Outlining- A Brief Guide
Outlining- A brief guide to the process of navigating the darkness of crafting your novel.
Outlining is the cornerstone of many writer’s creative processes, mine included. And while some people like to wing it (to any pantsers out there, I salute you) I have been a plotter, and always will be, especially when you consider the scale of the project I’m working on. Outlining for me is crucial, and if I do it right, it saves me a shit ton of work and brain power down the line when I’m trying to focus on an individual scene. So, let’s have a look at the parts of my outlining process and how I have managed to craft the stories which you guys praise so highly.
One- Mission Statement- Finding Points A and B
Outlining is basically a roadmap of your story- so your first question should always be- Where am I going? I always start with the macrocosm, and then go down to fine detail and layer it over the top as I refine down in steps four onwards. The most common mistake I see people who are new authors making is not having their mission statement from the very beginning. When I ask- What is your book about- I often hear, oh it’s about ghosts, or it’s a romance… but very rarely can new authors give me a concise summary of the plot they’re following and where they’re going to end up. It’s important to know this for many reasons, least of all marketing, and most of all because it stops you from having a book with a soggy middle and wandering narrative which loses the reader’s attention.
Two- Finding the motivator- realistically moving from A to B
So, you know where you’re heading, your next question needs to be how you’re going to get there. There are quite probably millions of different possible routes from A to B, but the one you’re looking for is that which fits into your Character’s personality. They need to be motivated to travel the path you’re putting them on, so make sure that while you’re working out how to get from point A to B, you’re considering what is pushing them forward, or in some cases, holding them back.
Three- Adding the resistance- applying your antagonist
For every good guy, there is a bad ‘guy’, I put that in inverted commas because it isn’t always a single person, sometimes it’s a group, a company, a machine, a dinosaur, or even the natural world aka. Zombie apocalypse, meteor crashing to earth, tsunami headed to wipe out life as we know it. Once you know how your Protagonist is getting from points A to B, look at how the opposing force will put in obstacles and resistance in their journey to success. The antagonist as a person or group of people, don’t forget, should be equally as motivated as the protagonist in wanting to succeed. Many authors will tell you that the ‘pure evil’ villain, with no reason as to why they’re acting the way they are, is overdone and ineffective in engaging the reader. The antagonist should always have an angle, whereby they believe what they’re doing is right, whether that be for vengeance, money, long-awaited glory, a tasty (if not rare) meal, it doesn’t matter, both forces- the good and the bad- must be motivated, and perhaps even just as relatable from the human experience as the other. In my opinion, the best antagonists are the ones who make you question or even sympathise with their actions as being evil. Your outline is like an onion (insert Shrek voice here) and the way I work mine is by layering. I personally always do the antagonist first, though (I know many authors don’t work this way and it doesn’t work for everyone) as they are usually more active than the protagonists who are often shoved unwillingly into the plot and act out of necessity rather than desire.
Four- Divide your journey into chapters.
Once you have your route, divide it into manageable sections. These will be your chapters. I personally have no more than 3 scenes per chapter, and very rarely more than two narrators if I’m using multiple POV to tell the story. I usually work it, so every action and consequence are their own chapters within the story. For example, the action of ritualistically resurrecting Sephy Sinclair in chapter five of The Onyx Hourglass is broken from the consequence of the resurrection by a chapter break, so the reader is always left hooked on wanting to know what happens next. If we break chapters in the lull between events, we may very well find readers are less likely to want to continue reading just one more chapter before lights out, so breaking between action and consequence is one of the tools that can be used to make your book unputdownable.
Five- Take it down to the microcosm- Connecting your bones and adding feeling.
Once you have your plot in place, your chapters decided, and the chunks of plot spread out before you, it’s time to get finicky. This is where the magic happens. In this stage of the outlining process, I lie back and imagine how each of the scenes would take place in detail. I will write out a list of bullet points for every single chapter, walking through step by step what I need to happen for the main skeleton of the story to stand by itself, for each part to link to the next, and for the main players to be where they should be when, and the logistics of how the characters will play out the route from A to B in real-time- kind of like watching it acted out on a stage in my head- a rehearsal if you like. It’s kind of like knowing you’re heading to an ultimate destination, but making sure you know each and every restaurant, rest stop, and motel along the way. It’s not important to the context of the ultimate destination, but it makes the journey what it is, and is realistically a large part of what you experience on the way there.
Six- Layer in your secondary plots
Once your skeleton is standing, route examined, the destination known, etc… excuse the mixed metaphors…. it’s important to think about who exactly you might visit on the way there, and how your journey will affect them in both the short and long-term, to add the muscle so to speak. A protagonist obviously undergoes the biggest changes throughout the story, but every single secondary character also believes that they’re just as much the main character as the ACTUAL main character, so make sure you give them stories which you can layer into the narrative along the way too. It really makes for a more realistic and three-dimensional story, AND, can lead to all important spin-offs and standalones if you so wish.
Seven- Layer in your themes-
Finally- I always layer in my themes. A theme can be colour, subliminal messages, architecture, furniture, random objects, décor, the appearance of characters etc. How do you want your story to look, to feel to the reader, what kind of images do you want your writing to summon? This is important from a marketing point of view, as a theme established early on and solidly in the first book of a series, or the first few chapters of a standalone can make for airtight branding and successful marketing in the long run. For example, The Tidal Kiss Trilogy is very deliberate brand wise, lots of curly calligraphy, blues for the sea, golds for sands, sparkles, and this is reflected in the appearance of the main character Callie Pierce. Her youth, her complexity, elegance, golden blonde hair and aquamarine eyes… It’s intentional. The little red vintage, the top down carefree vibe of San Diego, intentional, the colours of the Mer’s tailfins, intentional to match what each of my characters is trying to say. For example- Ghazi is green because he’s one the most down to earth characters. Orion midnight blue, for the colour of the sky which boasts his namesake’s constellation… Azure… well, that should be pretty obvious, but you get the idea. Every single object within my novels, every change in the weather, every building, is there to tell you something and has been carefully thought out. That’s the amazing thing about building a world, even things such as smells of characters or locations can have meaning if you want them to, and I truly believe readers appreciate it. For example- Xion smells of pomegranates because in the original myth of Hades and Persephone, he tempts her with a pomegranate, much like Eve is tempted by the apple in the garden of Eden in Christian verse. Xion is her temptation, her weakness, the thing that calls her repeatedly back to Mortaria despite the fact it’s basically hell, and so this is why I linked the fruit and the one thing she can’t resist. A big ol’ hunk of half-demon sandwich (with added beard.)
To conclude, there’s a shit ton I could say about outlining that isn’t down here, but honestly, this is the main process I would advise you try out before even writing a word of your first draft. Every author is different, and so their outlining process will be completely unique to them. This guide is also specific to fantasy with the added theming, though this can be done in a subtler way for other genres and it’s something I would do for any story, though some writers may disagree. At the end of the day, every story is an adventure, which will come to the writer in its own way, but until you have a first outline down, you’re working from nothing and things may well slip through your fingers or you might become overwhelmed at the prospect of such a huge project. Outlines are just that, outlines. The role of them is to break down what seems like a huge meal into bite-sized pieces that are manageable. They can be remade, changed, tweaked, as much as you like until you’re happy, but I hope these tips get the ball rolling for you, and give you something to think about.