On Writing: The Lazy Writer’s Way to Outline – Templates

I’ve talked about outlining before here and here. Quite frankly, I hate it. I’ve refined my template process a bit that I talk about in the 2nd link above, and I want to detail that for you. If I can help someone out, that’s a great thing.

The first thing I do now, when I come up with an idea for a story, is to create a little balloon diagram – a basic chart – something like this:


Yes, that’s all me and my scribble…I broke my right hand in a motorcycle accident several years ago. That’s why I prefer to type.

Anyway, the diagram above, often called a snowflake chart or a bubble chart, is a slightly simplified version of the one I used to lay out my characters and suspects and how they were interlinked for Book 4 in the Morelville Mysteries series, Hitched and Tied. For the book I’m working on now, Viva Mama Rossi!, the example is a bit closer to reality. On the diagram, I put who or what the victim/crime is in the big circle(s). The outer circles represent all of the suspects for that crime.

In a mystery novel, especially a murder mystery, there’s usually more than one death. The 2nd – which may or may not be related to the first – brings new clues to light for the investigators and it keeps the audience reading during a heavy investigative, probing and often introspective part of the story. Charting out who’s a suspect and a brief reason why and how everyone is related to everyone else goes a long way toward building a viable plot and keeping it on track.

Charting doesn’t just work for mysteries. It works for any sort of story where there are several characters and more than one story arc. It helps you see the big picture. Lots of authors chart out their character relationships and then build their outline off that or, in some cases, they work on both simultaneously.

Now, a chart isn’t an outline and, remember, I hate outlining. What I do instead is what I call ‘templating’. I save the word file of my most recent novel as a new file with the name of the new novel. I go into it and change what needs to be changed on the title page and in the back matter (about the author, other works, etc.) and save that. Then I go in and wipe out all of the text in each chapter except the chapter headers. Now I have a clean, already formatted, brand new template to work from for the latest book.

Once my template is ready to go, I start inserting my story ideas. What happens in chapter one? Is a crime committed or discovered or is there some other lead up to it? I write out what I’m thinking and any details I think are relevant. I go on and do that for each successive chapter incorporating characters (suspects) and their motives from my chart, as I go.

As I’m going along and I’m laying out the groundwork of each chapter, I often name the chapter with a one or two word name. That helps a lot later when I think of things that I want to make sure get into a certain chapter or I need to check the information I wrote about one thing that affects something later.

The beauty of working with a template instead of an outline is that, as you’re laying out your major points and you think of things that need researched or you think of snippets of dialog you want to use, etc. you can write that stuff right in. If you think of something on the fly, you can go back and jot it in when you get a minute. If something you’ve set up for chapter ten isn’t going to work there until you lay out something else you can cut it out of that chapter and paste it into a later one. In every case I’ve outlined, it will be there for you when you get to that point of your writing.

By templating instead of outlining, you don’t lose all those great little snippets you think up for something farther along as you write the set up for it. You just zip them in and go back to where you left off. All of your brilliant thoughts and ideas are right there. Try that with an outline and a bunch of paper scribbled out notes! Just remember to back up your work.

My first book, which I ‘pantsed’ with no outline isn’t bad. The second is better, but not by much. I outlined it on screen and then started building chapters, pushing my outline further and further down. I had to keep scrolling to the end to get the next plot point. With book three, I began using a full on template and that’s when I really started to feel the power of having a guide. Several people have told me it’s the best book of the first three. The jury is still out on the very recently released book 4 but, I’m here to tell you, using this method, it was a breeze to write. Book five? Let’s just say that I laid it out in two days and I’m already writing.

Call me a lazy writer if you want. I prefer to work smarter, not harder.


About Anne Hagan

I'm an East Central Ohio based government employee by day and a fiction author by night. I specialize in mystery fiction featuring lesbian sleuths and cozy fiction featuring women sleuths. I also dabble in romance especially romantic lesfic. I live with my wife and our dogs in a tiny town that’s even smaller than the Morelville of my first fiction series and we wouldn't have it any other way. My wife grew up here and she has always called this little village home. Though it’s an ultra-conservative rural community, we're surrounded here by family, longtime friends and many other wonderful people with open hearts and minds. My wife and I are the co-owners of a commercial haunted house: Hagan's House of Horrors. Much as my dream has always been to write fiction, hers has been to create it through the medium of horror. We went full commercial in 2015. Watch us as we grow!
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