3 Steps to a Solid Outline

With the completion and recent publication of my debut novel, Nightfall, several people have asked me how I managed to write the first draft of a several-hundred page novel within a year. I tell all of them the same thing: it’s easiest with a good outline.

Some people work best by writing whatever comes to them at that exact second. If that’s what work for you, don’t feel like you need to change. If that’s not working for you, though, read on.

Step 1: Lists Lists Lists Lists Lists.

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When I start working on an outline, the first step is knowing what needs to be in the outline to start with. Not having an idea of what goes on it would be like trying to make garlic bread without flour. Maybe the garlic flavor would come across, but it certainly would not be garlic bread.

My favorite method has 6-10 steps. Depending on the length and complexity of the story I’m working on, it can go from just a couple pieces to an intricate monster of a list spanning several pages. It can also be used to craft a series.

  • Character Goal and Ultimate Consequence
    • The first step is identifying what it is your character is fighting for, and what happens if they should fail. Why are they going on this adventure to begin with? In Nightfall, Zoey’s goal was to piece together what happened on the night she died. Consequences ranged from injury to never finding peace.
  • Prerequisites
    • Both sides will have prereqs, steps that have to be taken in order to reach the end. Prereqs for the Character Goal are steps that must be taken in order to reach the end goal whereas prereqs for the Ultimate Consequence are warnings or setbacks. Both are necessary to build tension and excitement. Not enough setbacks makes the Story Goal too easy to obtain.
      • This is the step that can have the biggest impact on the number of steps this list has. Each prereq may also have prereqs. This is up to personal preference. I often have 2-3 rounds of prereqs for both positive and negative pieces.
  • Benefits and Sacrifices
    • Fighting toward a story goal may come with completely unrelated payoffs. New friends, new experiences, and improvements in other areas of life can all be benefits. The flip side of that is sacrifices. What does your character give up to reach their goal? Relationships, opportunities, and personal ideals are all fair game.
      • If you want to get really detailed, these can have prereqs, too.

Tip: This works for both long stories, like novels, and short stories or flash fiction. The changes would lie primarily in the number of prereqs and benefits/sacrifices. It is my go-to strategy since it is so flexible.

Step 2: Whiteboards

Spoiler Alert: The photo is the actual photo I used during the planning of Nightfall.

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Use the pieces from the lists to craft a timeline. I find this is easiest on a whiteboard because pieces can be easily erased and moved to another area. If you don’t own one, libraries often have some available (that’s where the above photo was taken), and most colleges and universities have some available for student use.

As you go, take pictures. This way, if you like the way things were before you erased something, you can find the way it was earlier. Also take pictures upon completion.

Cross items off your list as you go as well. There is nothing more irritating than having the same event in two completely different areas when you’re trying to edit.

I use whiteboards at least twice. The first time it’s for a general idea. After a few days (or weeks, processing time is very personal to both the writer and the individual work), I do it a second time. This time, compare the outline to both the previous outline and a fresh copy of the lists. Changes are to be expected, and not just to the outline. Sometimes, this is when completely new prereqs or details show up.

Tip: This is an excellent tool if you’re telling a story from multiple perspectives. Visual representations like spacing and color coding each character can help ensure everyone gets appropriate “screen time.”

Step 3: Chart It

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Here there are several options. Some of my friends use graph paper, others use programs like Microsoft Excel or Google Docs. For convenience, I am fond of using any computerized program so I can access it anywhere from my house to the train.

Set up two columns. The first is Chapter or Scene number. The second is what happens in that particular scene or chapter. From there, use your timeline to guide your charting. Again, welcome changes. If at any point you feel events should be different, feel free to try. Absolutely nothing is set in stone.

Tip: This chart is a guide. It helps keep a map of how a story can progress and can help alleviate a weak middle by showing you how to connect the beginning and end. Keep in mind, however, that staying true to the story and characters should always be the ultimate goal. If the outline no longer suits the story, there is no shame in redoing an outline halfway through. 

There you have it, a completed outline! Write to your heart’s content.

One thought on “3 Steps to a Solid Outline

  1. Pingback: 3 Things to Think About Before Killing (Fictional) People | Christy Harkins

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