From Idea to Finished, Step 2: The Outline

Writing this blog post is coming at an optimal time, as I’m about to start outlining my superhero story within the next couple of weeks.



I’ll be honest. No matter how many books I outline, I always find this part of the process intimidating. Part of me always wants to wait. Research more! Brainstorm more! You’re not ready yet!  You still barely know your characters! You still hardly know what’s going to happen in the plot! How do you possibly think you can turn this random jumble of scene ideas and research notes into a complete story?



It’s a frightful thing, the Writer’s Brain.



So I suppose the first step of outlining is to quiet those voices and jump in. You  have to start somewhere, after all.



Reviewing My Notes


In my last entry I talked about gathering all of my ideas and notes into one file and dividing it into sections: Character Ideas, Potential Scenes, World-Building, etc.



As I begin the outlining process, I review these notes, especially the scene ideas, and start re-ordering them.



– What obviously comes at the beginning?


– What is obviously related to the climax or resolution and therefore comes toward the end?


– What scenes do I have absolutely no idea where they belong, and therefore we’re going to stick them somewhere in the middle for now?




This will be sparse and messy. That’s okay. We’re just getting started.



Thinking About Characters


You sometimes hear about how there are “plot-focused writers” and “character-focused writers,” and while I suppose it’s true that most of lean one way or the other (I would be plot-focused), most writers will tell you that the two are inseparable. What is plot? It’s characters . . . doing stuff.



So my characters come into my outlining process really early on.



First up: The protagonist.



Usually by this point, I have a generic idea of who they are. Boy or girl? How old? What are their vague life circumstances? (Rich vs. poor, big family vs. orphan, going to school vs. working, etc.)



Now I start asking myself focused questions, with two goals in mind:



A: I want to start turning this shadowy figure into a real person. (When I’m lucky, this is easy. Some characters just know who they are and can’t wait to tell you. Others might require multiple drafts of a book before I feel that I really have them figured out.)



B: I want to start connecting them to a plot.



To do this, I ask myself things like:



– What does this character want?

Knowing your character’s immediate goal will give them something to do in those first few chapters. Giving them larger goals to uncover throughout the story will keep them chugging forward.



– What does this character need?

Not always the same thing as wanting! For me, the characters’ needs are usually emotional. They need: personal acceptance, or to find a group that they belong in, or to become an independent person. (If this sounds like the start of a theme to you, that’s because it is. I don’t seriously start to think about themes until probably the final revision rounds of my books, but they do start churning around in my head way back here at the beginning.)



– What is opposing them?

Your character wants something right away, but if they get it right away—story over! So what is keeping them from achieving their goals? This will probably change over the course of the story, so if you can think of a few conflicts now, all the better!

(Also keep in mind that conflicts can be internal and external. Your protagonist might have an archenemy standing in their way… but they also might have self-doubts that are causing them to sabotage their own efforts. Or they might have dueling wants/needs. For example: Cinder wants to escape the poisonous household of her cruel stepmother, but she also wants to stay and take care of her little sister. These goals are at odds with each other. Ha—conflict!)



– What is this person afraid of?

Whatever your character is afraid of, they should have to face it at some point in the story. Perhaps even multiple times before they defeat that fear. Look—plot!



– What does this character’s day-to-day life look like? Where do they go? What do they do?

For example, if your character is in school, probably some important parts of the plot will revolve around school. Likewise if they have a job. Start thinking about possible conflicts they might encounter in these settings.




So there’s the protagonist. I’ll do the same sort of Q&A with the love interest and villain (if there is one), and any other major characters.




Building The Plot Off the Character


As I dig deeper, more ideas unravel. New scenes start to pop into my head. My thought process starts to look something like this . . .




Cinder is afraid of the cyborg draft and letumosis, so I know at some point she’ll come face to face with that fear.


Maybe cyborgs are being used as experiments for the plague. Maybe Cinder becomes a guinea pig herself. Maybe she runs into the prince at the labs and has to once again hide the fact that she’s cyborg from him!



But wait. How would she become a guinea pig in the first place? Does she volunteer? If so—why?




No—her stepmother volunteers her!



