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Story Outlining Tips & Tricks

Pencil on paper

Recently one of my Instagram friends requested I give an in-depth explanation of my book outlining process. Some writers struggle with outlining, and many feel like it’s necessary. Most of us understand the importance of having an outline before you begin writing. A story outline acts as a blueprint or map of the entire novel you wish to construct and helps you get back on track when you feel lost. For many writers, outlining is a crucial yet frustrating part of the writing or pre-writing process.

So, that’s why I want to share my in-depth book outlining strategy. Ready for this?

I don’t really have one!


Pantser vs Plotter

This might come as a shock to some or seem amateurish to others, but the truth of the matter is, I don’t create an “in-depth” outline before I begin writing, nor do I believe that it’s mandatory before you start writing. I’m what those in the writing biz call a “Pantser,” which is a term I first heard from the folks at NaNoWriMo. A Pantser is basically a writer who just goes for it. They get an idea or maybe a character pops into their head and they just start writing the first scene that comes to mind. This is pretty much what I do. Those on the other end of the spectrum are called “Plotters,” writers who create detailed outlines and charts before they even pick up a pen.

Each of these techniques have their pros and cons, and there’s actually a hybrid—which is probably the category I fit into most realistically—a “Plantser.” We’re talking about super-serious stuff here folks, so buckle up and hang on.


Outlining in a Nutshell

My outlining process looks something like this: I get an idea, write it down, then come up with more action that fits around that scene. I spend a lot of time thinking about what train of events could lead a character to the scenario I came up with, or if the scene is at the beginning of a story, I consider the possible consequences of who that character is and their behaviors. This all usually happens while I’m writing, not before.

"Blood of Fire" started with a character, Valieri. I wanted to create a person who could control fire, then I envisioned what the consequences of that could be. I decided in her world this isn’t normal, and therefore, her government considers her a threat. Then all hell breaks loose. You’ll have to read the book to figure out what that means.

Below I’ve done my best to describe my very loose outlining process in greater detail. I’ll also include some tips I came up with to help those of you who need more specifics.

1) Begin with an idea or scene. Write it down, then think about which events would lead to that situation and the consequences that will dictate what happens afterward.

2) List your events in chronological order. Put them on individual notecards, if that helps. Using notecards will allow you the ability to literally switch the order of your scenes if you need to.

3) Keep the ending in mind and work towards that. Sometimes I’ll write the last scene and see what my characters will need to do in order to reach that outcome.

4) Once you have a handful of big important scenes, consider the smaller events that happen between the big action scenes. These are great times to build up your characters’ personalities, relationships, and background information. This is especially important for novels. You’ll need to balance action scenes with smaller “rest” scenes to keep readers engaged. If your story just bounces around between car-exploding, helicopter jumping, Old-West shootout scenes, readers won’t understand what’s going on in the big picture. Likewise, if you have too many small chatty scenes, your readers are going to get bored.


Outlines Aren't Everything

There are plenty of other important aspects of a novel that don’t have to do with the plot. If the storyline isn’t coming to you, jot down other things to get a better sense of the world you’ve created (whether that’s a literal fantasy world, or just the portion of our real world that your characters inhabit). Here are some suggestions:

1) Create character profiles. There are tons of great online questionnaires to help you understand who your main characters are. What do they look like? Where is their favorite place to hang out? What are their fears and how would they respond if faced with them?

2) Draw a world map—even if it’s a basic one with stick trees and happy clouds. If you’re writing fantasy, it can help to know what the world you’ve created looks like. How do your characters travel across the world and what do they encounter along the way? Even contemporary novels set in real places can benefit from this. If your book is set in New York City, get a map and decide where certain events will take place.

3) What is the history and lore of your world? What are your characters' backstories? I was feeling very bored while drafting "Blood of Fire" and decided to create a myth to describe how the Fiero people came to be. This ended up making it to the final draft and helped me not only create a scene in the first book, but now I have later scenes that will appear in the second and third books. Knowing what happened in the past will dictate what your characters might face in the future.

When it comes down to it, I truly believe a detailed outline is not necessary for a successful book. If you’re the type of person who needs lists and order, then go ahead and write down every detail of your book from start to finish. Just keep in mind that these events will likely change as you actually write the first draft, then change again when you present it to beta readers. However, if you’re more like me, there’s nothing wrong with having a loose list of ideas. It’s okay if the first draft is a little wonky and doesn’t quite make sense—that’s what editing it for!

I hope these tips helped. If you have any go-to outlining ideas or other requests for future blogs, let me know in the comments.

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