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What is your outlining process?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Firefly, Aug 6, 2019.

  1. Firefly

    Firefly Troubadour

    I've seen a lot of threads where people talk about their writing process, but mostly those seem to deal with the actual writing/drafting part, and don't go to deep into how they create their outlines.

    It never really stood out to me before because I kind of assumed all outliners just did it the same way (I'm aware how obviously wrong that sounds, didn't think about it at the time) but I recently made a pretty big change to how I go about doing it that made me wonder what other styles there are.
    CelestialGrace likes this.
  2. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Maester

    I never do a formal outline. Certainly not the scene-by-scene sort. It's more like a loose synopsis of the story, subject to alteration, addition, or deletion as I get into the writing of the narrative.
  3. Ned Marcus

    Ned Marcus Sage

    My outlining process has changed so many times. I started of without one, writing organically, but it took me ages to finish my book. Then I tried a fairly detailed outline, but realized that I wasted time because I'd change direction when writing. Now I'm in-between the organic and outlining approach. First I do a rough outline, a few pages of handwritten A4 + any notes, bits of dialogue that come to me when I'm thinking about my story. And then I write a detailed outline of a chapter or two, then I write. Then I write another detailed outline of the next few chapters, and then I write them—and so on.

    Whatever you try, you can always change it and adapt as you move forward.
  4. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    The outline for me is one of the very last steps. There's supposedly an Einstein quote which reads, "If given an hour to work out a problem, I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes on the solution." I feel like that about an outline. I want to understand the characters, the setting, the conflict, the dynamic, before I write down the solution about how the whole thing comes together.

    My outline goes scene-by-scene through the group of chapters that I'm on, and then devolves into frantic notes about what has to be included in each grouping that follows.
  5. I can't remember where I read it but I gathered my outlining process from a few places, the first was from a suggestion to star by writing the idea as a fifty(ish) page story first. Beginning to end and without dialogue or viewpoint except for perhaps any key lines or interactions stated as " Character A discusses X with Character B" This helps me the most with wading into the middles and with multiple character story lines. Then I go through and begin to break up the story into three acts and plot points and then down to segments/scenes and I make a list of all the little things I want to get into the story. Any names for animals, food, potions, cultural identifiers, phrases etc and the history (brief) of the world.

    Sometimes I work from the end back sometimes from the middle out. It makes no difference because I've never been one to become too attached to anything I come up with early on. So if the ending changes, that's fine. If the starting point needs moved, I move it. If the magic system isn't quite right, I'll tweak it. Of course, that is all after many, many hours of research, worldbuilding, character development and exploratory writing within each category.

    So my final outline, by any measure, is still more of a hazy silhouette but with some major points I want to see down on the paper. When I sit down to write a first draft, I'll write through as far as I can, skipping what's still unclear and marking breaks for scenes and chapters as they come to me. I tighten those things and rework them in first revisions and editing, not beforehand. I found I can't constrain the story in that first draft. It just never worked for me to try to do so.

    I usually say I'm neither a pantser nor an outliner, but a round-abouter.
  6. MrNybble

    MrNybble Sage

    My outline process is like trying to tour the world using a thousand year old map. There is a general idea of where I should be taking the story, but things change nearly every chapter. An outline is just there to keep me in the rough area of the original idea.
  7. Jun Peng

    Jun Peng Dreamer

    For the series that I am finally starting, I created my outline by first creating the timeline of the story. After the timeline was finished, the story was more or less filling in the details of the story and fleshing out the history. Now, it took many years to finally work on the history, geography, lore, races, and magic of the world, but with all that done, its much easier to just focus on writing.
  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    There's quite a range of replies here. I wonder, FireflyFirefly, could you tell us about your old outlining method and the new one? That might help provide some context.

