Monday, August 2, 2010


Okay, I need some major help. So I'm turning to you. I'm begging. Literally begging. I spent the weekend googling and researching (yes, I have hives) about how to outline. (I've outlined the chapters I've written, but let's face it, that's like a no-duh.)

I haven't found anything that "clicked" with me. You know me, I put a spin on everything. Dan Wells lectures about plotting and I turn it into a formula to write a synopsis.

I need something like this for an outline. So I don't want the snowflake method or anything like that. I need a personal spin, a simplification, a system, SOMETHING, on outlining.

I'm begging so hard I'm near tears.

How do you create an outline for a book you haven't written yet??

Please, please someone write a post about it this week and email it to me so I can gain some insight into this mystery called outlining.


Amanda Hannah said...

I read this blog post a few days ago and thought it was pretty interesting.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

As I always outline, I wouldn't know how NOT to do it!
My outlines aren't precise or by the numbers. I just play out the storyline in my head and write down the key points, maybe a line of dialogue even if it really strikes me. I don't create an outline until I know the whole story, either. From readering other's methods, I know that's odd, but I play out the entire story in my head, like a movie, before I ever begin outlining. Sometimes I get an idea and I start imagining where it will lead, but if the storyline fizzles, I never commit anything to paper.

The Golden Eagle said...

I write my outlines in a chart, so that I can keep the order of the events organized. Usually, I just write what I have, then add more rows as I think of more plot points, dialogue, etc.

Ted Cross said...

I always outline, but very simply. I just put a single plot point for each chapter. I know in my mind which characters will be involved. All I need to know is that plot point and the rest will take care of itself as I type. Dialogue and the details aren't needed, at least for me.

Jess said...

I have an entire bookmark folders of links on plotting if you're interested. The googling dirty work has already been done. ;)

For me, I write a list of scenes I want to happen. Anything that seems remotely fun or important, and of course, the list sparks more things for itself.

Then I organize them into an appropriate outline based on how they might feed into the character arc or provide the most tension/make the most sense. I do make sure I have set-piece scenes (turning points), dark moment, and climax, making a 'scene list' helps me check my pacing.

I DON'T outline in chronological order, that kills it for me. And doing it this way feels less rigid, like I can move things without knocking over the Jenga stack.

Wen Baragrey said...

Alexandra Sokoloff's blog has a series on outlining and it is FANtastic. It made total sense to me. There's probably a dozen posts (look for the ones on the three act structure, etc) and follow through all of them.

Alex's explanations are the first that really made sense to me. I think it's because she compares her breakdown to well known movies and it's a real visual way of getting it into your head. I use her checklist for my outlines and check that each chapter has each element.

I find they really help with brainstorming too. When you see where something needs to be, you can figure out more of your story. At least, I could!

Hope it helps.

Jen said...

It looks like you are already getting some great ideas! Since I'm not an outliner by nature I fall short on this, but recently I too have been dying for a good outlining post so I appreciate you posting out of desperation.

For new stories I let them marinate in my head for weeks, sometimes months until I feel it's time to write, then I open the document and write. Not the best system but it's mine. After I've written it all down on paper is when I start post-it revisions, in which I create the chapters I should have created in the first place. It's messy, but I'm learning what system is best for me!

Good luck!

salarsenッ said...

I tend to agree with Ted. Skeletal. That would sum up how I outline. If I write anything more specific, it stifles my creativity. I sum up the chapter in one sentence. Sometimes I'll jot down a major scene or what I call 'possibles'. Let me put it to you this way: make-up, layering, and connecting the dots. I ask myself questions? Where am I now? Where do I want this to lead? But I ask at the point that I'm at, not looking forward to the ending. I disregard that for now. and I are in the same boat, right now. Need any comfort. Feel free to email me.

Theresa Milstein said...

Like you, I'm a panster. Sometimes I'll set up a separate file and jot down notes for the future or even write a future scene so I don't forget. But I don't know how to outline.

Were you asked to do this like a proposal or do you just want to try something new?

Good luck. Wish I could help.

Matthew Rush said...

