I'm outrageously passionate about outlining.
That doesn't mean I necessarily love the entire process, as just with any part of the writing process, it can get a bit tricky to string together a cohesive story from a bunch of random ideas.
But I love researching plot structure. I love looking into what makes us, as humans, love to read stories.
I'm constantly looking into different outlining methods, and trying my best to understand what makes a great story great. Because of that, I've decided to "re-do" my previous outlining post and video.
Mostly because my process has changed since then, but also because my previous video's quality was terrible. Cringeworthy. As in, I'm tempted to delete it because it's so bad!
I’ve learned a lot in the two years since that video, so I want to share those things with you and hopefully help you in your own outlining process.
Also, this video comes at a good time because NaNoWriMo is just around the corner. If you’re participating, make sure to add me as a friend so we can stalk each other! (I'm VivReis on NaNo)
Let’s jump into it!
Quick note: I broke this post into two videos, so if you'd rather watch this content instead of read it, don't forget to scroll down and check out that other video!
For first novels in a series, this stage usually begins passively. You’re brushing your teeth and you have a crazy idea for a story, or you have a unique dream that would make a good story (usually what happens to me).
Once the idea plants itself in your noggin, it’s time to actively brainstorm.
Now, you will switch from passive to active and back again as you go through the brainstorming process.
Examples of passive brainstorming include: thinking of your story while doing the dishes, while going on a run, while washing your dog (and trying not to break your back because Jesus, it takes forever to wash a dog).
Actively brainstorming looks more like when you sit down with a journal/open Word document and try to come up with basic story ideas to fill in what you already know.
A great way to get the active brainstorming juices flowing is to ask questions. That seems silly, but literally type your questions out, like “What if my character can’t walk by themselves?” And answer it! (These are things you’re seriously thinking of including, but you don’t have to be sure about them. This phase lets you pursue those ideas without committing 20,000 words to figuring out if it’s the direction the story should go in)
Now, it’s important to combine the two (active and passive) so your creative well is at different levels during your outlining process.
If you try to outline a novel in a single day, chances are you’ll deplete that creative well too quickly. I’ve read/heard in different places that you only have a “decision bank” of up to 200 decisions per day.
That number may be more or less in reality, but the theory of it makes sense and is a lot like your creative well. If you have a crazy day at work running around to a million tasks, you might not have the mental juice to write at all when you get home. You’ve depleted your decision bank (which usually means my creative well is drrryy).
Same goes for brainstorming, and all writing in general. Try to spread out your brainstorming so you have room left in your bank to make GOOD decisions about your novel. Because once that bank is empty, you start to make poor decisions.
There’s studies on this.
I couldn’t find them.
During the brainstorming process, don’t worry about having “enough” for a novel, because you’re going to continue brainstorming in the next stages (and really...you might be brainstorming for small things until you finish writing your entire book. And even after).
Your notes may be all over the place, but make sure you can easily organize them. I keep all my notes in Google Docs, so I can add to them anywhere I am (which is much better than having four different notebooks and 5 notes on my phone).
This part is easy to explain, but the execution may take you some time. Start with the basics now that you have some random ideas for your story.
The goal: What is the plot, boiled down to less than three sentences? Why three? Because it’s a magic number. (School House Rock anyone?)
No, really. Three because if you don’t put a limit to it you’ll just keep going. Make it a challenge: try to sum your novel up in one sentence, which will answer the following:
Who is your protagonist?
What’s the story problem?
What are the stakes if they don’t succeed?
A good formula if you’re stuck is: Your protagonist must Insert #2 in order to Insert #3.
For Harry Potter: A boy finds out he’s a wizard and, with the help of his friends, must use magic in order to stop an infamous dark wizard from resurrecting himself. (That one is following the formula, the next one is not).
For The Terminator: A machine-man zaps into the present (great word choice, right?) to kill a woman who will one day raise a child that will lead a resistance against the machines. Another man is also sent from the future to protect her, and together they must kill this machine-Arnold-Schwarzenegger-beast-man.
You get the idea. Summarize your story. The simpler the better.
It’s also helpful to do the same with your villain. Describe them and figure out what their goal is.
Obvious but important point here: your Protagonist and your Antagonist’s goals should be in direct opposition to one another. If one succeeds, the other fails.
In Harry Potter, Harry wants to stop Voldemort from coming back, and Voldemort wants to fully resurrect himself with the Sorcerer’s Stone. Here, Harry succeeds which means Voldemort fails.
In my second example, the Terminator’s one mission is to kill Sarah Conner, and her goal is to obviously not die. She succeeds, so the Terminator fails.
(Also, side note, but in Terminator 2 when Sarah slow-mo sees Arnold coming down the hall...CLASSIC movie moment)
At this point, you can also hash out everything you know about any supporting characters and your world.
Try to keep all of this information organized! If you’re hand-writing, color code, use sticky tabs, or whatever you have to do to make sure your notes aren’t all over the place. Again, I use Google Docs for this.
This is Part 2 of the YouTube video for this post...make sure to watch Part 1 up above so you don't miss anything!
