There are so many different ways to outline and I’ve tried many of them, but so far the following process is what has worked best for me. For a good structure, I decided to ask those same questions that K.M Weiland asked in her author interviews in her book Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success. This was the result:
Can you describe your outlining process?
Scrivener and other word processing programs are great.
Before I became enlightened to the organization tools in Scrivener, I had an excel spreadsheet where I collected the pages and pages of, both hand-written and typed, relevant brainstorming ideas about my characters and world building questions. I had most of the notes in a single document so that I could access the information fairly quickly while writing. The only problem with Excel is that it became cumbersome when I had long passages to save. Now I use Scrivener because I can keep all my notes, pictures & diagrams, outline, and manuscript in the same place. This is super helpful, especially when I can’t remember what file I left some piece of brainstorming information inside.
As far as the story outline is concerned, I start by making a list of the general ideas that I have about what’s supposed to happen in the story. I don’t number anything; instead, I use bullet points. I usually abbreviate or have short names for characters in my bullet point outlines for quick typing.
- X, J, & A meet up with K & B just before the rebel meeting. They discuss whether or not the rebels are doing the right thing by becoming more violent with their protests.
- J is given his first assignment by the rebels.
- Antagonist attacks the rebel meeting & children are kidnapped.
When my list is complete, I go to Scrivener and create a note card for each bullet point. I was happy to find a Scrivener template that I could use for the outlining and planning process from helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com. Having separate note cards on Scrivener gives me the flexibility to move scenes around easily as needed. I analyze each bullet point, determine an initial logical flow for the story, and fit the scenes into the 3 Act structure. I decide which scenes are the story’s turning points, both major and minor, which scenes are informational scenes, and brainstorm to see if I’ve missed any key points.
Then I look at each scene individually to figure out what’s happening and answer important story questions: 1) Write a general statement about the scene (this will help jog my memory and give me a jumping off point when I sit down to write the scene) 2) Who will be in this scene? 3) Where is the scene set? 4) What is the character’s goal? 5) What is the character’s motivation behind that goal? 6) What is the conflict surrounding that goal? and 7) What is the outcome or what are the consequences? The answers to these questions let me know what I need to accomplish in the scene, but this still allows all the flexibility on how to relay that information to the reader.
- General Statement: Soldiers attacks the rebel meeting, kill adults, & kidnap children
- Who will be in this scene? X (POV), J, A, and soldiers
- Where is the scene set? An abandoned mining cave on the outskirts of Gan City on planet Kinarra
- Goal: X wants to protect her siblings from harm and to get them to a safe-house ASAP
- Motivation: X loves her siblings, doesn’t want anything to happen to them, and her parents would be disappointed in her if she abandoned them
- Conflict: Soldiers attacks the meeting, capturing and killing people
- Consequence: X, J, & A are captured
Once I’ve gone through all the scenes, from beginning to end I review the overall flow again. Did I miss anything? Are there plot points that are redundant or that need to be added? This part of analyzing each scene individually used to give me problems. I would simply skim over answering any of the questions and just give a general idea. The problem with that is that I ended up writing more than I needed to and repeating myself more often than not. So, giving each scene a purpose and knowing I’m not being redundant is important.
What is the greatest benefit to outlining?
As far as planning is concerned, there is nothing more valuable that having thorough knowledge of your characters and setting. When you understand the world you’ve built so intimately you practically become the characters or feel like you are in the setting you’ve created. This experience can trick your subconscious into inserting details into your story that sound natural. Those are the moments I strive for.
As far as the actual outline is concerned, it’s helpful to have the road map that’s inside your head out on the page. It makes your story more tangible. Outlining ahead of time can also let you know if you are actual telling more than one story, or if you have enough depth for a series, or help you build the best structure for telling your story.
What is the biggest pitfall to outlining?
Feeling compelled to only do what the outline says.
Maybe you have a great idea for an exciting scene, but you don’t know if you should go with that idea because it’s not in your outline. You could just plunge in and hope for the best. I’ve wasted a lot of time on scenes that I ended up throwing away because I decided not to go with my outline. But then there were other times that I went on a tangent and I came up with a revolutionary idea that changed my story for the better. The only problem then was motivating myself to update my outline to keep me on track instead of just pantsing my way through the rest of the story, which I’ve also done to my own detriment. *sigh*
Do you ever recommend “Pantsing?”
I don’t feel qualified to answer this question. I pants the scenes from my outline all the time. I may know where I want to go but I don’t always know ahead of time how that’s going to happen. (i.e How will the soldiers capture the children? Well I don’t know, lets find out.) I just know I have to get from point A to point B so I can get to point C in the next scene.
I pants most of my short pieces. I tell myself that because short piece are short it’s alright to just go with the flow; I’ll edit and evaluate later.
I have tried pantsing a whole novel. It did not work out well for me. She story meandered a lot, some parts turned into melodrama, and worst of all I got pretty intimidated when I had to go through a 200k word manuscript. In the end most of it had to be scrapped and rewritten (not a very encouraging experience).
What is the most important contributing factor to a good outlining experience?
Being flexible and diligent.
You must be flexible with your road map, give yourself permission to make detours when a better idea presents itself. But when you take that detour you also have to be diligent enough to map out that detour your taking or risk leading yourself astray.
So I hope this helps and inspires you to look at your own writing process. It’s always helpful to know what other people do, you never know when you can adopt a new strategy that will work for you.