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How to Outline a Short Story [Template Included]

When most people decide to write a short story, they usually assume that it’s going to be duck soup.

They just grab a pen and paper or their laptop and get straight to it. 

No outline. No sketch. Nothing!

If you’re “most people,” you probably have a lot of unfinished short stories that you abandoned after getting completely stuck halfway.

Or you’re just an aspiring author who’s got no idea that an outline is like a treasure map that can lead you to that great short literary piece.

how to outline a short story

Why Should You Outline a Short Story?

Clichés, anyone? Alright, here we go!

“Failing to plan, is planning to?”

Correct!

Outlining is both timesaving and enables you to have some sort of a road map—it gives you the freedom to unleash your artistic genius rather than focus on trivial crinkles of the story itself.

Although short story writing is narrower in terms of scope than a novel, it still includes many elements that wordsmiths input into a full-size novel.

It needs a multidimensional main character, a clear character arc, a comprehensive plot, and a gripping closing set of events. This somehow makes writing a short a bit laborious.

An outline can save a lot of the stress by helping you put together the jigsaw puzzle before the writing process really starts.

clara's story outline, laura j mixon (1)
Story outline by Author Laura J. Nixon. (Image credit: “Clara’s story outline, Laura J Mixon, With a Little Help ephemera 1.jpg” by Cory Doctorow on Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

Outlining a short story

Key Elements of a Good Short Story Outline

As a writer’s roadmap, a short story outline is supposed to include details you can utilize to track character arcs, storylines, thematic content, and logical consistency.

Therefore, a good short story outline must address the following elements:

1. A Situation and Conflict: the state of affairs—the beginning of the story—that either changes for the better or takes a very bad turn (usually, it’s the latter). As the story progresses, it has to have a conflict. The conflict arises from the interaction between the protagonist (who has an objective) and the antagonist (who stands in the way of the protagonist and his objective).

2. The Solution to the Conflict: some creative writers like to start writing a story without knowing the ending themselves. Writing this way keeps the intrigue alive for the writer but having a predetermined solution to your story’s main conflict gives you a clear direction of the narrative.

3. Character Development: Characters are what bring the action in your story to life. When making notes for your story, make sure you define the protagonist and antagonist and give them more dimensions. Add backstories to the characters too, even though some of the backstories won’t make it to the final draft of the story—due to the limited scope of a short story.

4. Other Critical Points: The conflict and the solution that I have covered in (1) and (2) are some of the critical plot points that an outline has to cover. A story starts from an exposition; then the conflict arises; there’s rising action; then comes the climax; after that, is the falling action; and finally, the resolution concludes the tale.

The Short Story Outlining Process: Tips and Template

Now that we’ve seen some of the key elements of a short story, let’s take a look at the actual short story outlining process.

The process always starts with crafting your story’s premise and going all the way through to a full list of scenes.

One thing you ought to know about outlining methods is that there is no objectively correct or incorrect way of doing things. Most writers that I have encountered have personalized their outlining methods to a format that works for them.

If by chance this technique fails to do the job for you, you can adjust the process and find a method that works for you.

Having gotten that out of the way, let’s take a look at the outlining method that has worked for me and a couple of other writers in my writing circles, starting with tips on how you can approach the outlining process to churn out top-notch outlines.

1. Start Simplistic

To give your short story outline a good structure, you have to start from the bones.

You can utilize a technique called the Snowflake Method. Using this method of writing, a wordsmith begins with a simplistic deep theme and gradually adds meat to the story, making it more complex over time.

What you actually do is begin with an arrow-shaped idea and build on it afterwards. It’s exactly like what I said, start from the bones and add meat until the sentence becomes a matured story.

korch snowflake
The main idea of the Snowflake method is to start with a simple sentence and transform it into a full-fledged novel.

2.Create a Quasi Outline

This quasi outline is like a draft outline—a freestyled guideline for the final outline. When you write this draft, focus on the general ideas and major plotline events: the inciting action, the climax, the resolution.

You may leave holes whilst you write the quasi outline. You’ll patch them later; for now, focus on completing the panoramic view of the whole of your short fiction.

3. Use Unpredictability and Conflict to Spice Up the Plot

If a reader is able to predict—more than once—a set of events before they happen, they’re likely going to be discouraged from reading your story any further.

A good story uses unanticipated twists and conflict to sustain the much-needed tension.

This technique is effective in every genre, whether it’s romance (break someone’s heart unexpectedly) or horror (slash a baby’s throat, out of the blue).

4. Utilize the Protagonist’s Internal Monologue

One of the attributes of a good story is its ability to suck the reader into its world or settings.

One way of achieving this is the main character’s thoughts and mumblings to make the reader understand the protagonist’s mind and empathize with them.

Craft natural persona, needs, and character arc to absorb the reader slowly. Of course, this is harder to achieve with the limited scope of a short story but, that’s why the outline is indispensable.

5. Use Software to Outline Your Story

Regular word processing software—MS Word and co.—come with features that writers can utilize to outline a short story or larger types of prose.

However, there is sophisticated and dedicated software that has been designed to help you build a clean and comprehensible outline.

One such software that I would recommend is Plottr—an easy-to-use visual outlining and book planning tool. With this software, you can take your story from a simple synopsis to a book series.

plottr

Once you start “creating a book,” you can create a timeline, a list of characters and character arcs, plots and subplots, construct chapters, and put scenes inside the chapters (tuck characters and locations in the scene cards), et cetera.

Software like Plottr are time savers and make the entire outlining process smoother. Authors have been using these tools for short stories and larger texts like Novels (which—I think—is the type of prose that people mostly associate the tools with).

