To talk about how I work with outlines, it’s best to start at the very beginning, when I attempted to write my first novel.
In the grim days of high school.
My first novel was fueled by all the things that I enjoyed as a young man—anime, JRPGs, Tolkien, Terry Brooks, Janny Wurts, probably a half-dozen things I’ve forgotten about by now, and a light seasoning of Three Doors Down and Linkin Park.
My shame is unutterable.
Regardless, lots of these things still fuel the stories I write today—barring Three Doors Down and Linkin Park—but I like to think that I now use those ingredients in a way that doesn’t produce hot garbage stew as the end result.
This first novel did not have an outline, as such. “What is an outline,” my young, foolish self scoffed, “but a way to strip the magic of discovery from writing?”
(My young, foolish self was a pretentious douche.)
I stalled out just a few chapters in, uncertain where the story was going. The novel lay fallow for many months, until one day, in Pre-Calculus, I began drawing a map of the fantasy world using one of my much-beloved Uniball pens.
I would discover later that my Pre-Calculus teacher, who would later become my AP Calculus AB teacher, was fully aware of my habit of writing during her class. She just didn’t give a rat’s ass because I got solid grades anyway.
This map, a specific set of locations that my protagonists could visit, became my very first ersatz outline. With its assistance, I finished the novel by the end of senior year, meaning I’d been working on it for only three years.
My second novel, the one I completed in 2014, began as the barest bones of an outline. It was for NaNoWriMo, after all. I couldn’t go in half-cocked. Mind you, this was NaNoWriMo 2011 I was writing this beastie for, so clearly the two pages of outline did not do the trick. There were too many holes to fill in, too many blocks to stumble over. I had to add another page to the outline before I was finished, and even that was of little assistance in the grand scheme of things. Clearly, that wouldn’t do.
My third novel (which is at over 100k words as of this writing and is not yet fully completed) got a much more thorough treatment in its outline. Eleven full pages—plot points out the ass, a full record of all the big events and how they carry the protagonists in the necessary directions.
Two bullets into the outline after two months of writing, I’d written over 60k words. As much progress as I was making, clearly this outline was not as much help as it needed to be, either.
The outline for my third novel, The Magician’s Ghost, started with full intent for it to be a brief 15k word jaunt for the specific purpose of offering it up to one publisher in particular. The thing about this story, though, was that it was a mystery. And for mysteries, of all things, you gotta have your shit straight as soon as you hit the ground. You need to know where the clues are located, why the characters find them, how the characters are pulled into the mystery in the first place, the motives of any antagonists—all that homework needed doing.
Which is how I wound up with a scene-by-scene outline, painstakingly detailing every logical step in the investigation (as well as the emotional states of the characters throughout), with extensive notes about the background of the mystery and how the final confrontation needed to play out to properly sum up both the whodunit and emotional aspects of the story.
This outline was a solid eighteen pages, 6.5k words all on its own. And with that outline I hammered out a 70k novel in about seven months. Whenever I wasn’t sure where to go next in the story, there wasn’t any need to stop and stare at the blank page until it came to me—I just had to click over to the tab with my outline, and bam, I’d know exactly what needed to happen next. It’s still gonna need heavy editing, sure, but structurally I feel like it’s sound as a brick house.
And you know what, High School Me? This kind of outlining doesn’t take any of the fun of discovery out of the process. Things are always mercurial. Things always change. New stuff around every corner. But it’s a whole hell of a lot easier to make the trip when you’ve got a detailed map at your side.
If you’re interested, here’s a quick snippet from the outline I’m currently working on:
This way I know that when I start the scene, there are certain things that are going to need to happen. Alice needs to see that her students’ live-fire mission is going to go to hell, then that will bring up painful memories, and Nyx will have to comfort her—and the fact that they’ve already taken a one-off trip to the Bone Zone is gonna hang over the whole thing like a collapsing tent of awkwardness.
This means a whole lot of extra prep time up front, because all of the bones and a lot of the flesh of the story wind up in the outline in abbreviated form. I spent three months on the outline for Ghost, hammering out all the finicky details, doubling back and cleaning things up, making sure the mystery made sense. There’s a lot of braining that goes into this kind of outline, but I have to say that I’m rather fond of it, in the end. It means that while I’m actually writing, I have all sorts of brainspace freed up for other things.
So, that was my dissertation on my new outlining style. What do you guys think? How do you outline? Writing is a wildly personal process, and I’d love to hear about alternative methods. Leave some in the comments!