Look, a Craft Post!: Creating an Outline with Structure

This blog has been very news- and giveaway-centered over the past few months (which I guess is what happens when there’s always news and giveaways happening!), but I thought I’d spend some time this October talking craft.


It helps that I’ve been outlining my NaNoWriMo project for about six weeks now, which means I’m swimming in craft, which is always a good time to talk about it.


I’ve had some questions lately, so we’ll just start with those:


Lo asks: “I’d like to know how you go from researching/brainstorming to the outline, at what point do you know very specific things like the climax, the resolution and where the second book will pick up if you’re doing a series? How do you organize this?”


For me, the researching/brainstorming portion happens almost parallel with outlining. When I first open my brain up to ideas for a new story, I’m usually flooded with scene ideas. Some are very clear and solid—for example, I had a vision for the ball scene in CINDER very, very early on.* Others are more vague—possibly I know that I want to have a scene set in a haunted house or maybe I know there will be a scene in which the protagonist has a big fight with her best friend, or whatever. Clear or vague, I write everything down.


As I write, more ideas come. Some scenes will change as I learn more about the story, so I’ll make tweaks as I go. (Maybe it’s actually a fight with her father, not her best friend; maybe it isn’t a haunted house but an abandoned insane asylum.)

This is also when I start doing the majority of my research. I’ll read source material (such as different versions of the Cinderella tale or other retellings of it). With Cinder, I also read more science-fiction, which I hadn’t read a lot of prior to writing this series, watched a lot of Firefly, and read nonfiction articles on physics, technology, cyborgs, and the like. I researched China. I researched moon colonies and space travel and If Mind Control Were Possible, how might that work, exactly?**


Research will inevitably lead to new scene ideas and plot twists, and it also might lead to some big plot holes that you wouldn’t have otherwise seen, so I like to do a fair amount of it up front.


Once I have, oh, 20 to 30 scene ideas, I start piecing them together. It’s usually pretty obvious what scenes belong at The Beginning, because they set up the setting or the conflict or introduce a main story goal. Likewise, scenes that will clearly be a part of the climax are put near the end.


Some scenes will get combined (i.e., she has a big fight with her father AT the abandoned insane asylum!). Some scenes get cut because they have already become obsolete with where the book is heading.


That typically leaves a whole bunch of random scenes still floating around in the middle that don’t seem all that connected with what’s going on around them. This is the tricky part of the outlining process and I spend a lot of time finagling the overall progression of the story. I frequently ask myself, “Okay, then what? What happens next? What would he do now? What is her reaction to this?” I try to keep in mind that stories are made up of action and reaction scenes, or try / fail cycles, or however you want to think about it. I try to include a good mix of high-intensity scenes followed by information-is-revealed scenes.


TRY is an important word here, because I also know that no matter how much I plan and plot and structure, things will inevitably change in the writing of the draft and have to be re-structured when I start working on revisions. So I’m not super neurotic about all this, yet.


I’ve also taken to highlighting all of the questions that are still lingering in the outline, so I know exactly what still needs to be worked on. For example, Why does the villain show up at masquerade? Or, Insert some sort of awkward interaction with love interest here.


Some of these holes will be figured out in the outline, some of them might not be revealed until the drafting stage.


Mostly I’m aiming to have an outline that has:


1. A beginning, middle, and end.

2. A character with a goal

3. An inciting incident

4. An epic climax

5. A protagonist who changes over the course of the story


If I have those things, then I know there’s at least hope for the story, and everything else can be tweaked into submission later.


As for knowing where to end a book when it’s part of a series—I think it’s important that the book has some resolution (a character arc has been completed or the villain has been temporarily vanquished or what have you), while still leaving enough open that readers will be excited to read on. My strategy for the Lunar Chronicles has been to end each book when one adventure was over and the next was ready to begin. I guess that sounds kind of vague, but to me this is one of those “You’ll know it’s right when it feels right” questions.


Good luck!



* However, just because I had a clear idea of the ball scene in my head early on doesn’t mean it didn’t change a lot over the course of revisions. It did change. A lot.


** The Lunar gift was something else that changed in revisions (originally they could throw fireballs!), so the whole mind control thing actually wasn’t researched until the second or third draft. But had I known about it at the beginning, then I would have researched it much sooner.




Do you have any trips or tricks for the brainstorming / research / outlining portion of the process?


Also, if you have a craft question, go ahead and ask in the comments and maybe I’ll answer it later this month!