Now that I’ve explained why you need to outline, let’s talk about how you outline. One of my favorite books on storytelling is Rick Schmidt’s Feature Filmmaking At Used Car Prices. This book probably more than any other influenced how I outline a story.
Before you can figure out the characters, before you figure out the plot, before anything else, you need the idea. What’s your story about? Don’t try to write a page. Don’t try to pitch a whole concept. Don’t think plot. Think simpler. Can you say what your story is about in one sentence? Maybe even one word? Get it distilled down to the simplest concept. Or if you’ve got nothing, then just start with one word. Let’s use The Shawshank Redemption as an example. Shawshank’s one word would be “Hope.”
This is the seed of your story. Everything grows from this one thing. Now, take the word and turn it into a sentence. This sentence should still be more about theme than plot. “The Shawshank Redemption is about hope and friendship enduring through the darkest of times.”
Now that you’ve kicked your idea around a bit, it’s time for a quick and dirty outline. You don’t even need to name the characters. Just write up what the basic story is. Don’t worry. None of this is in stone. Any of it can be and probably will be changed. Just write it out and see where it goes. Don’t go longer than a page or two. Get down the time, the place, and the people. This outline should be an extrapolation of your sentence but now you’re getting into the plot of it. This is where a lot of magic can happen if you’re lucky.
One note. When it comes to rewriting, the earlier you do it, the less you have to do of it. Rewriting a sentence at this stage might save you hours of rewriting later. Just don’t get carried away. Like I said, this isn’t the final outline.
Now you should have an idea of what your story is about. It still needs work of course, but you’re getting somewhere. Keep in mind that this particular outline isn’t going to be used for any actual writing. It’s just there for the next and in many cases, the most important step: Creating characters.