ArcGIS StoryMaps

Planning and outlining your story: How to set yourself up for success

A good storyteller knows that the first step to crafting a compelling story isn’t jumping into the builder; it’s taking time to prepare and map out your ideas. By working through foundational questions—who you’re making this story for, what you want them to learn, how you can connect with them most effectively—you’ll not only save time later in the creative process, but you’ll increase your likelihood of creating something that’s both interesting and memorable.

Planning an engaging story takes practice, and there are definitely a few tricks to getting it right. To help you master these skills, let’s run through some of the major steps you should take in the pre-production phase of the story crafting process. These include:


The cover layout of World Heritage in Danger; a split screen with a photo of ancient Greek columns and the title and subtitle of the story
Click to launch the story.


For each step, we’ll start by considering why it matters in the first place, then see how this step played out in three different story maps I’ve worked on recently:

Finally, we’ll conclude each step with a quick run through of questions you can ask yourself to help get this part right, as well as a few tips to keep in mind.

Before we go any further, it’s a good idea to quickly read through the stories. Being a little familiar with each one will make the specific examples I talk about below a lot more helpful (hopefully).


A sidecar block in The Surprising State of Africa's Giraffes, with narrative text and a graphic of giraffe coat patterns on the left, and a map of their range in Africa on the right
Click to launch the story.


Identify your target audience

An important place to start with any story is determining its intended audience: Who, specifically, are you creating this content for? The answer to this question will have a significant impact on your story’s tone, vocabulary, emotional arc, and permissible level of detail.

You wouldn’t talk to a group of middle school students about the importance of biodiversity the same way you’d talk to a group of postdoc biologists about the same subject. While the overall concepts might be the same, your overall delivery would be wildly different, from how you get them interested in the conversation to the amount of jargon you use. Understanding your audience, then tailoring your story to align with their interests and knowledge is perhaps the most foundational part of creating an effective story.


The cover of Canine Surprises, showing a minimal cover and fullscreen video with a dog and two hikers
Click to launch the story.



Keys to success:


An excerpt from our giraffe story showing a quote drawing attention to the need for conservation intervention
Our story on the conservation status of giraffes was designed to emphasize their plight and inspire readers to take action.


Define your key takeaways

A common pitfall for many storytellers is trying to fit too much into one piece. You might be extremely excited about or invested in your topic, but chances are your readers aren’t—at least to the same degree. Don’t try to throw every single detail at them. Instead, figure out what’s the most important message  for them to remember if they only recall one or two things from your story. Write these key points down for easy reference, then be strict about keeping those few takeaways at the center of your work. This will be especially important when you’re creating your outline(s).



A photo from Canine Surprises showing a dog sitting among ferns
I used images throughout my story to juxtapose the anxious feelings I was describing with evidence of our eventual positive outcome.


Keys to success:


An example of a content inventory—a simple bulleted list with ideas and questions for key points, maps, graphics, and photos
Listing out all your possible content, data sources, and other potential media will make planning you narrative and managing your workload much easier in the long run.


Create a content inventory

Now that you’ve identified your core messages, take stock of what you have—and what you’ll need—to convey these points to your audience. Don’t worry about a specific structure just yet, you can get to that in a moment. But first, come up with a list of the visual assets, data visualizations, anecdotes, etc. that will bring your message to life for a reader, and leave it lingering in their mind. Which of these assets do you already have on hand? Are there maps or infographics you need to make? What about examples you need to track down?

Gathering your different pieces of content now will make it easier to outline and assemble your story. Plus, this exercise can help set expectations for workload by identifying how many things you’ll need to create for a specific story.


From World Heritage in Danger, a sidecar with a large image of an ancient building in Georgia, with descriptive text and a locator map to the right.
We wanted our story on World Heritage Sites in danger be a helpful resource for students, and to catch they eye of those eager to travel. We knew we'd need lots of examples, with quality photos and a locator map for each one.




Keys to success:


A sidecar block in Canine Surprises with a series of photos on the left and a large map at right, the color palette of which is based on the photos next to it.
I let the predominant colors in my photos dictate the color palette for my hiking map, ensuring that the two types of media were visually harmonized.


Draft an outline (or two or three)

With your content inventory complete, you can pivot to thinking about how you might weave all these pieces together. One of the easiest ways to do this is by creating a story outline.

Outlines can take a variety of formats, from a simple bulleted list, to a full-blown storyboard, a slide deck, or even a collection of index cards you shuffle around on your desk. The exact format isn’t very important—what matters most is that you choose whichever one makes it easiest for you to experiment and get creative.


My outline for this blog: Three pieces of notebook paper with headings for each blog section and the repeated subsection within each, plus bullet point of what I wanted to say for each part
This is the outline I made for this blog. I used similar doodles in my notebook to mark repeated elements across sections.


Keep in mind that there are countless ways to tell any single story. Some, of course, will be more effective than others—here’s where keeping your target audience and key messages in mind will be the most important.

Take time to experiment with a few different options as you work on your outline. Move elements around, and don’t be afraid to get a little unconventional. Then, step back and see how the new order flows. How does it make you feel? A step-by-step account of events as they unfolded may be easy for a reader to follow, but does it pull on their emotions enough to keep them reading all the way through? Outlines provide a very low-risk way of testing different ideas—you (and your readers) might be delightfully surprised by what you come up with when you think outside the box.



A photo of our World Heritage outline, which consisted of a hierarchical bulleted list in a shared online document
With multiple people working on this story, having our outline available for simultaneous editing and review helped us collaborate and stay organized.


Keys to success:




When it comes down to it, planning out your story is all about identifying and creating a compelling narrative arc; one that speaks to your audience’s interests, and clearly establishes your main point in their mind. Of course, storytelling is an iterative process, and chances are you’ll find something isn’t working quite as expected once you start putting all the pieces together. It’s okay to deviate from your outline and adapt your content when this happens. But defining your target audience and key message, then taking the time to find the story structure that best aligns with them will pay off massively in the long run.

Looking for more tips on telling a great story? Try this set of nine next. And when you’ve finished your next story map, let us know how it went! Did these pre-production steps help? Share your thoughts—and your finished story—with us on Twitter.


About the author

Upstate NY transplant. Content creator for Esri's StoryMaps team. Fascinated by how storytelling affects the human brain. Lover of conservation. Overly proud dog mom.

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