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How to Outline (the Easy Way) Like Janet Evanovich

Categories: Craft & Technique, General, There Are No Rules Blog by the Editors of Writer's Digest, WD Magazine, What's New Tags: how to outline, janet evanovich, Writer's Digest magazine, Zachary Petit.

Every week, I spelunk into the Writer’s Digest archives to find the wisest, funniest, or downright strangest moments from our 92 years of publication.

Today: Here’s to Janet Evanovich (and that we all might one day hit it as big as Janet Evanovich). The author of the bestselling Stephanie Plum series celebrates her birthday this Sunday, so I did some rooting around, and found our most recent interview with her. It’s from 2007, and you can read the full thing here.

As someone who begins to nod off at the thought of making giant, classic outlines (and instead prefers free-range, perhaps dangerously vague stream-of-consciousness explorations), I was intrigued by Evanovich’s more simplified “storyboard” process.

Here’s how to outline like Janet Evanovich—plus a frank, honest example of what some of it looks like, from one of her actual storyboards.

Evanovich: Storyboarding is a little more visual. When I’m plotting out a book, I use a storyboard—I’ll have maybe three lines across on the storyboard and just start working through the plot line. I always know where relationships will go, and how the book is going to end. When I storyboard, they’re just fragments of thoughts. I write in three acts like a movie, so I have my plot points up on the preliminary storyboard. Another board I keep is an action timeline. It’s a way of quickly referring to what happened a couple of scenes ago. The boards cover my office walls.

WD: IT’S MORE SCENE-ORIENTED THAN AN OUTLINE MIGHT BE, THEN?

Evanovich: Exactly. Because I know the relationships, and I already know my characters and how I’m going to reveal my characters to my readers—how I’m going to feed them information about that character. That stuff doesn’t have to be in my outline. What I have to outline is action and plot because I’m not particularly good at that.

How to Outline (the Easy Way) Like Janet Evanovich

Do you outline? How in depth do you go? Share your thoughts in the comments section. I’m building up another dangerously tall stack of review copies at my desk, and will pull the name of one random commenter next week to receive a few cool new writing  books.

Happy Friday.

(Also, some preliminary blog procrastination today has led me to discover how good Evanovich’s website is. Not a bad thing to check out if you’re looking to sharpen or start your own.)

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17 Responses to How to Outline (the Easy Way) Like Janet Evanovich

  1. ratstar1001 says:

    I like this idea for outlining. I am currently using a notecard method, in which I write a sketch of each scene on a notecard. This idea looks interesting, though. I will probably try it soon.

  2. Karen W says:

    I write historical fiction and have to outline or I’ll go crazy in trying to remember everything. I don’t use the method with the Roman numerals. I tried it and it was an EPIC fail. Mine is similar to Janet’s storyboarding but it’s not a storyboard. It’s just a summary of a few words or sentences to give me the gist of what’s happening so I can take off running.

  3. pmettert says:

    I kind of do something like this. I use a desk calendar with big square blocks. I started this when I had the pacing wrong and when I could see each day, it helped. Of course, the blocks aren’t always literally days…they could be hours or weeks or scenes or chapters. It depends on the project. :)

  4. 7moonlight says:

    Since I am more visual, this process might work better for me. I just can’t seem to do the old school outlining for my plot, I loose interest because it is more finish an assignment than creating. I like the action timeline.

  5. MichelleAntonia says:

    I tend to write only in scenes. An an outline is imperative for me. I can’t even start a single sentence of a story or script without a densely detailed outline. Frankly, I’m in awe of people who do!

  6. Kerr says:

    I am still looking for a way to outline that feels comfortable. Janet Evanovich appears to have an interesting way
    with storyboarding.
    Thank you for the information.
    Janet

  7. jessedarke says:

    I do this but I go further.I use what I can “templates” .Pictures of people to help with character structure.Pictures of places, locations, houses, etc.I do “map” out each chapter, not by day necessarily.But because I have already written my first book awhile ago, I am just polishing it, adding substance to it.It may never see the light of day in book form, but just the creation of something out of nothing is just fun as hell!

  8. ldraconus says:

    Wow. Cool giveaway. Anyway, I mind map the territory around the basic story idea. Then I look around the map for the main character(s). I do a quick sketch of each character with their conflicting needs and desires. When I finally have all of this done, then I look over everything and come up with a starting point, three disasters and an ending. Then I outline how we get from the start to the end through the disasters using the needs and desires to create the problems. Finally I go through the outline and create the scenes from the mind map, character sketches and outline.

    *whew*

    Then the hard part begins …

    … but I’ve learned over the past few years if I don’t commit to all of this up front work, I can’t make the bloody story stay on course and the re-write is hell.

    Chris

  9. Sharon says:

    About half-way into my novel, Hunter’s Light, which has a complex set of characters and dual story lines, it became evident I better outline or I would go nuts. And then life happened and I haven’t worked on the book for about two months. I love Janet E. Whatever works for her is obviously a winner. Between my need to be more thoughtful about where the story is going and this great example of practical application to the creative process, as I get back on track with this book, outline, outline, outline is my new mantra.

