Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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August 16, 2017

So You Want to Write an Outline...

Tasha Seegmiller

I belong to several Facebook groups where people ask for and support the members in productivity, goal achievement, ownership and intentionality. Many of these are focused on writers, so when reporting on what the goals are, there are often people who say they want to create a solid outline for a WIP.

Nearly every time I see someone indicate this is their goal, I see a dozen replies of, “HOW?

I tried to write as I went once. It was a red-hot mess and I swore I’d never do that again. And yet, I like the feeling of allowing a character to really guide me to where she wants to go, to reveal secrets and hopes in a way that I can’t anticipate until I really get to know my character, and I’ve never been able to get to know them well from filling out a profile for a story bible, and I’ve yet to come across a character sheet that really lets me get to know my characters.

So, I outline, leaving spaces and opportunities for what my characters will share as we journey through the book together.

The first thing to acknowledge is that there are LOTS of resources already out there for people who want to learn how to outline. Here are a few of my favorites:

* This was an absolute miracle in helping me plot my current WIP

But what I always have to do, after I know my characters and the places that are important to them, is ask myself three things:

  1. Where is my character at the start of this novel?
  2. Where do they want to be?
  3. What is preventing them from progressing?

That’s it. And that’s hard. Where I tend to write (and read) mostly character driven works, the where is usually referring to a mental or emotional state more than a physical location. Do they start broken? Do they start with the idea that they have everything going for them? Is there something in their life, big or small, that, if able to attain, they could check the box of being content?

Once I know this, I can go to one of the resources I listed above and consider what kind of story the resource was intended to help with, and what kind of story I’m writing. If using any beat sheet, I can often learn a great deal about my character by understanding what kind of activity would qualify as her fun and games. For a character I previously wrote, it was redecorating a space. For a character I’m writing now, she destresses by jamming out to Janis Joplin.

Then I start thinking about conflicts. I’m of the opinion that a character can’t just be pushed around (literally or metaphorically) and hold a reader’s interest. We want a character to fight back, to be willing to fight, even a little, for where they want to be by the end of the book. But someone who tries something and always gets it is jerkishly annoying.

Again, I don’t always know exact details of how my character is going to deal with these complications – that’s for them to tell me. This is one of the reasons I refer to my kind of outlining as connect the dots outlining. My job in the outline is to get the big things into place, and see how detailed the picture gets when I’ve written my way from one dot to another, have this the end, and can sit back and look at the whole picture.

But an outline isn’t meant to JUST assist in drafting. 

After I have drafted to the best of my ability, I go back again, this time really paying attention to who is doing what when, where they are growing, if they are playing an important role to the story AND if what I said they were going to do is what they do. For this, I break out my colored sticky notes and give each main character one. I jot down 10-15 words of what is happening at a particular time and group them together by chronologically.

This is a do or die time for my characters because if their color only shows up once or twice, they either need to reveal that they are essential to the story or they’re out. The son who is only there to whine about missing his dead mom? Gone. The two best friends who say the same thing, drink the same thing, wear the same thing but have different names? Kill one.

Side Note: Almost every pantser I’ve talked to has said they create outlines, timelines, character profiles, etc. once they are done with the first draft so they can have a concrete understanding of the story they created.

Then I go back to my original outline and see if there were plot points that I thought were important when I first started and if they still are. Sometimes, in the act of drafting, I forget things. Sometimes they needed to be forgotten. But then I am keenly aware of the structure and the goals of the story and the characters and the role of the setting so that when I embark on revising, I am focused.

How does my outlining process resemble yours? How about differences?

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About Tasha

Tasha Headshot ColorTasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as a board member for the Women's Fiction Writers Association. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

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17 comments on “So You Want to Write an Outline...”

  1. Tasha, I will honestly admit, I am such a pantser, I couldn't read parts of this. Gives me the heebie-jeebies (why doesn't spell check know those two words? 😉

    I SO want to do this - it would make writing a novel much less drama-filled. But that side of my brain is giving the other side the finger.

    What I DO know when I start is the character. Just like you said: who they are, what they need to learn, and how they're going to learn it. But then, I've got nothing. I have to go feel in the dark for a plot.

    I know your way would be better, faster, less....bloody.

    But I'm obviously not in control here, and frankly, it pisses me off.

    1. Embrace the mess.

      I'm super curious how you piece it all together after you have a draft. Do you do a read through and make notes or put together a master document or . . . ?