The 8 key plot-points that is. Which is so perfect because eight’s my favorite number :D
I’ve read more theories on outlining than I can even...ever...possibly remember. After writing TEP, I realized I needed a formula, and so I gathered up all my outlining resources to find which pieces struck me the most.
Why does this structure work? It’s a framework, and frames or foundations are important. Your story needs a focus and, like writing your one-sentence summary, hitting these 8 plot points clear makes it easier to write a strong story.
With that being said, there is no “magic formula” that applies to everyone.
I do believe there’s a magic formula that everyone can develop for themselves, but this takes trial and error. After a lot of trial and error, I’ve outlined two books using this method and it’s worked so well for me!
We all start somewhere, and I seriously hope this structure helps you!
With that being said, here are the eight key points:
Repeat for however many POV characters you have, because each should have their own journey through the story. If they don’t, you might need to reevaluate their importance in the story.
Also, apply this method in post...I mean in the editing phase...I’ve been editing too many videos lately.
Even if you’ve already finished your first draft or any draft really, see if you’ve hit all 8 plot points in your story. This helped me tremendously during the editing process of TEP--one POV character was falling flat because her second catalyst didn’t force her to switch from being reactive to being proactive. One small tweak and her half of the story was much more gripping!
Let’s go over each of those plot points:
Just as it sounds, this introduces us to the character and the world they currently live in. This is where we connect with the protagonist and empathize with them. If readers don’t have this foundation, they won’t care what happens to them later.
We may follow them on an everyday errand or event, but we’re introduced or hints to the story’s problem, which you already figuring out after watching last week’s video...right?
This is the first “oh shit” moment. Something happens that forces the protagonist onto a new path and dramatically changes their life. You want this to happen around the 20% mark of your novel.
The hero reacts to Catalyst #1 in an emotional manner. They’re stumbling around, “following” the plot more than “affecting” the plot, AKA things happen TO them. In essence, they’re like a chicken with their head cut off.
The protagonist gets a piece of information that gives focus and meaning to the story problem. All of their haphazardous reactions are funneled into one direction. This is also where the protagonist learns who the antagonist is. This catalyst gives the protagonist a reason to play the game.
Because of Catalyst #2, your character switches gears and goes on the offensive. Since they’ve been convinced somehow to “play the game,” they’re now directly affecting the plot instead of following it. This is where the trail of tears happens: your character will try & fail, it’s important that they fail quite a few times which raises the stakes.
This is where your character gets one last crucial piece of information which leads them to meet the antagonist one last time for the climax. This is where a lot of plot twists occur, and where your character should experience a break-down moment before switching into ass-kicking gear.
The battle royale of your novel. Shit has to go down, big time. Your character should be beat down until the reader can’t see how they’ll come out alive. Common patterns: your hero seems to be winning, then your anti-hero seems to win, then your hero comes back at the last minute to defeat the anti-hero. The opposite also goes. The anti-hero seems to be winning, then your hero seems to win (which can be a false victory...and I usually LOVE those in movies/books), and finally your anti-hero defeats your hero.
Your protagonist should be injured from the climax, mentally and physically. This phase should wrap-up the change your character has gone through, and is another place for some plot-twists to occur. Hello Three Dark Crowns!
Additional tip: your story problem NEEDS to be answered by book one. For a series, you need a separate “series problem” that will continue throughout, but the book one problem needs to be solved by the end of book one.
And the finale:
That seems like a daunting word: Outline. We’ve been building this entire time to reach this point. But that’s why it’s important to do the baby steps first, because now this stage is so much easier!
Think of an outline instead as a scene list, which sounds so much friendlier. Write out all the scenes you’ve come up with so far; including all of the above key plot points.
Flashcards word PERFECTLY for this, and I highly suggest anyone who’s struggling with their story to do this. This can be done at ANY time during the writing phase. I didn’t use flashcards for my last two story outlines, but did with TEP and trust me, something happens when you write your story down on cards. Magic.
This “is” the stage where things get arbitrary. Up until this point, there’s been a formula, but now things diverge from one story to the next.
Make your flashcards and then analyze them. Each scene should lead away from one and lead toward another. Some say the end of one chapter should pose a question to be answered by the middle of the next chapter.
Look at your supporting characters. Can any one of them serve a role in a subplot? Tidbits like this can crop up that can lead to bigger plots in subsequent novels. This is pretty obscure, but Beautiful Creatures does this when the Three Sister are introduced, and end up having a larger role, I think in book 3.
Once you’re done with your flashcards, it can be helpful to add a “summary” to each scene card, which I usually do in Google Docs, but you can do in Scrivener or any word processor. This serves as a guide that will keep you focused when it’s time for you to sit down and write.
If you’re feeling inspired to read more about outlines, or to create your own formula that works for you, I really recommend the Better Novel Project, which sort of focuses on the hero’s journey, and any of the plotting books on my Resources page (there's so many more I could add, but those are current favorites!).
And that sums up my current outlining process. I'm sure in a year or two I'll feel the need to elaborate on this topic, as I'm seriously addicted. Story development is perhaps my favorite part of the writing process!
Drop a comment down below with your favorite outlining method or epiphany. I'm always keen to pick up any extra tips!!
I wish you the Happiest of Writing!