Story Outline Template

Once more, I would like to stress that you can write your outline whichever way you deem suitable.

But if you are not sure about it, I have made a condensed and downloadable template for you. Download it here or just study the thorough step-by-step outline method below.

Feel free to add extra elements to the ones that I have come up with.

Step 1. Create the Premise: A premise is basically the idea from which your story springs. Make sure that your premise is well defined and more than the basic idea; add condiments to the idea to make it provide a satisfying story guidance.

Your outline needs to be introduced by a condensed but creamy premise sentence that carries insights into the following things:

Step 2. Describe Setting: in this part, describe the environment within which your story takes place. Before writing a complete outline, you need to have a firm idea of where your story is taking place.

Is it happening in a mars-bound spaceship? Is the story about a kid in the projects? Perhaps the setting is an apartment complex in the Cayman Islands?

In a play or a movie, I think they call this a mises en scène. It covers things like:

ü  Place/Location

ü  Weather

ü  Time

ü  Atmosphere/aura/mood

Step 3. Come up with the Main Character: Who is the protagonist? Come up with the persona that is going to be your main character. You can also—optionally—decide on the antagonist. Since the antagonist is antipathetic to the MCs’ objectives, they’re easy to come up with if you’ve already created the MC—a writer just needs to feed off the polarity between the personas to create the adversary.

Cover all these questions (maybe more), then condense them into one or two sentences that unwraps the core of the whole story.

Step 4. Objective, conflict, and resolution: this part is where the story is given the meat—it’s where you develop the story. There are a couple of questions that your outline needs to answer in this sections, questions like:

i. What’s the protagonist’s goal or objective?

ii. What conflict arises as a result of the MCs’ quest to attain the goal?

iii. What scenarios and effects are going to get thrown in to tense up the conflict?

iv. What and how will the story’s climax be? Will the protagonist be successful? Will he fail to attain his goal?

v. How will the conflict end? What will the resolution be?

Step 5. Character Development: lastly, give each important character in your story a life. The next step involves bringing some of the characters to life—i.e., developing the protagonist’s persona, needs, and character arc.

There are crucial details that need to be added to your characters, whether or not they appear in the story. 

To do this, you need to ask yourself some questions or immerse yourself in the story and interview the characters.  

What led to the character’s current situation? What events happened in their past, and how can it affect the way they resolve the conflict? What other unsolved issues could affect the protagonist’s objective and conflict resolution?

You have to dig deep, where and how is a matter of personal preference.

You may choose to use a pre-set list of questions shared by numerous published authors, or you may tweak some details and ask your protagonist a series of questions to find out the heart and soul of your character.

Step 6. Sketch the Plotline and fill it with Scenes: With the premise polished up, you can now set about to develop your ideas for this story.

Before outlining, you usually have sketchy ideas about the story. Write down all those sketchy ideas you have about your story.

What you want to do is record all the details so that you don’t forget anything. Add even the scenes that you are not sure about. Most of the time, things just fall in place—organically—once the story starts going.

This is the part of your creative process that involves a ‘no holds barred’ mentality. During this writing stage, you must focus on emptying your ideas and letting your thoughts out without sweating about any of the tenets of the Queen’s language— punctuation, grammar, or spelling. You need to keep plucking your most creative ideas and thoughts and adding depth to your story’s potential.

One thing that sets a good storyline apart from the basic ones is unpredictability. If you think a scene feels too familiar or predictable for readers, reconstruct it or throw it away altogether.

How to Start a Short Story?

Of course, I’m not going to ramble about the whole process of writing a short story, but the least I can do is to give you some insights on how to start a captivating short story.

You might be saying to yourself, “Yeah, I know how to outline a short story, right? But how do I start writing a scintillating story?”

The secret formula involves getting the reader’s attention quicker they expect and getting them settling into the story as it unfolds in its infancy.

To drive the point home, I’m going to borrow some of Anthony Ehler’s tips on how to start a short story:

Start as close to the action as possible. On this method, Ehler uses F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, Three Hours Between Planes, to demonstrate how the author scrapped the man’s arrival into his old town and immediately placed the man in a phone, looking up his old sweetheart’s number.

Set the tone of the story. For example, Ehler uses Ian Rankin’s spine-chilling crime story, Someone Got to Eddie, to demonstrate how a good short story starts—Rankin used a fictional character’s sequence of thoughts to instantly and crisply speak to the reader. With a well-constructed interior monologue, a good start immediately absorbs the reader into the main character’s mind.

Focus on your main character. Lastly, he uses Gina Berriault’s story, The Stone Boy, to back his point: a good story should immediately move the reader to identify with the main character. This makes the reader crave more and anticipate the story’s next event and twist—the reader plunks for the main character and is keen to see what will happen to the mc.

Here are a few tips to get readers invested from the start!

In Conclusion…

So, you’ve written your story, and you’re all set to start writing a future classic; always remember the golden rule of writing fiction—show, don’t tell.

The best part about outlining is that you won’t have to submit it to anyone. It’s for your own convenience.

That’s the easy part.

The hard part’s writing the story. When you start writing the story, you’ve got to put yourself in the reader’s mind and see if it sounds exciting or if it’s natural and convincing.

Because…

“If you think it’s boring, it probably is.”

About Jessica Majewski

Jessica started off as an avid book reader. After reading one too many romance novels (really... is it ever really enough?), she decided to jump to the other side and started writing her own stories.

She now shares what she has learned (the good and the not so good) here at When You Write, hoping she can inspire more up and coming wordsmiths to take the leap and share their own stories with the world.