But if her stepmother volunteers her now . . . why didn’t she do it before? She has to have a personal investment. A reason to make this decision now.



Maybe someone she knows catches the plague and she’s suddenly desperate for there to be a cure. Maybe it’s Peony!



So okay, Peony catches the plague, and Cinder’s stepmother volunteers her for plague research, and she goes to the labs and the prince sees her and . . . then what happens?



Etc. etc.





I’ll try to let the story play itself out as far as I can take it. Sometimes this might just be for a scene or two, sometimes it will seem like half the plot works itself out in one plotting session. (Gosh those are good days!)



As I’m coming up with new scene ideas and new twists, I’m constantly trying to plug them into that original framework I started with and connect the dots.



Piecing It Together

As the story expands, I’ll get to a point where I’m asking one question over and over again:



And then what happens?



And then what happens?



And then what happens?



I try to make each scene naturally progress into the next scene as much as possible. This will get more complicated as I add in subplots, as not every subplot is going to be represented in every scene, but for the most part every action should result in a reaction which will result in the next action.


In other words:


You character makes a decision > they act on that decision > things go bad (or good?) leading them to make another decision > they act on that decision > and on and on.



When you get stuck: Ask yourself, what’s the worst thing that could happen to my characters right now? Do that. It’s a pretty handy trick. I use it a lot.



By this point—hopefully—something like a story is starting to emerge. You have your beginning. You have an ending. You have things happening in the middle that are spurred on by your character’s wants and goals, you have opposition and conflict meeting them at every turn, you have a natural progression of events. At least . . . a sort-of natural progression of events.



You know, in theory.



(If it seems as though my outline process might be a little on the sketchy side, that’s because it totally is. But hey, whatever works.)



Hitting the Plot Points


Eventually I start running into brick walls with all my planning and plotting. I have the bare bones of a plot, but things maybe aren’t fitting together quite as well as I’d like. There are probably a lot of lingering plot holes. There are a few subplots in need of attention.



When I get to that point, I start getting serious about capital-P Plotting.



There are lots of resources that break down basic plot structure but my personal favorite is the one that Dan Wells explains in this brilliant video series. It’s about 50 minutes in total and worth every second. I’ve watched the whole series multiple times. It’s really, really helpful.



I’m also fond of the structure discussed in the screenwriting guide Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.



With words like “inciting incident” and “plot reversal” rolling around in my head, I start looking at my outline with new eyes, trying to determine if the major plot points are all accounted for and if they happen at the most opportune times at the story. Does my inciting incident come too late? Does my climax come too early?  Am I missing a plot point entirely?



I move things around.



I add new scenes and remove others.



I try to keep the plot moving forward.



I ask myself, over and over, what happens next?




A Word on “Figuring It All Out”


I don’t. Figure it all out, that is. I know of writers who do write super intense, long, detailed outlines in which every question is answered, every plot hole filled. My outlines are a lot more sparse than that.



My goal with an outline is to make sure I have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that they all connect to each other in a somewhat logical way. I want to make sure that my stakes are increasing and that the story builds up to a satisfactory climax and resolution.



My outline for Heartless was only 3,000 words long, but it covered the major plot points and gave me an idea of how the story would connect from beginning to middle to end. That’s all I’m going for!



I will still have questions when I’m done outlining, and I’ve taken to underlining those so that I know at a glance what “problems” I still have to work through.



Things like: Cinder runs into Kai (where/how?) and finds out about the antidote. Or, Scarlet and Wolf decide they have to take the train to Paris (but why can’t they just take her podship?). Or, Add something about Levana in this scene—a press conference?



Even through I won’t have all the questions answered, I trust that they will reveal themselves as I start to write. I also know that things always, always, always change when I launch into my first draft, and it doesn’t seem that any amount of plotting and outlining can keep that from happening. Characters will surprise you. Plot twists will catch you off-guard. That’s part of what makes it fun! So I’m happy to leave some space for the story to grow and change—it will regardless, so I might as well expect it from the beginning.




Once I feel as though I have a pretty basic roadmap to go by, I consider my outline done. It’s time to move on to the first draft! Stay tuned.



Note: I’m gathering questions and will do a special Q&A post at the end of this series, so keep them coming!