Hmm. I've only written one novel but I did do a loose outline for it. Mostly just an idea of each major plot point and the spots at which action would rise or fall. Of course after multiple revisions it barely resembles the outline anymore, but it did help me keep moving steadily forward while pounding out that first draft.

Rachele's post is interesting, and a good read, but this stuff works differently for different people. I'm not sure you need to outline Elana if pantsing and the word vomit method have worked for you in the past. It may be that for you the inspiration only comes WHILE you're already writing. Who knows?

Kelly Bryson said...

I have only outlined in retrospect. And I'm trying to develop a workable next idea, so let me know what you come up with!

I'm trying the 'start with your one sentence pitch, then write your query' approach right now, but that still isn't an outline. I'm not sure if I am capable of outlining;)

head over to my friend Teresa's blogpost obout plotting the next novel-

She links to Helene Boudreau's PLotting OCD style, using the document map feature of Microsoft Word. I like the idea, but I need to pull over some ideas before I get to this point.

Amie B said...

Easy. I don't outline.

Seriously. I don't. I find them terribly restricing. Honestly, the one time I tried it I ventured so far from what I had originally planned that the outline was moot.

I'm a write from the hip kinda girl.

Aubrie said...

I come up with certain lines of conversation that have to happen along with certain events and work from there.

Good luck!

Candyland said...

I'm no good at this. BUT, I am good at sending virtual hugs. Soooo yeah. *hug*

Maria Zannini said...

Okay, first off, THANKS! I needed a topic for today's post.

Here is the link on how I outline:

Outlining for Plan-sters

Hope it's useful!

Holly Ruggiero, Southpaw said...

I think of it as a story told line by line, no detail. Chapter opens, scene one, point one, etc.

Izzy said...

Usually, when I start to outline, I only have a vague idea of what the story really is. I first come up with a one-sentence description of the novel, and then I just freewrite for half an hour over the next couple days about the story with scene ideas and things like that. I usually end up with a huge blob of text (when I freewrite, I always seem to forget to make paragraphs), and I sift through it to find the stuff I like.

After that, I do a little more freewriting that's more controlled than regular freewriting so that I have a bunch of scenes listed in chronological order. I go back and weed out the stuff I don't like, so in the end I have a vague-ish outline. As I write, I refer back to it, although I tend to change a lot of things.

Good luck finding the method that works for you! For me, my method takes about 4-5 days if I have a lot of time, or close to two weeks if I'm hard-pressed.

mguibord said...

I am so here with you. I am struggling with this very thing! I agree with the skeletal approach. Even if it's five sentences- Girl meets Dog. Dog bites Girl. Girl falls in love with Dog. Girl loses Dog....
And then build each step up from there.
I am trying this with index cards so I can flip back and forth easily, adding elements, characters as I go.
The thing is- brainstorming is never organized (at least in my mind) and outlining is supposed to be. So combining the two is tough...

Falen (Sarah) said...

here's how i outline (and just a heads up, i do do something like the first few steps of the snowflake method, and i write a query before I outline too, so i have an idear of conflict and junk)

I just write a list of scenes.
So for my WIP, my outline looked like this:

Fox is starving, runs into demon and decides he needs to move

Quill's apprentice is killed by a demon

Fox falls and breaks his leg

Quill is ousted from her village

etc etc.

So then when i'm writing i have a lot of space and leeway to do 'tevs i want, but the scene list (aka "outline") keeps me on track.

I hope this helps and i hope you find a method that works for you

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Hey, good timing! I just happened upon this post this morning -

gabi said...

Hi Elana,

I agree with Golden Eagle, I write my outlines in chart form. I create a table in MS Word with the following columns:

-Scene (name of scene in 2-3 words)
-Characters (who's in the scene?)
-Location (where does it take place?)
-Plot (what happens?)
-Purpose (why is this scene important?)

The "purpose" category is perhaps the most important for me because it forces me to consider why I'm including certain scenes.

You can also use this method with index cards so you can move scenes around easily. Or you can use the computer program Scrivener which has the index card feature and an outline feature already built in.

Hope this helps. Good luck!

Scott said...

