How I outline

Some people were talking about their story outlining methods on a writing forum, so I thought I’d write a short post about my current methods.

The Process

First, I let the ideas simmer and mix for months or years.

When the time feels right, the work begins. After writing down the initial ideas of what I definitely want in the story in terms of cool characters, scenes, conflicts, or themes (almost like movie trailer moments, disconnected but interesting), I try to think up an ending, which helps me define exactly what the main conflict of the story will be, both physically and thematically.

At this point, I try to think up an interesting title before I start fleshing out the outline. This helps me make sure the title fits the spirit of the book, and hopefully sounds interesting in and of itself (at least to me).

So then I have various scenes I think would be cool and an ending. I basically flesh out the story from there with connecting scenes, usually working backwards from the ending, trying to keep in mind how each scene relates to the overall story. How much detail I put into my scene descriptions just depends on my mood. Sometimes a few sentences work for me, sometimes I explore the possibilities for several pages. I’ll often start writing dialog, though very little of it will make it into the final story. It helps me with getting into the characters’ heads and fleshing out their individual personalities and philosophies.

In the end, my outline is a list of scenes with various amounts of descriptions.

While writing, I’ll re-outline as needed. Nothing drastic, but I might find that a scene will need to deal with an extra conflict or happen at a different time or place. Or I might find that I need an extra scene or can drop some unneeded scene.

Other things I’ve learned

Sometimes I’ll try to tell others the story from beginning to end verbally, like a movie summary, to make sure the story seems cohesive, isn’t overly complicated, and doesn’t have any glaring plot holes I’m missing. I have found this to be a helpful exercise.

I’ve learned that I need to make sure the scenes are actual scenes and not just something that needs to happen in the story. “They go to the office and Bob gives them important info” may need to happen, but it doesn’t have to be dramatized as a scene if that’s all there is to it. It took me a while to figure out why certain scenes seemed so boring to write. It’s because they were unneeded. Similarly, something like “They journey across the northern plains” is not a scene. That can be summed up in an expository paragraph at the beginning of a chapter. If nothing interesting and story-related happens, it’s not a scene. If I try to force it to be a scene by adding in conflict for its own sake, such as making characters argue or having a character brood on some inner-conflict, I risk disappointing the readers when they realize what they just read was only filler.

For my latest novel attempt, Moonrise Ink, I’ve been trying to keep my number of scenes small; it’s easy for me to go overboard and write too many scenes, trying to cram too much in the outline (thinking my novel is going to be some huge epic). But the actual story would end up being way too long. Took me quite a few failures to realize that (I’d get to 40K or 50K words and my story would still be just getting started).

Worldbuilding notes

Lastly, since I’m writing a fantasy story that takes place in another world, I do some worldbuilding as well, either in a notebook or on my computer. I have a private online wiki (a bit like Hanniwiki, except it’s completely private) where I keep all my world building notes; histories, legends, names, magic system rules, etc. Wikis are perfect for organizing worldbuilding notes. I do some worldbuilding as I’m outlining, but I also continue to do it as I write to help myself stay consistent. A lot of my worldbuilding will probably not even make it in the book, but it’s cool to create anyway. For example, one of my characters (Thravien) loves playing a game called Twenty Wizards, so I took some time to actually create the game and figure out the rules for it. It’s a very simple game, but an explanation of how it’s played really doesn’t belong in the story.

Along with my worldbuilding notes, it’s very easy to get ideas for sequels or other stories that take place in the same world. I’ll collect any other story ideas I have in a notebook or on my wiki as well.

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