Ways to Organize a Story Without Using a Traditional Outline


Every writer has his or her own method for organizing the key events and subplots of a story. Some love a good old-fashioned traditional outline. Some can’t stand even the thought of it.

The longer we spend immersed in a story, though, the harder it becomes to keep track of what’s going on. The bigger a story gets, the easier it is to get lost. Even if you can still write straight through to the end, when it’s time to edit, there’s often a good story buried beneath the chaos … somewhere.

How do we find it? Outlining, of course. But not in the way you might be thinking of.

Here are three ways to organize different elements of your story, before, during and/or after you write it.

Character Sketches

No, you don’t have to physically draw out your characters, though you can if you want to, if that will help you picture them better in your mind. The purpose of a character sketch – writing out a list of random questions and answers to discover traits for each of your characters – is for you to familiarize yourself with that character, and to practice, based on their personalities, how they might react to different situations.

Start off with seemingly unimportant ‘questions’ like hair and eye color, height, weight, etc. Move on to habits, good or bad; hobbies; history. You never know which of these answers might spark an idea for a significant event in your story, or prompt you to turn a small quirk you’ve already incorporated once or twice in your story into a full-on motif.

Our post, How to Write a Character Sketch, is on the way – check back soon!

Conflict-Resolution Chart

Some writers really struggle with tying up loose ends. Plot holes are very common in first drafts, especially since one story might take you months or even years to write. You might start running with one subplot and unintentionally abandon it simply because you just forgot it existed.

For each significant character, map out, on a piece of paper or a spreadsheet, the conflicts they are each dealing with throughout the story and how they come to resolve them. Character development is one key element of a good story, and this can be an effective way to make sure each of your characters, within the same bigger story, are each growing on an individual level.

Read more about this outlining method.

A Map Sketch or Calendar

Which one you use depends on the story you’re writing.

If you’re writing a story that relies heavily on location, such as a sci-fi or fantasy story might, you’d probably use a rough sketch of a map to track where your characters are going and which events occur at each place.

Stories that are much more dependent on time, such as John Green’s Looking for Alaska, might require using an actual calendar to help you get a better idea of which significant plot points happen when. Green and his editor actually used this method to keep track of days, which you can check out in the back of the book’s 10th anniversary edition.

Give some of these a try next time you’re feeling a little lost. Hopefully they’ll be of some help. Good luck! Write on!

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.

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