Outlining Narrative Events

Events propel narrative. Narrative consists of a chain of events.

These do not have to be spectacular action events – they can be internal psychological events if your story is about a man who does not leave his room, or spiritual events if you are recounting the story of Buddha sitting beneath the tree. But events there must be if there is to be a story.

In this post we’ll discuss –

Events in a story are effectively bits of knowledge the author wants to impart – in a particular order, the narrative – to the recipient, i.e. the reader or audience. The story is told when all the pertinent knowledge has been presented, when all the bits of information necessary for the story to feel like a coherent unity are conveyed. An author may choose to tell a story with more or less scope and detail, and it is these choices – the way the information is presented – that can make varying narratives out of essentially the same story.

Legend has it that Alfred Hitchcock had in mind an idea for a scene in which a man is attacked by a cropduster plane, and another in which people clamber up the Presidents’ faces at Mount Rushmore. Then he looked for a story to connect these two events – and came up with North By North West.

If you’re conceiving a story, you probably already have some ideas for events or scenes in your mind. Often it is such ideas that drive you to write in the first place. They may not be big set pieces like the ones mentioned above. Indeed they might be small connecting scenes that in themselves will not be particularly memorable. But if they are there already in your head, you might want to jot them down.

When you have a handful of scene ideas (for precision’s sake, we prefer to call them plot events), then you can start juggling them around. You might be tempted to see how to order them into a coherent narrative, but we recommend that first you sort them into the order they occurred in time.

Once the chronology is clear, it becomes easier to figure out how to sort the events into a narrative. This process is called outlining. Some authors don’t start writing until the outline is very clear to them. Certainly, most authors have a fair idea of the ending of the story before they start writing the beginning.

Establishing such direction for the narrative at an early stage of the process of composing a story tends to save on time-consuming rewrites later. It also reduces the risk of writer’s block. Furthermore, creating a story structure is at least as challenging – and as rewarding – as finding the right style, voice and language to relate it.

You’ll notice that virtually any event idea you have will tend to involve characters. If a tree falls in the forest, the question for an author is not so much whether it makes a sound, but whether it falls on anybody’s head – or otherwise effects somebody.

You may think of, say, a natural disaster as being an exciting idea for a story event, but in itself it is not. It only gets exciting when you have the characters experience such an event.

Using Cards To Outline The Narrative

In storytelling, structure is at least as important as language.

An easy way organise the structure of the scenes or events in your story is to use note or index cards. You jot each thought or idea for a potential event down on an index card or note card. This summary of each event has been called a “thumbnail synopsis”.

Write in present tense! It’s shorter and more direct.

You don’t describe the scene on the card – there isn’t enough space. You just indicate which event the card represents with a few words which designate your idea. It’s like a title for this scene or event. For the moment, you alone know – at least roughly – which scene or event these few words stand for. Ideally there should be less than ten words on the card.

You then pin or stick the card to a wall or cork board. Do this for every single scene or plot event you can think of, using one card per event.

While you are gathering your scene or event ideas this way, don’t worry too much about the order you want to relate them in. The important thing is to get them up there. Once you have a whole bunch, be it a handful or forty or even a hundred, then it is time to consider what order they should be placed in.

As we mentioned above, it is important to consider that every story has two timelines, the narrative and the chronological. If you were scribbling on paper cards, you’d have to decide in which order you want to place your cards on the wall. But if you’re working with Beemgee, you can switch between the two orders.

So we recommend you do this:

First, set the CHRONOLOGY–NARRATIVE switch to chronology, and drag and drop the cards into the chronological order – the sort order of events as they happen consecutively in time. This means that those events which are furthest back in time, that perhaps occurred before your story even begins, are at the far left. You’ll find that there are probably relevant bits of information – things the characters look back on or past incidents that are revealed at some stage in your story – that you need to drag to the far left. These are the backstory.

It is not so important that you are absolutely sure about your exact chronology now. It is sufficient to have a rough idea.

Then set the CHRONOLOGY–NARRATIVE to narrative, and think about the order in which you want to tell the events. Which is your opening scene? What event triggers the action of the story? What happens at the midpoint? Decide when the backstory events will be revealed to the audience or reader, and drag them into that position in the narrative.

This narrative order of events is the throughline of your story. The cards in the narrative order show how the plot works.

To write more detail per event card, use the DESCRIPTION modus (if it is not visible in the sidebar, find it by clicking the three little dots at the bottom). Here you can describe each event in complete sentences. Again, write in the present tense. Be concise, but do include details that convey drama and tension, or in other words, emotion.

You then view all of the description texts together as one continuous copy text with the STEP OUTLINE function. This text is a scene by scene account of your entire plot. It will prove a useful basis for your treatment. You’ll be able to export it as PDF or as a text document (.rtf) for uploading into your word processing software.

Read about the functions and features of the Beemgee plot-outlining tool and find out how our unique software can help you outline your story.


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