Tag Archives: Outlines

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.

Questions to Ask During Outlining (or Revision)

I’m working on a new outline now for my restart of my WIP. For every scene I add to my outline, I’m asking myself these questions:

What changes in the scene? – If nothing is really different at the end of the scene than it was at the start, I probably need to cut the scene or combine it with another one. This question helps me catch “show the status quo” scenes or “establish the characters” type scenes that don’t add anything to the story.

What is at stake in the scene? – One of the big reasons I’m rewriting my current WIP in the first place is that I realized while plenty was happening in the first 15K words, and my characters were learning things and doing stuff, they didn’t really have strong personal stakes yet. It doesn’t matter how action-packed a story is if the characters don’t have deep personal reasons to care about what’s going on.

What will keep the reader compelled to read on at the end of the scene? – This should be an exciting question or situation they want to know more about, and it can’t be the same thing scene after scene. I need short-term dramatic pull to get them to turn the page and start the next chapter as well as an intriguing overall arc.

Does the emotional tenor of the scene follow from what happened just before? – If I murder someone’s parents in Chapter 8, they shouldn’t be chatting about boys with their BFF over cannolis in Chapter 9. But it’s way too easy to do this by mistake.

Is the one-sentence description of the scene similar to that for another scene? – For example, in the outline I’m working on, I had two scenes where my outline description was basically “Character A confides in Character B, and Character B encourages Character A.” Same two characters. When I catch this kind of thing, usually I combine the scenes into one.

It’s easiest to ask these questions at the outlining stage, because then I can catch problems before I write the scenes and save myself work. However, these are also questions I try to ask myself during revision (especially if I’m looking to cut wordcount). If I’m honest with myself about the answers, they’ll catch a lot of problems for me.

Creating a Multi-POV Outline

I recently finished a rough outline for my new multi-POV YA novel, and it was tons of fun!

I’ve never written a truly multi-POV book before, and I was new to the challenges of outlining one. I had to consider not only what order events should unfold in, and how they should lead into each other, and all that, but I also had to consider which POV to show them from. At first I flailed a bit, but then I found a method that not only worked well for me, but turned it into kind of a fun logic puzzle which served to draw ideas together to form scenes that would carry more punch than those ideas would have separately.

I am SO not an expert at this, but nonetheless, I hereby share this method with you in case it’s useful to anyone.

For each arc or section of the book (around 5-7 chapters’ worth), I made lists of the following:

Events that Need to Happen – The key points that formed the backbone of the arc, and that absolutely had to happen in this section.

Perspectives I Need/Could Use – Characters who I should definitely use as POV characters at some point in the section, either because what was happening was particularly important to them, or because they were at a key point in their own internal arc regardless of what the main plot points were, or just because we hadn’t seen them in a while.

Relationships I Need to Develop – This might be romances blooming, friendships strengthening, enemies turning on each other, familial relationships that needed establishing, etc. Any relationship I needed to establish, strengthen, or change around this point in the book, whether it seemed to tie into the plot arc or not.

Things that COULD Happen but Don’t Need To – This was often a wonderfully fruitful list. Some items were things from my original sketchy outline that could happen here or elsewhere; others were new things I brainstormed on the spot; others might be ideas I’d originally had but wasn’t sure about anymore. I could draw scene ideas from here that combined well with the relationships, perspectives, or events in the previous categories, or I could send ideas here to die if they didn’t fit in anymore. It gave me freedom to brainstorm and be creative without feeling like whatever I put in this list was canon.

I had a fifth heading at the bottom of the page: Scenes This All Suggests. By the time I was done filling up the previous four lists, usually there were some clear combinations and clumps forming, where a needed POV fit perfectly with a needed plot event and a relationship I had to develop. (For a made-up example, I might go “Hey, I need ninjas to attack and kidnap Hubert, and I also need to establish romantic attraction between him and Bessie, so I can have the kidnapping scene be from her POV so she’s all worried about him and we know she likes him!”)

I found the lists made it easy to look at the elements of my developing story, moving them around and recombining them like Legos. Seeing the lists right there next to each other helped my brain make connections, and often I’d wind up excitedly brainstorming new scenes right there in my notes as I thought of cool ways to combine things to increase dramatic tension or add layers to a scene.

It was a lot of fun, and turned the outline from a messy tangle I couldn’t get a grip on to something I could understand and manipulate much more easily!

I’d love to hear from others who’ve written multi-POV. How did you handle the planning stage?