There’s only one reason writers ever talk about outlining. It’s a tool that’s supposed to make our jobs easier. But it isn’t always clear how to accomplish that. Do you just start writing a list of events that might happen in this story? Do you create an actual Roman-numeral outline like you were taught in high school? But… isn’t that awfully arbitrary? And, as such, how exactly is it supposed to give you a great story right out of the gates?
Good questions, all. Perhaps it’s time we stop thinking about outlining as outlining and, instead, call it structured brainstorming. Outlining is a period of discovery, in which you get to explore the far boundaries of your story from a safe observatory post before diving headlong into the hurly-burly of the first draft.
Over the past decade, I have taught thousands of writers how to outline, through my website and books (and now my brand-new Outlining Your Novel Workbook software!). The system I’ve created starts with the big picture and slowly narrows its focus until you know enough about your story to do it justice in the first draft. The following three basic steps will help you create an easier writing process and brainstorm a better book.
Step #1: General Sketches
Before you can create a tightly structured scene outline, you must first discover your story’s big picture. You can do that by asking yourself the following questions:
Start by writing down everything you’ve already daydreamed about this story: full-blown scene ideas, characters, images that have flashed through your head, snippets of dialogue. These are the known points in your story, and from here, you’ll start filling in the blanks to create a cohesive and resonant whole.
- What are the plot holes?
Once you’ve laid out all your existing pieces, you can examine the blank spaces in between and then start connecting the dots.
This is where you start asking yourself, “What don’t I know about this story?” If you know you want this to happen before that happens, then what must occur in between to create a realistic causal link?
Keep asking and answering questions until a well-formed story begins to emerge.
- Who are the characters?
Purposefully explore your characters. Who are your leads? What do they want and why?
Pay special attention to your antagonists, since they will frame the entire conflict. They’re the ones who begin the conflict by standing in the way of your protagonist’s goals. But why are they standing in the way? What are their motives?
At this point, you don’t need to know everything about these characters. But plot, character, and theme must all evolve symbiotically. You can’t write a cohesive plot without also knowing how your characters are driving it in thematically meaningful ways.
- What is the conflict?
The deeper you get into your exploration of character, the more clearly your conflict will begin to emerge. Conflict is not arguments or violence or even confrontation. Conflict is simply an obstacle placed between a character and his goal. When two characters’ goals interfere with each other, that’s where truly thematic conflict begins to arise.
- What is the theme?
Theme arises from the intersection of plot and character. Theme is the summation of the character’s inner evolution, which, in turn, both drives and is driven by the outer conflict in the plot. As you begin to explore your characters’ inner needs and their outer desires, start looking for the corresponding Lie and Truth that will tell you what your theme is.
Step #2: Character Sketches
Once you’ve finished working through all the major story questions in the General Sketches, you’re ready to get down and dirty with your characters. I recommend interviewing them. You can do this “freehand,” simply by throwing them onto the page and starting a conversation. However, I find my best results when I use a guided interview process with specific questions. I have curated a list of over 100 questions, which I use on all my POV characters and antagonists.
This can be a lengthy process, but fully understanding your characters is key to bringing them to life on the page in purposeful and meaningful ways.
Step #3: Scene Outline
Finally, you’re ready to write the scene outline. When most people think “outline,” this is usually what first springs to mind. But as you can see, you’re not ready to write a scene outline until you’ve first thoroughly explored your story and brainstormed your way to its best options.
Your scene outline can be as simple as a sentence-long description. Or, like me, you may prefer to go seriously in-depth, working your way through the full cause-and-effect of proper scene structure, exploring your character’s motivations and reactions scene-by-scene, and equipping yourself to fully choreograph each scene when the time comes to actually write it in the first draft.
Your outlining process should be highly personalized. Figure out what you’re trying to accomplish and dig down to whatever level of information will best optimize your creativity in the first draft. Outlining is a tool to help you better understand and control your stories. But it should also be fun. Surrender to the wild possibilities of brainstorming and enjoy the ride!
K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY, NIEA, and Lyra Award-winning and internationally published author of Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.