I don't outline . . . for the most part. When I do, I think about scenes and/or conversations I want to take place within the novel. I'll note these down in bullet point format and expand upon those points as I write.

Outlines work great for some people, and not so great for others. You have to do what works best for you and your brain, because you and your brain - hopefully - work differently than me and my brain.

If you want, I can send you the bullet point 'outline' for one project.

Good luck.


Mary Brebner said...

I'm always amazed by the people who create detailed outlines and wish I could do just that. But my outlines always come out more like bullet points. Sometimes there are baby bullets under the big bullets but usually, the big bullets stand alone.

Of course, this changes slightly for every novel I work on--some are more detailed than others.

Good luck finding your "perfect" outline style!

Kerri C at CK Farm said...

Elena looks like you are getting great advice! I envy you savy outliners! Good luck I'm sure you will find a method that works for you.

Danyelle said...

*hugs* The most I can see is maybe a scene or two ahead. >.<

*outlining cookies*

Lydia Kang said...

I'm outlining right now. And it's an EPIC outline.
It's already about 30 pages long. I know, crazy.
I started off with three acts. What happens in each act. One sentence long.
And then I just started writing notes for each chapter. When I got the urge to put in a line about a description, or some snappy dialogue, I put it in there. Very amorphous. But each chapter is fleshing themselves out at about 1/2 page long, single spaced.
It's just like writing, only in briefer form.
No tricks. But I love it!

LReneeS said...

I read your post here, Elana. I posted something on my blog that will hopefully help. Let me know!
Happy writing,

Paul Greci said...

I outlined a book a few months ago and I'm almost done with the first draft. I'll check my notes and get back to you.

Meredith said...

When I'm outlining before I've started writing, my outline is very stream-of-consciousness. I first write down the general big picture of what I want to happen, then I start designing chapters and brainstorming unique events that will move the plot along. I keep in mind that the outline will change over time, so there's less pressure to make it perfect. It's just a general guideline. I hope you find your perfect way of outlining! It'll happen, I promise :)

Elana Johnson said...

You guys are so awesome! So many links -- I can't wait to read them all! I'm hoping something will click with me, and I'll be able to go forward.


Books Dudes Will Read said...

Kate Sullivan from Little Brown Books presented at our last local SCBWI conf., & though I haven't picked it up yet, your post made me think of a book she recommended. It's Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell from the Write Great Fiction series. I tried his website, but it didn't say all that much. Sullivan used info from it to show how outlining helps writers sustain suspense & balance. She wasn't selling the book, actually, but I would buy it.

Lisa_Gibson said...

Oh, poor dear. All I do is jot down major events in order of appearance (sometimes moving them around) and make scant notes under each with thoughts, things I want to include, etc. I'm sure through everyones awesome advice above, you've found some assistance.

Betherann said...

I really like Holly Lisle's Create a Professional Plot Outline course (which is free). It's fast and covers the bases while leaving wiggle room. It works for me, as I like to have a good idea of where I'm going and with whom in my stories, but I don't like to write 50+ page outlines -- that overwhelms me. Here's a link to the course: Good luck!

Marsha Sigman said...

Ok, I do the bullet points just to get down the major plot line. Characters, setting, and details are all in my head. But if I do think of a great line then I make notes. So the end result is really messy but it works. I could not do a structured thirty page outline to save my life.

Also, I might change the outline halfway through the ms if something isn't working. But I'm still going to check out all this great advice from the other comments!

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Lol, I have posted about this in the past, but you really have to find the system that works best for you. I tend to do like some other writers here. I do something like a timeline, dropping in major plot points and even smaller ones (basically everything I can think of that I want in the story). Then I fill it in. With this last WIP, I took notes for days, marking down every event, conversation, conflict, etc. I wanted to have in the story. Then I put each one on a sticky note, organized them chronologically, then made my chapter by chapter outline from that.

Faith said...

I think I'm going to have to check out all these links too -- I'm still trying to figure out what kind of outlining works best for me!

These days, I jot down major ideas and brief scene notes, and go from there. I guess I'm a three-quarters pantser (uh, so a 'capri-er?') and one quarter outliner.

