Tips for Creating an Outline

Hello! If you’re like me, you may be living off of Pumpkin Cream Cold Brews lately. I’m blaming it on needing the caffeine, because next week, I start drafting my third novel! AHHH! 

In my last post, I talked about the brainstorm phase from the very beginning, including how I know I have an idea that I want to turn into an entire novel. Once I had a coherent (or coherent enough) idea written of my new novel from start to finish (which took a couple weeks on and off), I shared it with my Brain(storm) Trust. No one take that pun from me.

Here’s the thing: some writers don’t want to let anyone in at the brainstorm/early outline phase, mostly because it might impact their story or where they take it. They want it to be fully theirs, and I respect that. For me, I tried this method and FAILED SPECTACULARLY. My first novel was blown through with plot holes, and I swear on Kaz Brekker that I wish I could go back and share my initial ideas with trusted people so they could help me find those plot holes before I wasted 7,000 years writing and revising and crying and revising again. 

So for me, I want to make sure my story makes sense from start to finish. The summary wasn’t pretty, but it was enough to have my Brainstorm Trust help me sort out issues before they start (thank you Shaun, Michelle and Anton!)

This doesn’t mean it won’t change, though. Since our socially distant discussion, I’ve already had a lot of thoughts and tweaks I’d like to make, especially to the setting. And while I’d say I’m 90% a plotter (ie, your girl here loves to outline), I’ve got about 10% pantser in me (where I can write off the cuff and see where it takes me). 

In this week leading up to my first draft, I’m working on creating a proper, fully developed outline. I currently have some issues with the third act (this always happens to me in the early stages), so I’m taking time to sort that out.

So what goes in an outline? Now on my third novel, I’ve found a method that works for me, though I’m sure it’ll continue to alter as I change as a writer. Still, there are key elements I’m always going to want in there, and this list below pretty much covers it. Note that I’m a Google Sheets queen and create my outline on a spreadsheet, not a word doc. Here’s a made-up example so you can see how I set it up:

Starting with Chapter/Scene Number. I’m not worrying too much about this right now, because I’ll have a better sense of it once I start drafting. I find this extremely helpful once I’m actually revising, and less so at the drafting level. For now, I’ll be focusing on making sure it’s simply in chronological order.

Next is the Chapter/Scene Overview column. This is exactly what you’d think it is: it’s the basic summary of the chapter in 1-2 sentences so I know what the heck it’s about!

Next is the Save the Cat Beat Number–a new addition to my outline structure! I’ve mentioned I’ve been reading Save the Cat, and boy did I love it. It compiles the main 15 beats most/all stories should have, and I want to track how my story is matching up to those beats. I’m guessing it won’t always match up exactly, but it’ll help me know if my scenes are doing the work they need to be doing.

Next comes the Emotional Tone column, where I ask myself, “What vibe am I trying to convey? Is it mostly action and high tension, is it soft and focused on romance, is it ratcheting up the fear my main character is feeling? Having a brief note helps remind me to use words that will better match that tone and heighten everything.

After that comes the Basic Location Details column, where I note the scene’s location, as well as the time of day where it’s loosely happening. This is for continuity’s sake and so I can focus on the details whatever location I’m working on. This will go hand-in-hand with the emotional tone: setting and tone are intrinsically tied and should complement one another, otherwise they’re not pulling their full weight. If you’re looking for help on setting and making sure your emotional tone is helping it, I highly recommend A Writer’s Guide to Active Setting by Mary Buckham.

Next, another new addition since Book Two: the Main Character Arc column. Since I had a hard time with character in the past, I’m making sure I have a dedicated column so I can make sure I’m always thinking about her arc. Is she growing? Is her arc stagnant? Has she changed at all? How much do I need her to change?

Next is Main Character’s Emotional Response/Internalization column, which came in about halfway through my last novel. It probably sounds similar to emotional tone, but this is more specific to how my character is specifically feeling. Maybe I want a scene’s emotional tone to be creepy, but I want my main character to put up an act/try to act brave. Or maybe I want something to trigger their worst fear, and they become a total wreck. This once also helps with continuity, except it’s totally dedicated to my main character and their personality. 

Next is the Conflict column. Who’s not getting along in this scene? What’s driving a wedge between my main character and other characters, or the world she’s navigating? Basically, this column is to make sure I’m not writing a scene/chapter where everyone’s just getting along swimmingly and nothing’s really progressing, or at least not as powerfully as it could be. I will say, as a reader, sometimes we desperately just want a ‘nice’ scene where things  *are* great (we see this often when we’ve been dying for our romance to finally come to a head, and something wonderful happens for our main character). Those absolutely have their place, but on the whole, I’m looking to make things harder on my characters, not easier!

And the final column is dedicated to Questions! As much as I want to have everything figured out by the time I start writing, this likely won’t happen. I’m sure I’ll have things pop up while writing that I never thought of while drafting. Sometimes my questions are something like, “Is Villain’s motivation clear?” or “Not sold on main character’s reaction to this.” 

When you’re writing a book, it takes a while, and what’s fresh in your mind now may not be fresh later. Hell, I guarantee it. It’s why I’m constantly referring to my outline, constantly tweaking it or leaving questions in the margins of my draft. Ultimately, I would rather try and have a solid outline to help me start drafting, than to keep waiting until I feel 100% confident and take forever to start. If I want to be a published author (which I sure do), part of the deal is being able to write quickly, to keep having stories to tell. I don’t want to spend five months on an outline; I’d rather train myself to write one in a month and then launch forward into the drafting phase. The beauty of writing is rewriting.

So there we are! My version of outlining is probably pretty intense to some people (it literally used to be Scene, Description, Questions), but it specifically fits me as a writer, helping me address my strengths and weaknesses. If I know I’ve struggled in the past with character arc, you best believe it’s getting its own column. 

At the end of each round of revisions (which I’ll eventually talk more about in another post), I take some time to update my outline. Is it still mostly accurate? Did I make a big change in act two, and everything after it is a bit different now? Did I change my main character’s personality, so they may react differently in a scene than they did in an earlier draft? Have I addressed things in the ‘Questions’ column, or do I need to spend more time on them? Did I totally alter a scene’s location, and thus the emotional tone might change with it?

Now that I’ve spent so much time writing about my outline, I have to get back to, you know, actually completing my outline. If you see me on social media too much, be sure to remind me I MUST FINISH THIS OUTLINE.

Sending all the pumpkin spice,


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