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After Friday’s post, I had a few people ask for more details about outlining. Every writer is different, and I am all for people discovering what works for them. So here are a couple tips to pull away about outlining in general, and then I’ll share how I personally outline by giving steps you could follow (though you can definitely warp it to fit your own style!).

TIP: Don’t Force Your Plot: If it doesn’t feel natural to you the writer, it won’t feel natural to the reader. This also goes along with the idea that sometimes being complicated is just forcing it.

TIP: Remember the Rule of Three: The Rule of Three is how a character must overcome a challenge or obstacle by failing three times first. An great example of this is at the end of HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHEONIX, Harry is in a room full of doors trying to find a certain room. He opens three doors (four if you count the one that stays locked) before he finds the room he wants. In Invisible, my protagonist can phase through objects, but she has a fear of phasing her whole body through anything because she’s afraid of brain damage or getting stuck. She refuses to phase her body through something three times before she finally gets the courage to step through a wall.

Why is it important? First, it provides a challenge for the character. And second, it’s not as believable for the reader if the character is capable of doing something right at the start. There are exceptions to the rule, but overall 2 is not enough, and 4 is too many times.

TIP: Don’t Stop Outlining: Once you’ve finished your story, go back and outline what you’ve done. It helps you see it clearer so you can spot your weaknesses and what needs to be revised. You can see an example of this in my previous post.

How I Outline

1. Write down all my thoughts on a piece of paper to get the story idea out there. Some people use flow charts, others might do a cluster or a Venn diagram. I just throw my thoughts down on paper in random sentences of what I want my story to be. With TLO, I wrote down every conspiracy theory out there and then circled which ones would work in my book. I also wrote down where I saw the plot going–if the world was being destroyed, there had to be a safe area for the elected people. I wanted my protagonist to be chosen for this safe area, and be skilled enough that they would send her out on “missions” to the outside (mostly so the reader could see the world slowly falling apart). In this same sitting, I wrote down the first page (which is almost the same as it is now — except I added the world-building in) and my outline for the first three chapters.

2. Write my pitches. Yes, I do this right at the start. It’s so much easier for me to put my book in one sentence and one short paragraph at this stage. And when I am writing, I have the pitch close by so I constantly remember that is the focus of my story.

3. Know the Setting /Character.

Almost every time I get a story idea, I usually know exactly who my protagonist is and what she wants. With TLO, this wasn’t the case. I had a great story idea (What if the government executed Armageddon–“natural” disasters and all–as a form of Eugenics ) and I had to come up with a character that matched the story. I chose someone hard, with her character arc going from apathetic to someone who would give her life to help others. I then added scenes that would help achieve that goal. I also realized my weakness of character likability at the beginning, and I plotted to help strengthen that area. With side characters, I write down the name (that sometimes changes) and the write down their basic physical descriptions and character traits.

For setting, I write down any ideas and I start to research. FOR TLO, I looked through architecture magazines that focused on modern styles, and copied almost everything from that. I printed of pages for my BINDER OF DOOM (aka story reference guide) with a list of sentences I would use to describe that setting for those scenes. I have a harder time with setting descriptions, so if I work it out all now it’s easier for me to add later.

4. Write down all the major scenes I want in my book. I’m a scene person, and so my story is a progression from one scene to another. At this point, I’ve been imagining what would happen in my story so I’ve fleshed out the story all the way to the ending.

5. Connect those scenes with filler. I go through and connect all my major scenes together. How do they get from this scene where Mykelle is accepted into the Colony to where she is actually inside?

6. Solidify outline. This is the part where I go through and write down each chapter and what I want to happen in the chapter. Usually it’s just one or two lines for each chapter. As I go through and write, I start fleshing this out so it becomes a map of each chapter, what scenes are in that chapter, and what happens in those scenes (and the word count for that chapter).

7. Write synopsis and the ending.

I write my synopsis before I really dive into my story. Sometimes I have the first 5 or so chapters written, but I’ve found that writing the synopsis beforehand makes sure your outline is cohesive. Some people don’t like to do this, because then there is no surprise. For me, the surprise is in the dialogue and character interactions, and in actually living the scene as the words come alive. But I made the mistake of trying NOT to write a synopsis for TLO, and ended up with two major inconsistencies (things that basically didn’t make sense) and didn’t fully realize until I finally made myself write a synopsis.

I’m weird, and I have always written my ending first. Sometimes even before the first chapter, but always before chapter five. I have to know where my story is going, and how my character has changed at the end of the book. Then I can go back and write up to that point. I honestly don’t know any other writer who does this, but it’s a critical step for me.

