. Once I realized these, everything else started falling into place perfectly.
(And technically that stuff about Brittany and the board isn’t even as important as the other points. I revised this outline a billion times as more things came to me. But you still get the point.)
So. Think over your story and scribble down the MOST IMPORTANT THINGS OF DOOM. Don’t think too hard. They don’t even need to be in order. And there shouldn’t be more than ten-ish points.
If you’re doing this in a document, make these points bold and in a larger size font than usual. If you’re doing this by hand, use a Sharpie or write really big or underline it or something. Or all of the above.
Next, think about other important points or characters that propel the plot forward, but TECHNICALLY you could write the story without them. These are your medium rocks.
I wrote these in italics and parentheses.
(Don’t worry if you don’t have very many of these ‘medium rocks’. I only have like 3 and a half, as you can see.)
THEN you’re going to write in your ‘small rocks’. These are things that aren’t really that important at all, but they help fill in and flesh out your story, so it’s not boring and skinny. This could include more characters, developing relationships, or events that you’re excited to write about.
Two entire new lines. Big wow. These are mostly character introductions and relationships. But I can’t wait to get to them. (I CAN’T WAIT TO GET TO KEIRA OH MY GOODNESS HELP) My small rocks are in a different font and underlined.
This is what I would probably call your main plot. This is everything you need to write a pretty good, fleshed out story. These are all your important plot points. If you remember anything you’ve missed, go back and put them in the corresponding font or size. (For the record, I’m actually editing my outline as I write this post, because I’ve ended up writing things in a different order, or plot points have grown or shrunk in importance.)
And now we get to our pebbles or sand. This is where you’re probably going to see your entire story suddenly come to life. Everything else that you’ve passed over so far comes in now. All the rest of your characters, random scenes you’ve played over and over in your head, lines of dialogue, ANYTHING. This goes in now.
(I personally only have these four categories, but if you feel you need more, you could do pebbles and sand separately.)
(to be honest, most of those sand//small rocks I’ve actually added in as I wrote them or afterwards, hence why there aren’t any in the latter half of this outline.)
And there you have it! An outline! WHOO YOU HAVE AN OUTLINE, YOU HARDCORE PANSTER OF DOOM.
After I wrote this up and got momentum in my story, I really didn’t even refer back to it. But writing it out gave me the birds’ eye view (haha) and the confidence I needed to start writing again. Don’t forget that you can edit this outline at any time, and even finish filling it out as you write your story. It’s a great reference tool and makes it super easy to rearrange plot points when you realize they need to be in a different order.