Nutschell said...

I would suggest picking up a copy of the Marshall Plan for Novel Writing. Evan Marshall gives step by step directions on how to start writing a novel. He includes a chart for figuring out how many POV characters you'd like, as well as how many scenes you should have in the book.

Hope this helps!

warm regards,

Jemi Fraser said...

I've never outlined so if you do find a great outline blog, let us know!

Jennie Englund said...

Ugh. Outlining. Brings you right back to high school history, doesn't it?

Good luck!!! Something good will come of it all!

KM said...

One of my critique partners told me to outline each chapter, then pick out the big things that happen and consolidate them all to form one big outline. But that only works if you've already written the story. And honestly, that way doesn't work for me. I'm a freeform outliner, so I just sit down and write one, keeping in mind all my major plot points. My rough drafts are horrible, but I just keep working at it (sometimes, with up to 10 drafts) until it's right.

KM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
L.T. Elliot said...

three escalating disasters followed by an ending. =] Easiest way for me, ever.

B. Miller said...

Slow down. Take a deep breath. You know the basic gist of the thing, right? Start with the big plot points, then flesh them out as the timeline gets more defined. Just take it one idea at a time.

I'm in a similar quandary because I'm trying to write my first-ever pitch for my novel. I've got a pitch session with an editor/agent at the end of the month at a writing conference, and I'm kinda FREAKING OUT. The pitch I've written is too long, but I'm just fumbling around in the dark... wrote about it on my blog today, if you're interested. :)

Elana Johnson said...

Wow, I've read through all the posts linked here. I like a lot of the ideas in the comments. I've jotted down the names of the books suggested.

I think I've made a startling conclusion... coming soon...

You guys are amazing!

Eric W. Trant said...

I outline in MS Excel.

Then I write out some test scenes and outline in MS Word.

Then I write a few beginnings and rework my Excel outline and adjust the word counts and chapters and order up everything real nice and neat.

Then I write a story that has nothing at all to do with the original outlines.

Go figger.

I suppose outlining for me is more like brainstorming or doing random word exercises.

I eventually see the story in my head and it's just a matter of regurgitating it.

And if I can't remember it -- i.e. if I have to write it down and reference it later to recall it -- then it wasn't worth writing anyway.

- Eric

JEM said...

Uh, my outlining is kind of a mess. I'm a recent convert to the practice (although I do think it helps immensely), so I tend to write these Frankenstein outlines that include plot points, snippets of dialogue, descriptions I think of while outlining, entire scenes, etc. My main focus is to force myself to think all the way through the story while capturing whatever notes I think are pertinent. My biggest pitfalls have been getting halfway through something and not realizing how to transition, or how to fill the middle of a story, so I force myself to think through every step and then copy that down. Hope that helps :).

Angie said...

I don't know how much I can help. I tend to outline chapters after they're written too. It helps me keep track of what's happened and where I still need to go. My outlines before starting are vague at best. Sorry.

Olivia Carter said...

Oh goodness, this is SO hard for me too. I make a VERY SHORT outline but it helps to keep me on task. (like 10-20 notecards with a few short notes).

I, like some of the other commenters, find a really strict outline to be limiting.

But if I have no outline at all I can't move forward. I write and write and write and the plot doesn't really move forward.

GOOD LUCK! Let us know what ends up working for you!

SWK said...

I'm not much of an outliner (I actually do that AFTER I've got a first draft to fix "plot holes") BUT I do have a way I start moving from idea to novel that functions as an outline for me. I write a short story, maybe 1500-2000 words about a pivotal event for my mc. This really helps me find mc and some key secondary characters as well as some direction for the plot.

lisanowak said...

Okay, I've been meaning to add a page about my outlining process to my blog, so I did it today just for you. I know you said you think cards won't work for you, but read through the rest of the stuff and see if you can modify anything to fit your needs.

Katie Ganshert said...

Have you read Plot and STructure by James Scott Bell? If not, hightail three booty to the bookstore and get yourself a copy. It's loads of helpful.

Tamika: said...

Outlining is not my strong suit. Thanks to all the comments it does feel less intimidating:)

Kaylie said...

