Outlining Process

I fall firmly into the “plotter” category, preferring to plan things in advance when I write a book. I generally have dozens of pages of notes and an outline before I start writing page one.

I wasn’t always that way—in high school, I wrote a (really terrible) novel (on notepads, in pen) with the rule I absolutely couldn’t plan anything in advance, so whatever I was writing would be a surprise to me as I was writing it. That was fun, but the result was… I’m going with unsalvageable. Some people may be cool enough to write a coherent story without an outline, but if I try, it apparently winds up like a bad shonen manga, with way too many fight scenes and no plot advancement. (Or maybe that was just teen me, but I’m not taking any chances.)

Everyone’s writing process is different, of course, and you should go with what works for you. But here are some things I do when developing an outline:

Early Brainstorming Phase – First I roll ideas around in my head for a while, without writing things down. This way I don’t feel locked in to anything during the very early stages when the idea is fragile and new.

Notes Phase – I start writing down all my brainstormy ideas (for plot elements, characters, scenes, you name it) in one doc, in any order, with any level of detail. I’ll get new, conflicting ideas and write those down, too. It’s messy and repetitive and can easily sprawl out to 20-40 pages of notes.

Shaping Phase – This is when I start trying to pull all my brain splooge together into a coherent, well-shaped story. A lot of it feels like putting a puzzle together… If you could make new pieces or redraw the pieces you have to make it work. I can vaguely see and feel the shape the book is trying to form, and I’m muddling my way along to refine and improve that shape. Things I do during this phase often include (but are not limited to):

  • Put scene ideas in a working chronological order. Probably switch this order around a bunch of times trying to figure out what’s best.
  • Summarize all my plot arcs to make sure they follow a line that is compelling and makes sense.
  • Summarize (briefly) all my major characters’ arcs, to make sure they have one, and that they make important choices, have agency, change, etc.
  • Break outline into acts and look at the arc for each act.
  • Look for places to weave stuff together and combine scenes/plotlines/characters/etc: any structural element is stronger if it’s fulfilling multiple functions
  • Describe and define the overall arc for the book. Make sure what I’ve got is fitting into and supporting that arc.

The process varies each time. Here’s a post I made on one process I used for a multi-POV outline that worked pretty well for me.

Revising Phase – When I start to have a rough, first-pass outline, I take a critical look at it. It’s probably a mess, and certainly needs revision. I might:

  • Ask these outline questions (woo more previous posts!)
  • Look for weak points: dribbling along the status quo, “and then some stuff happens/time passes,” stretches where the MC isn’t driving the action, places where the stakes are low or unclear, fuzzy character motivations (would she really do that?), stuff that’s extraneous or repetitive, etc.
  • Do a word count estimate and check whether each section or act of the book takes up roughly the percentage of the book I want it to. Also check whether I have enough material to make the book the right length, or if I need to add more subplots or pare things down.

In my latest outline, I tried something new—looking for good chapter break places before writing the chapters—and it was really helpful. I may make a separate post about that later.

Writing Phase – Eventually I realize I am spending waaaaaay too much time twiddling with my outline and need to get actually writing the book. Ideally, I realize this early on, before I lock down my outline in too much detail, because it really is important for me to leave the outline flexible. It’s going to change when I start actually writing the book—it always does.

Characters might decide to do different things than my outline dictates. I might go to write a scene and feel like no, this isn’t where the story is heading anymore. Or I might get to a scene and go ugh, I don’t want to write this, which is always the sign of a problem. Or I might get new ideas that are more awesome than the old ideas. Anything could happen.So I update and edit my outline as I go, but it’s a different process at that point.

Originally, the outline is an exploration—it’s a tool for finding the path of the story.

Once I start writing, changes I make to the outline are more likely to be mapping known territory: updating the outline to match the unfolding story in my head.

About Melissa Caruso

I'm the author of THE TETHERED MAGE, first in the Swords & Fire trilogy, out now from Orbit Books. I write fantasy novels. I love tea, adventure, and the great outdoors. I live in Massachusetts with my husband, two amazing daughters, three cats, and a Labrador. Represented by Naomi Davis of Inklings Literary. View all posts by Melissa Caruso

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