  10. sdspain says:

    My outline started with an empty timeline (no timeframe, chapter headings, etc.) then I added only the most pivotal scences and where they would generally need to happen in order to develop the story.

    I didn’t know each scene or event, yet, but I knew how my characters would develop, so I would write general statements about their changes, realizations, etc. on the timeline (still no dates or chapters). If I had ideas for scenes that interested me that I wanted to make sure I included, I would plug them in and weave it into the character development or storyline.

    I had about this much outlined when I had written 6 chapters, so my I started with chapter 7 and converted my handwritten scrawled “outline” to a document and assigned official chapters for each event or character development I had planned. I still had holes for some chapters, so I planned scenes to link the pivotal events and character developments. Eventually, each chapter flowed effortlessly because I knew where it was headed immediately as well as in the long run.

    My final outline looked a lot like this example, with the exception of having chapter numbers rather than her days of the week. I guess I also have more about the characters but she didn’t seem to need that part written down.

    I couldn’t have written coherently without my timeline, but given that this was my first novel, and I was fumbling through it, next time I know I will outline more officially *before* starting any writing (rather than 6 chapters in!)

  11. Traci Loudin says:

    I outline by scene as well, but I also include at least a couple other elements. Not just “Character A does Action X” but also what is the conflict in this scene and what is the purpose of this scene? If a scene is lacking in conflict, even if it’s just a little or an ongoing conflict, it’s probably not good enough to remain in the story. Likewise if it lacks a purpose (e.g. advancing reader’s understanding of the character, introducing a question that will drive the story forward).

    I like using Scrivener for storyboarding. Each scene gets an index card. You can type your notes for the scene on it, then go in and actually write the scene itself later. It allows you to easily move scenes around too, by just moving the order of the note cards. So on my index cards, I put the characters, location, actions, conflict, and purpose. In regards to the action, I don’t go much more in depth than shown above, but I find the other elements (conflict, purpose, etc.) help give me direction when I sit down to write.

  12. Joshua Hagy says:

    I rarely outline, but after listening to Patrick Rothfuss and reading this article about Evanovich, I’m starting to see the usefulness of it. The storyboard idea looks like it would be extremely helpful to what I’m attempting to do with my own works. I’ll be giving it a try very soon.

  13. hilbit says:

    I’m a pantster, which, if you knew me, you’d find odd because I’m extremely organized and detail-oriented in everything else I do. I WANT to outline but find my brain glazing over whenever I sit down to try to create one. I’ve read Janet’s book on being a writer and found it very interesting. I like her storyboard approach but found it hard to visualize, even with the examples she included (and you included above). I don’t think what I see in my head matches, which I just realized is what has prevented me from giving storyboards a try. Who cares if it doesn’t match, as long as it works?

  14. HuffmanHanni says:

    Interestingg idea. I like that she is visual because as I’m attempting a novel, I’m finding I might be much more visual. I tried doing more of a traditional outline, like the ones I did in school for eassys, but found that to be really frustrating creatively but also having to wrangle with autoformatting. I then decided, forget it, I know what’s going to happen, sort of, and just would randomly type down plot points as they came to me. Not necessarily in order.

    This past week, I started on another outline but instead of doing a traditional one, I combined it with the random bits of plot I had been working on. I have each chapter and I’m briefly describing a POC (Point of the Chapter). Some have only one POC and others have three. I’m also listing the major/minor characters involved as well as the setting. I’ve already found that it helps me realize if I’ve forgotten a place or plotline for a while or if I’ve already spent too many chapters in a row on the same plotline.

    • Popper99 says:

      I like your acronym POC! As an outliner myself, I find tracking these POCs to be essential when working with a long (think epic) story. As I’m in the thick of the writing I might forget small details, like what was the goal of this scene and have I met it or did character A already meet character B? Going back to the POCs and the other items that I track in my outline is much easier than digging through pages of prose.

      I never worked too heavily with outlines in school so I guess I never developed a full understanding of traditional outlines. The outlines I create are more like a Google map, as I zoom in or focus on a specific chapter or scene the more details pop up. And since I use it not only as a planning tool, but as a tracking tool as well, I can always go back and see a high level image of my story map.

  15. ssires says:

    Well first of all I love Janet Evanovich! She is so inspiring and after reading this article about how she outlines I feel that I can really relate! I just did an outline last week that was similar to this one! I split up Act 1, 2, and 3 on different posters outlining what was necessary to go into each act to keep readers interested and then I proceeded to outline different actions and plot lines in my own story! This was a great article and so is Janet Evanovich!

  16. NAL says:

    I too get bored at the thought of a classic outline. I try for something more middle-of-the-road, but have never hit on a method with which I was truly satisfied, so I tend to never complete the task. Janet’s method looks intriguing, less intimidating, and I think I’ll give it a try.

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