I'm a first-timer at this, but the index card method is being very good to me. You write each scene on a card, with who's in the scene and the setting at the top. Then you throw them in the air and put them in whatever order works. Love it.

Erica Chapman said...

I have the same problem ;o) I'll be watching the comments carefully. I hope you find something that works for ya!

Jaime Theler said...

I've tried all kinds of outlining to various degrees of success. I do much better with some direction, so I need something. What has really clicked for me is actually writing out my conflicts, from the biggest to the smallest. I work on them one at a time from the beginning of that conflict. I'll write out the action of the character, and then the direct result of that action, which leads to the next action, etc. And the plot sort of works itself out.

You know what, I'll write a blog post on it this week & email it to you.

storyqueen said...

Hi Elana,

First off, it is hard. It is supposed to be.

(You can read my post about having babies, teaching school and writing a retrospect, we never really remember just how hard it is!)

Secondly, it doesn't have to be that hard (I know...I totally just contradicted myself.) Just open a document, write a letter to yourself about the kind of book you want it to be, the kinds of stuff that you think would be cool to happen in the book and all.

Make as loose a skeleton as possible......

And then just write!


P.S. I know you are suffering from This-Book-Is-Never-Going-To-Be-As-Good-As-The-Last Syndrome....I know this because I am too!

~Jamie said...

I, for serious, draw a giant dinosaur on my marker board with each hump as a chapter.

I like it because I can move the humps around, and I can make sure each chapter is a mini book typeish thing. :)

LReneeS said...

Sometimes when you get really far in the story you will come to a part where you just think, "Well, where do I go next?" You might have to take some time out for a few days to just think on that. It's not like it's suddenly just going to come into your mind like magic.
Also, I think you need to consider what has happened in the book and what has not. If some kind of action event has occurred maybe you should next focus on the character's reactions to that. For the end of the story are the characters going to need to travel to reach the destination of what happens at the end? If so you might want to have that happen.
Start outlining dialog that comes to your mind. You most likely will cut out a lot of this dialog, but I know from experience that when you have a scene playing out in your mind during the middle of the night it really does help to write the dialog out.
And if nothing else, Elana, just continue to ask your friends and followers. There are evidently a lot of people who are willing to help you out.
I'd love to hear more from you! I'm always up for talking about writing, if nothing else.
Happy writing,

Natalie Aguirre said...

I write the chapter number and title and a few sentences of the key things that happen in the chapter like plot and character struggle/growth. Sometimes when I'm struggling with a chapter I write down the purpose of the chapter for me so I can see where to cut as I revise. I do this as I go, not before I write a book. Then it makes it easier to switch chapters as I revise. Sounds like you're righting an outline of a proposed book for your editor or agent. That's harder unless you know how your story will go. Good luck.

Horserider said...

I used to be a pantser. I'd think about outlines and say, "That's great but it's not for me." Then I realized that the reason I have to do so many rewrites is because I end up meandering through the middle of the story and I knew I had to find my way to outline.

I've tried strict outlines where I outline every single plot point and detail in a bulleted list, but they're just too restrictive for me. I need to feel like I have room to move within an outline. So I do a soft outline where I write down the main plot points I want to hit and give myself room to maneuver in them. I don't feel like I HAVE to do exactly what the outline says but it gives me a line to follow so that I don't end up just wandering aimlessly until I don't have a plot anymore.

P.S. Ironically enough I already have a blog post scheduled for Thursday that gives a short summary about a couple different ways to outline. (No, I swear it was already scheduled when I read this.)

Katie said...

Oh my gosh, if you figure this out, please post your "simplified" version.

And good luck!

Mary Anne Gruen said...

Unfortunately, no matter how much advice you get, you have to find a method that works for you.

I often start with a character list. Then I make another very short document on main points, don't mostly in list form. Then as I start writing I make up a document of notes of things I'd like to add. I print all these out so I can glance at them as I start writing. I change them as I need to and print them again.

Especially if the book is complicated, I'll start a chapter outline where I list the chapter and some things I want to happen in it. But I don't do this more than a few chapters ahead in case something needs to be changed. The chapter outline is a working outline, so I don't go back and "fix it." It's just there to help me keep track of plot ideas.

