On Outlines: How Long, How Detailed, How Come?

We’re still talking craft this month in preparation for NaNoWriMo. Today the topic is: outlines!


Paul Decker asks: “When outlining, do you make an actual outline word document? If so, how detailed do you get before starting your first draft? Do you have your chapters separated out? About how long is it?”


Yes, I like to make my outline using Word. It’s easiest for me to start with a single file that has my outline, character profiles, setting notes, research notes, etc., all pulled together into one place. Once the file gets to be too long and it becomes hard to find what I need, then I’ll divide the notes into different files (and, these days, import them into Scrivener). That’s usually an indication to me that it’s time to start writing!


Last year I tried using the outlining method that Karen Wiesner describes in her book “First Draft in 30 Days” in order to outline WINTER (Book Four). That was by far the most thorough outline I’ve ever done. It took a solid, focused month to create and it ended up being about 60 pages long—one page per scene. Each page included notes on character POV, motivation, setting details, subplots, foreshadowing , theme, internal and external conflict, and plot points.


I will say that turned into the best first draft I’ve ever written, however, it still needs a lot of work and I’m not convinced that the crazy-detailed outline saved me much time or headache, all things considered. However, if you’re the type that likes to have everything neat and tidy and planned out beforehand, Wiesner’s book could be a great resource.


As for me, I’m back to my old process that I used for CINDER, SCARLET, and CRESS.


Essentially, my “outline” is more like a detailed synopsis in which I write a paragraph-long summary for each scene or chapter. These scene summaries tend to be pretty vague—just enough to suggest the main plot points and which characters are involved.


This is the (eventual) summary for the first chapter of CINDER:


In the marketplace, Cinder has booth, known as the best mechanic in New Beijing. She has her foot off, on the table. Kai brings Nainsi, an android, to be fixed. He says she contains secret information. Iko shows up with new foot. Cinder suggests that it’s for someone else so Kai won’t know she’s cyborg. Kai leaves. Cinder puts on her new foot. The baker, Sacha, gets the plague. The market shuts down. Cinder and Iko hide in booth.


Some scenes in my outline may be even more vague, such as:


Something between Cinder and Peony, show friendship.


On the other hand, there’s usually a handful of scenes that go into much more detail, particularly climax chapters, because those tend to pop into my head early in the process. My summaries for those might include snippets of dialogue or specific details on how I want the action to play out.


Using this method, I usually end up with 30 to 50 scene summaries (depending on the scope of the book and amount of subplots), coming in at around 5 or 6 single-spaced pages. The outline I’m working on right now, for Secret NaNo Project 2012, is currently 43 scene summaries and 5 pages long. I expect the page count to grow as I continue to add detail and depth between now and November 1, but I don’t think I’ll be adding too many more scenes at this point.


I like this method because it gives an at-a-glance look at the entire book and where the plot is heading at any given point, while still leaving lots of wiggle room in case I get a great idea that I want to explore during the draft. The great thing about outlines is that they can be modified, restructured, rearranged, added to, or deleted from without any real heartache, so that if your story goes off course, you can always tweak the outline first to get it back on track, rather than spending pages meandering through an aimless draft.


I also find that, by knowing what the main purpose is of every scene but not exactly how that scene will play out, I can keep the story moving forward while still allowing myself to be surprised by the wacky, unexpected things that are bound to happen during the writing of the book.


In addition to creating the outline / scene summaries, I also use the planning stage to make brief character and setting profiles, which I’ll talk about in a future post.