Making an Outline

Back when I wrote longer non-fiction, including a book on training, education, and unconferences  (shameless self promotion), I made extensive outlines including notes, quotes, and anything else I needed for the section or chapter I was working on. Transferring this process to writing fiction took some trial and error, but after taking a workshop with Rhonda Helms on plotting and GMC, I figured out a process which works for me. If Rhonda ever offers another workshop, I highly recommend it.

Having an outline keeps me focused on what my goal is for each scene and chapter. Knowing what each chapter needs to contain to move me to the next scene and chapter also keeps me from getting too long winded or wandering too far afield. An outline makes me a more efficient writer.

I start by writing one or two sentences about the following items:

  • Beginning/inciting incident
  • Turning Point 1
  • Midpoint
  • Turning Point 2
  • Black Moment
  • Resolution

If my project is about 70,000-75,000 words (my norm), then I figure out where each of the above elements fits into a chapter by chapter blank outline. For instance, the beginning is in Chapter 1, Turning Point 1 would be around Chapter 6, the Midpoint would be somewhere around Chapter 11 or 12, and so on.

The other chapters, those between the focal points of the plot, are filled in with one or two sentences describing the events which will lead my characters to the next plot point or develop them as they go along. In addition to small summaries, if I know whose Point of View I want a particular chapter in, I make note of it.

I write out the first draft of this outline by hand on a legal pad. I used to do all my GMC and plotting on my computer, but I remember details better when I write them by hand. I then transfer the written outline into a new document which then becomes my WIP. As I write each chapter, I erase the notes for that chapter and move on to the next one.

As the manuscript progresses, I will often add details, move things around, or delete entire chapters if a certain element does not take as long as I anticipated or I add elements as needed. As long as I stay within my plot points, I have wiggle room in how I get there.

I will admit that the Resolution for the last manuscript simply said, “They somehow do X and all is well” because for about half the book, I had no idea how the characters were going to solve the main external problem. I knew they would in general but the details were fuzzy.

Some writers plot with sticky notes. I adore sticky notes, but I do not have the wall space for that and I do not always write in the same room. My outline needs to be mobile. Some writers do not plot at all. They just plop their butts in a chair and start writing. You should do what works best for your style.

What does your process look like? Is it organized? Messy? Are there ways to refine your process to make it better or faster?