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Plan your book

using the Subheadings Method

I’m going to talk about the subheadings method today, which has so many applications I think it’s brilliant, although I agree the name ‘subheadings method’ needs some work. This technique involves coming up with ideas and breaking them down by getting more specific, going niche (as it were) or uncovering the details or the process involved. How you break things down depends on the subject matter. It definitely helps to apply specificity, which you can read about here. As well as specificity, the subheadings method involves three things: you, categories and life roles, so I’ll talk about those things first before explaining the technique.

All about you

In writing workshops I often ask participants to apply the subheadings method to themselves for two reasons, one is obvious, the other takes some thinking about:

  1. Because YOU is a subject you’re already an expert in and it’s easier to see how the technique works if you can apply it to something you know about.
  2. Because any idea you ever have has come out of YOU somehow even if it seems like it came from out there. Therefore to generate ideas, you always have to start with you.

Categories

The subheadings method uses categories and subcategories. Categories can be rather arbitrary of course, but they still help as long as you remember that. I might place myself in the categories of ‘cat owner’, ‘theatre-lover’ and ‘wife’, but that doesn’t mean I fully embody those ideas all day long. I also move seamlessly from one category to another, feeding the cats, while still being a wife, while thinking about booking tickets to see Wicked again and wondering if I should go for the expensive seats. I also don’t fully live up to (so-called) societal expectations of what each category should be or do. I’m a wife, but I also have a wife, for example. That means while being in a category, I also disrupt it slightly, I change it. This happens repeatedly, across categories and people.

Life roles

We can also use the subheadings method to think in terms of the roles we play in life. This idea of roles suggests that I’m me, and that I don different versions of myself in different parts of my life. This works for ‘teacher’, ‘writer’, ‘wife’, ‘mother’ (we know how people playing these roles tend to behave) but not so much for other parts of my life. ‘Cat owner’ and ‘theatre-lover’ aren’t exactly a roles, in the way that ‘cat exhibitor’ or ‘circus performer’ would be. ‘Teacher’, ‘writer’, ‘wife’, ‘mother’, ‘cat owner’ and ‘theatre-lover’ all have social languages attached and probable behaviours, but I don’t feel actively compelled to take part in the cat owning and theatre-loving world or to contest what that means, in the same way that I do with the others on the list. Other people might.

So how does the subheadings method work?

Now you understand the importance of you, categories and life roles, here’s the low down on how it works:

  1. Take a thing you want to know more about, write about, or get to grips with. This could be a goal, a task, an event, an essay, a book, a character, or a concept, you name it. Give it a title or name or write a summary.
  2. Write subheadings underneath. Break down the idea, elucidating it or dividing it into its component parts. (Come up with about 3 to 5 of these.)
  3. Divide each of those subheadings into mini-subheadings that break down the subheading to a greater extent. (Again, try for 3 – 5.) You might notice that some of these need to be subdivided again.

Here’s what to do next:

Take a look at the information and create something out of it. For instance:

  • If you’re writing an essay, turn each of the mini-subheadings into a paragraph.
  • If you’re writing a character, turn the whole thing into a character sketch.
  • If you’re breaking down a task, allocate a time slot to each part.

Example: Plan a party

Subheadings:

  • Research venues
  • Decorations
  • Guests
  • Book caterers
  • Book DJ and equipment

Mini-subheadings:

Research venues
  • Church hall
  • Community centre
  • Old lighthouse
  • Our house
Decorations
  • Theme?
  • Where from?
  • How much?
Guests
  • How many?
  • Invitations
  • Dress-code
Book caterers
  • Deli – get quote
  • Ask Helen
  • Try fish and chip shop?
  • Try cheese and wine shop?
Book DJ and equipment
  • Phone Kevin
  • Ask on social
  • Try Party Fun website

Example: Character Sketch

Subheadings

  • Quirks
  • Flaws
  • Strengths
  • Wants
  • Circumstances

Mini-subheadings

Quirks
  • Takes five sugars in her tea
  • Keeps a pet parrot
  • Still talks to her dead mother
Flaws
  • Easily distracted
  • Mistrusts everyone because she was hurt when she was younger
  • Pushes people away if they get too close
  • Untidy
Strengths
  • Kind to animals
  • Goes out of her way to help strangers
  • Creative, especially with bright colours
Wants
  • To find her soul-mate
  • To get out of debt
  • To move out of her mother’s flat
Circumstances
  • Art teacher at a local college
  • Her mother died a year ago
  • Wants to enter a major prize but doesn’t quite dare
  • Lonely

This is a powerful technique for breaking down almost any idea, task or project. Have a go. Start with you, come up with categories or life roles based on you and break those down into sub-headings and mini-subheadings first. Once you’ve tried that, have a go at doing it with something you’re writing or an important task that you keep putting off – it works equally well for both.

More soon. Until then, happy writing,

Louise xx

2 Comments

  1. Murat says:

    It was quite helpful and seems great technique to me. I came here from the Udemy free course of you. Appreciate for what you are doing. Kindness and loves from Turkey…

    1. Louise says:

      Really glad it’s useful. Take care.

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