8. Write. This is the part where I actually dive into the story.

9. Fix outline. After writing my first draft and every revision, I go back and compare to my outline. I also will add in details to my outline after I do research. As I said, my outline is detailed by CHAPTER and WHAT HAPPENS IN THAT CHAPTER. It’s usually just black type, so I go in and add color for things I want to change in each scene, or things that need to be fixed. Then when I revise, I work off my outline and I’m like: Okay, this scene I have to add more sensory descriptions and change the end of the scene to this.

I keep alternating between steps 8 and 9 as I flesh out my story. Every revision I stare at the outline, because it’s my story in basic form and I can tell easier where I should move things and what I should cut.

So there you have it!

Now I’m curious – how do YOU outline? Does anyone else write their last chapter first??

15 thoughts on “An Example of Outlining a Fiction Novel

  1. Great breakdown, thanks! I’ve never outlined before drafting because I have to write each scene out before I know where it’s going, and so I can’t write the next scene until then. I know it’s a weakness because even though my scenes flow together well in that first draft, my story is not cohesive in the first draft, and when I revise it is very hard for me to change the scenes around! But my next novel is a dystopia, and as I began doing that first step of jotting down thoughts, I knew I’d have to outline first this time around. It makes me a little sad, because I love the surprise of the story unfolding as I draft, but what you said about dialogue makes me feel better about it. Thanks again!

    1. Wow, that’s really interesting to see how you do it! I’m so the opposite as in I CAN’T write a scene until I know where it’s going. And I really do feel like there are so many surprises (big and small) that pop up as I’m actually writing, it’s great. Like my outline might show my A gets to Z, but in the actual writing I find out WHY. I know that sounds so crazy, but it’s like “I know this happens, but why in the world does it happen?” And then something comes out in writing, and I find that missing piece and all of the sudden it all just fits! It’s one of the best feelings, I promise.

  2. You’re so freakin’ organized!

    I actually don’t outline, but I do a fair amount of pre-writing, world-building, character development, jotting down random ideas. But it’s all very haphazard. I am not the most organized person and any order in my life is a direct result of my husband, who makes spreadsheets to organize or movies and food.

    It’s so interesting to see all the different processes.

    1. That is so funny! But you know what, every writer is different and it works for them, so go you! Sometimes I wonder if I make my plots too complicated and that’s why I need detailed outlines – so I don’t confuse myself. Because it starts to get to crazy in my head… I’m also a very visual person, so once I see it written down I can visualize it better.

  3. I’m afraid I don’t write my last chapter first. 🙂 When I outline, I use a program called Freemind to map out the story in three acts with seven sections (like this: http://shalleemcarthur.blogspot.com/2011/01/writing-process-outline-and-first-draft.html). I often write my query early on as well, because that really helps the story stay focused.

    I do a lot of character and world sketching beforehand, and then discover a lot more of that while I write. My drafts also end up very different plot-wise than my outline, so I have to “re-outline” before I move on to my rewrites.

    Thanks for sharing your outline process, Chersti. It’s always fun to see how other people do it. 🙂

    1. You don’t write your chapter first?! I wonder if it’s more of a surprise when you get there then. For me, it really gets to the point when I’m around chapter 5 and I can’t keep writing until I know where it is going. And so I’ll let the manuscript sit until I have it figured out. It is just so weird 🙂

      Thanks for sharing the program – that’s pretty cool. My plots also do twist and change in revisions, as I combine things and just take things out.

  4. Thanks, you’ve given me some great ideas. I think I know now why my last book was so difficult to fix. I’m going to start at the begining of my new one and get it right at the first.

    1. That is exactly how I felt about my first book I wrote ages ago. It’s nice to know that every book gets a little easier (in that sense) because you realize what you did wrong on the last book and can fix it on the next book. 🙂 Good luck!

  5. I’ve never been a good outlining-er. 🙂
    However, it really does help a great deal. I used the large worksheet outline method Chersti blogged about recently. In fact I’m in some of those pictures. I went ape crazy on the outline, and now I have freaking awesome notes for each chapter, and I’m able to read through each thread (such as Main character arc, or a concept that runs through the story) and I think its great.

    However, I still have to do that exploratory draft first before I begin outlining. I get ideas and just want to run with them, but as soon as I feel the story drag for lack of cohesion, I start outlining to work out the major kinks.

    1. You should send me pics of your finished outline – proof that THE GRAND EXPERIMENT OF OUTLINING actually worked. 🙂 And I’m all for an exploratory draft. It can help iron out your character and other things. Outlining after just makes sure your story makes sense, and pulls it all together.

  6. This is fantastic~ I outline, but it’s pretty loose and not as organized as I’d like. This post is getting bookmarked as a reference page! I love that you mention that outlining doesn’t stop when the book is finished. So many things can be caught/improved after that first draft is complete. Thanks for the great post 🙂

    1. Thank you so much for your great comment! I feel honored to be bookmarked 🙂 I hope it helps with your current writing project – I know that it’s helped me iron out some kinks.

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