Writing Assignment: Outline An Incident

by Randy Murray on January 18, 2013

I love a good mystery. I can’t tell you how many detective novels I’ve read or how many police procedurals I’ve watched on television. In a way, I believe that regardless of the fact the most of them deal with an act of violence or violation, that these books and shows help to reinforce the idea that order can be restored and that the application of the mind and thought can win out over mere force and chaos.

One of the basics of most good mysteries is the creation of the “here’s what happened” moment. It is a clear, sensible recounting of the events. It’s fun to watch and even more fun to put the elements in order for oneself, trying to beat the story to that “aha!” resolution.

And this is also excellent practice for the writer.

While eyewitness testimony is often unreliable, the order of events can be pieced together by the careful observer and investigator. Writers can use this process in their daily lives to capture moments, bits of story, and build their powers of both observation and perception. Like a good detective, the writer should be equipped with a notebook and pen to capture what happened and when.

For today’s writing assignment, pick any incident in your daily life and create a point by point outline of exactly what happened.

The outline is an excellent tool for this. You can start with the main points, then add additional levels of detail beneath each main point. Even a simple incident, like “Suzy knocked the coffee cup off the table” can yield much greater detail. For example:

  1. Bill placed the blue mug on the end of the table and then opened the door for Peter.
  2. Peter, standing in the open doorway, asked Bill about the progress of the Smithfield project.
  3. Alice stopped at the front of the table to listen to Peter and Bill talk.
  4. Suzy squeezed past Peter to enter the break room.
  5. As Suzy turned to avoid brushing Bill, her purse, hung from her shoulder, swung and knocked the cup off the table and onto the floor.

Even more detail can be added, including whether the cup was filled, with what, at what temperature, and what the result of the disturbed cup was. More interesting detail can be sussed out by learning why Suzy didn’t want to brush Bill. Are there deeper mysteries here?

Pick any simple incident, create your high level points, then capture additional ones. As any good mystery fan knows, it is sometimes the simplest fact that helps to unravel the secrets of the event. A good detective, as with a good writer, captures as many facts as they can tease out of any scene, although all of the detail may not be necessary to tell the story later.


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