      1. Okay, you're going to think I'm weirder yet. I write. The next morning I edit. Repeat. At the end of a chapter, I send it to my critters. Repeat. Type The End. Send it off.

        That's why I write so slowly. I write very c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y.

        And I hate editing.

        1. But you write so clean, Laura. You don't give us much to do. You've internalized all the lessons, classes, conference workshops, and blogs. It works for you.

    1. I've tried to avoid the sticky note process and every time I do, I end up spending way more time negotiating and pull the sticky notes out in the end anyway.

  2. I use your first three points but am enough of a pantser to decide that's enough to get started. I want to be writing. I start each scene with "what can I throw at them now?" and then look at plot points and GMC. I'll track chapters after I write them, and I rewrite as I go. I used to use a tracking board with lots of colored post it notes showing what happened in each scene, and an "idea board" with plot points, conflicts, and threads/clues/reveals that I had to remember. I'm closer to Laura, I think. I think the only way I could use a beat sheet would be the way I used my tracking board. AFTER I wrote each scene.

    1. That makes a lot of sense. I know so many people who are successful this way, and it FREAKS ME OUT to just go for it. I'd like to launch right in, especially when I know the character, but it's rarely a good idea.

  3. Interesting article. What I am involved in right now is more "hard" SciFi, which is generally more plot driven. Here, the characters must support the theme or concept of the story through their thoughts and actions, yet still have their own personal stories, growth, and revelations. One would think this would make plotting or outlining easier, but it is not.

    Though not mentioned on your reading list, I would also recommend John Trudy's books on the subject.

    1. Oh, John Trudy is brilliant in the way he teaches craft.

      I have several friends who write plot heavy stories and I don't envy the work they have to put in at all.

  4. Thanks for blogging about this.
    I have been struggling with to outline or not to outline. I am a pantser but would like to incorporate some plotting techniques. My first manuscript was based on a personal experience and then took off on its own. I didn't prepare character descriptions, I just wrote. I didn't go back and outline it when I finished it (maybe I should have). I now have another manuscript that I have written character descriptions and incorporated a semblance of an outline because I found myself stuck about 20K words in. It is historical and I discovered I couldn't successfully pants it.
    When I first started this journey I had no idea it would be so involved or hard. Admittedly, I have learned a great deal since embarking on this journey.
    You have been very helpful.

  5. Thanks for a great blog. It's come at a perilous time for me because I have two main characters, one of which is clear and centered. and the other...not so much. They will speak from alternating chapters, from the same locations one-hundred fifty + years apart. I can't believe I am even considering this, but you've reminded me how to flesh out my second character before I begin. Thanks again. Wish me luck!

  6. I like to identify all the major plot points and fill in the blanks from there. Otherwise, I spend all my time wandering around the story and it takes me ages to make cuts and get back on track.

  7. Oh, Tasha, I'm with Laura. It took three read-throughs before I finally had read all your words. Unlike her, I typically have most of the movie of the book in my head—even though there's nothing on paper— before I start writing the first draft. However, after multiple revisions of the two books that are coming out this year, I'm thinking I'll write the next project a little differently. Thanks for giving me some ideas. (I love all colors of sticky notes, but using them like you describe, uh...)

  8. I roughly outlined my first book and my second is rolling around in my brain. I'm going to start this time by writing out answers to your 3 questions--very clear, but as you say, hard to do. I read somewhere that John Irving always knows the first and last sentence of his novels before he starts writing. Not sure if he outlines the rest.

  9. For each story, I chart the Blake Snyder beats around the hero's journey circle diagram to get the big pieces in place in terms of plot. I also use Dara Marks' and Lisa Cron's story structure beats to get the character transformation beats in the same places. That way the external plot beats and the internal character beats map on top of each other all around the diagram.

    Once I know the central conflict and resolution, I can then create the main character who can most benefit from the journey. It starts off with what the character -thinks- they want, versus what they really need to overcome their obstacle at the beginning. The first act is about the character stating what they think will make them happy, while the second act is about challenging that assumption in an effort to bring up to consciousness a better solution. The third act is about swiveling toward that better solution and solving the conflict with the new consciousness, thereby solving the character's need as well.

    Each beat then gets a short paragraph that says what happens, and that becomes the outline. With this method I can test dozens to hundreds of potential story beats in the search for the best sequence.

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