Last month I started a series on my writing process! I started this series largely because a lot of you asked for it! The first post was all about brainstorming. If you’ve read that post, you know most of my brainstorming happens in the form of freewriting. Once I’ve freewritten the story to death and I have a good idea about the characters, the world, and the general plot and storylines, it’s time to make it start to look like a book. For me, this means outlining!
Of course, not every writer is outliner. You may have heard that there are generally two schools of thought for prewriting. The planners who outline and try to work out their story first, and the pantsers, who fly by the seat of the paints and figure the story out as they go. I am definitively a planner. What I’ve come to realize is that when I write, I don’t do well when I try to do two things at once. I can’t think about the story and write the story at the same time. Outlining gives me the space to think first and write second. I’ve also learned that if I don’t know what to write next, I’m more likely to let my characters wander aimlessly, and I have a hard time staying motivated and showing up on a regular basis.
I’ve also found that I get the most out of my story if I have a series out outlines that get progressively more detailed and specific. This gives me and my story room to grow and evolve. Here’s how I approach my outlines:
1) Outline the Plot
I already have an idea of what I want the plot to look like from my freewriting stage. Now it’s time to give that plot an actual plot-like structure. My outlining starts with my favorite plot structure is this three-act structure. I like this plot structure because it focuses on consistently raising the tension in the story, which helps create a steady build to the climax. I also like it because it has more crisis points/rising actions than most plot structures I’ve come across. Thinking of my story like this helps me create a more balanced and consistent story. Here’s an example of an early plot outline from Enemy Exposure:
Each important plot point gets its own color in the chart, then I briefly expand on each point around the structure. I don’t plot every storyline like this–just the main plot. That’s what ultimately drives the story, so that’s my main concern. But I do tend to have a bullet point outline for each storyline I use so I know what needs to happen and can plan accordingly when the time comes.
2) Outline the Character Arc
Once I have the plot outlined, I go back and make a second chart just like the first, only this time, it’s for my character. I look at each of the plot points I worked out in the previous outline and I figure out how they tie into my character’s development. Typically in my brainstorming, I’ve come up with one big developmental lesson I want my main character to learn. In order to maximize my plot, I try to make sure that each plot point pushes my character closer to learning this lesson.
For example, in my first book, I wanted my main character to learn to trust people, so I made sure each plot point somehow challenged her to trust the other characters more than she was generally comfortable with. I try to keep the same pacing as the plot here. So, in the beginning, the developmental challenges for my character will be relatively small and grow as the story progresses. This outline typically looks the same as the one above. For more on how I use plot and character together, check out this post!
3) Pacing Outline
Once I have the plot and character outlines done, I start to think about how these points will fit into the overall book. I want to make sure I have the crisis points evenly distributed so there’s a consistent build throughout the book. To help with that, I make a pacing outline. I typically shoot for thirty chapters in a first draft. (There’s no real reason for this–I just found that’s a good marker for me.) I take a page in my notebook and write the chapter numbers down the left side of the page. Then I go through and estimate roughly where I should hit each point of crisis. I put a small dot next to those chapter numbers. Sometimes I have to move them a chapter or two, but I try to keep it close to my original estimate.
Next, I go to each chapter and write one or two key events that happen in that chapter with a focus on building to the next plot point. I’ll also touch on key moments in my subplots, but they’re still not my primary goal. I try to keep it short, but as you’ll see, I typically have a hard time with this and end up squeezing as much as I can onto each line. Sometimes as I’m outlining, I’ll add post-its with key scenes I want to make sure I include in the final detailed outline. Here’s one of Enemy Exposure‘s pacing outlines:
4) Detailed Outline
Now that I’ve got my story paced, it’s time to really dig in and figure out what’s going to happen in each chapter. For this outline, I get three sheets of computer paper and position them so they’re landscape. Then I fold them so I end up with six squares. Each square is a chapter. I fill the page front a back, so each piece of paper has twelve chapters. Then I go through and figure out exactly what will happen in each chapter. This is also where I start to really consider each storyline–there’s typically around five or six. I use a different colored pen for each plotline. This makes outlining more fun for me, and it also makes it easy to see if a plotline appearing consistently enough. I’ll use post-its if I want to add to a chapter or make a change based on something I work out later in the outline. Here’s some of an Enemy Exposure outline:
A lot of times, if there’s going to be a problem in my story, I find it in the outline. It shows me if a storyline is too flat or if there’s an aspect of my characters or world I need to develop more before I write. However, there’s no substitute for actually writing the story and discovering what it is and isn’t supposed to be. If you follow me on Instagram, you know I still do a fair amount of revision. The biggest way these outlines help me is to give me a direction and a goal. They make it so every day, when I sit down to write, I know exactly what I need to do, which makes it easier to keep moving my story forward.
I hope this gives you a good idea of how I use outlining and how it may help your process!
You can find Part Three: Drafting here!
Now it’s your turn: Are you an outliner? How much outlining do you do? Tell me about it in the comments!
Pin it up!