I hope you find the way that's right for you.

In the meantime, I've given you an award over at my blog. Don't worry about passing it on if awards aren't your thing. Just consider it a shout-out for your blog.

elizabeth mueller said...

The only time I've ever outlined was when I was in college and high school. As some of your commenters have mentioned, mine vary depending one what inspiration strikes me.

Sometimes an outline for me sounds like the synopsis found on the back of the dust jacket. Sometimes it's an entire first chapter with a few notes at the bottom to keep the juices flowing. But most of the time I write by the seat of my pants. I go with what the Lord leads me.

Good luck, Elana, I hope you found help here, it looks like a great many thoughts here to help keep your well flowing!!!


Rachele Alpine said...

I posted about it last week. I had never outlined before and this worked great!

Karen Lange said...

I am sorry to say that I don't have any pearls of wisdom in this area, for I dislike outlining and have much to learn. I'm cheering for you though, and would mail you some pretzels M&M's to bolster your spirits if it wasn't so hot. Hang in there!

Julie Musil said...

This may not be what you're looking for, but I got this tip from James Scott Bell in Plot & Structure.

It's the "headlights" view. Make index cards, but only based on what's in the view of your headlights at the time.

Claire Goverts said...

I'm getting into the swing of things with outlining. One novel draft I wrote by the seat of my pants, while the next few I tried different methods.

One method I like is the Phase Outline. It's a handy way to jot down important events, and other little bits that help keep track of the feel of that particular part of the novel/story. I especially like being able to drop in a line of dialogue on occasion. I've played with it a little, grouping phases into sections and whatnot. It's fairly flexible.

Jackee said...

Sorry, friend, I'm probably no help, but since I'm a big lister, I title the chapters and begin listing what I want to have happen in each chapter. I usually go through several drafts of outline until I've got it pretty solid. (And to avoid the tears, I take a notebook and a nice soak in the bath and that helps me think better without freaking out.)

Good luck!

Melanie Avila said...

I haven't read through the comments so this may have already been said, but my method of outlining is to start by writing one or two paragraphs that describe what happens in each chapter. Some are several paragraphs long, while others remain two sentences.

If specific dialogue or prose strikes me, I include it, but that's not a rule. I jot things down as they come, and once I have several chapters I start to see where I have holes and how things will lay out.

By the time I started writing my nano novel in '08 my outline was five or six pages long and covered 33 chapters.

Good luck!

Melanie Avila said...

D'oh! That was supposed to be one or two SENTENCES that describe each chapter.

*drinks coffee*

Tere Kirkland said...

I just write notes, as if I'm telling a friend what is going to happen. I ask questions I don't know the answer to, also. Actually, these questions are almost more important than the events you are already sure of.

Asking questions instead of stating what the scene goal is helps to free my mind to think up cool plot points. I usually write them in present tense, go figure. Here's an example of my notes for my WiP:

Cass decides to go with her uncle to find her father. Does she bring anything with her? Will she need anything?

What kinds of adversity will she face with them, as the daughter of a witch? Will this give her any advantages?

Looks like I write more questions to myself than anything else, but that helps me to think more creatively, IMO. This method also works to rewrite scenes from scratch during the editing/revision phase.

Good luck!

Michelle McLean said...

Read "First Draft in 30 Days" by Karen Wiesner - excellent book - I suck at outlining (and I modified her system a bit to fit me) but it helped a lot in reoutlining a book I'm revising. And it would work awesome for a first draft (since that is what it's designed to do lol)

Jess said...

When I wrote my first novel, I took 12 sheets of paper. Each sheet signified a chapter. I jotted a sentence of what would happen in each chapter. Then, I sat down and started writing. As I wrote I jotted more ideas in the various chapters. The book grew. I sold it to Silhouette Romance. That's how I did my one and only published book... I've never been able to do that again. Go figure.

Jamie said...

Someone might have mentioned this already -- wow, a lot of comments -- but I'm really impressed by this method:

It makes you think logically about the structure. Really great idea.

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