    For myself, I've outlined in two directions. One is an outline of what I intend to write, or think I intend. That's very traditional, with Roman numerals and the works. Comes from a lifetime of experience outlining for history writing. The other direction is outlining *after* I've written. I've found that to be useful in seeing what I actually wrote as distinct from what I believe I wrote. Helps with pacing, plot holes, that sort of thing. That's much more descriptive than hierarchical.
  9. Darkfantasy

    Darkfantasy Inkling

    I haven't really figured mine out yet since I'm only half way through my first actual novel and before I wrote short stories and never bothered to plan.
    I gather ideas first. An idea comes to me and spend time researching it.
    Depending on what I'm writing I tend to start planning my antagonist/villain as they are going to inform my characters actions.
  10. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    Over time, my outlines have gotten more and more detailed.

    Before I do anything, I figure out what my characters want. What drives them and why. Once I have that, I brainstorm a bunch of stuff. Once I have that, I can start outlining.

    First, I lay out the big picture view of the main story in three act structure, filling in all the key points.
    Second, I lay out the big picture view of all the various plots using seven point plot structure format.
    Third, now that I have a sketch of the overall story and all the various arcs, I start to design scenes, and figure out what arcs each scene advanced, and I'd link the progression of the various plots together using scene-sequel structure.

    This is where I used stop, and dive in, words ablazing. But now, with my latest book, I went one step further and sketched out the flow of all the scenes in fuller detail. I found this extra level of depth let me play things out in my head in higher definition and identify problems with logic, consistency of character, world, etc, and address them more fully before I put word one down. It also allowed me to better set things up, call back to them, and pay them off. I also found doing it this way, as I write, I've not really encountered many spots where I had to go back and change the outline. In fact, I found that it has helped me keep on track with a lot of things because I had a clearer picture of where things were going.

    There'd be points where I'd wander off in a different direction than planned and would have to stop and think. And after running through the whole story and what the consequences of the change of direction were, I'd realize the new direction did not fit with the overall story I was trying to tell.
  11. Firefly

    Firefly Troubadour

    I'm curious about how people get from having a soupy mess of ideas and research and notes to having an outline. How do you figure out what stuff you want to happen and sequence it? What form the outline takes is also interesting, but the thing I'd really like to know is how you get there.

    Here's my older way of doing it:
    Once I'd done enough brainstorming and thinking and daydreaming about the story's concept and characters, I'd start making lists of all the plot points and scenes and random moments I had ideas for, and then try and map them onto a story structure and fill in the blanks.

    This was slow and kind of frustrating for me for a number of reasons: I would know I needed, say, a midpoint or something, and have a very good idea of how midpoints should work on an abstract level, but just be unable to figure out what that should be for my story. I also never knew if the event I thought should be the midpoint should really be the midpoint, or maybe it would make a better third plot point.
    I never knew how to bridge the gaps in between plot points, partly because I was focusing a lot on individual events in a very bullet-point sort of way, and kind of ignoring the cause and a effect that linked these things together into an actual plot. It was a lot of "this happens, and then *vague aftermath*, and then this happens and there's more *vague aftermath, and then for some reason they go do this thing. I always intended to fill this stuff in but for some reason I felt like the outline was only for the Events That Happen and character reactions and motivations didn't belong there because it would make the outline too long. I think since I was transitioning from discovery writing I thought I needed something simpler and more minimalist, but since I tend to struggle so much with filling gaps it was the exact opposite of what I needed

    What I do now focuses a lot more on progressing things through escalating tension and try-fail cycles.
    The first thing that I do is figure out the thing that I want the character to do at the end of the story. I'm not really sure if this would be the need or the want or the goal or whatever according to the way other writers look at things, but its something specific I want them go after that they usually aren't super dedicated to at the beginning. In my current WIP it's overthrowing the protagonist's brother who is a tyrannical king, in another idea I've been playing with lately, it's basically just to be with the love interest.)

    After I have that figured out, I brainstorm a list of all the things pushing the character towards and away from that goal, to figure out what kinds of motivations and antagonism I want to use, and then I'll create numbered, escalating scales for both of those things and and try to slot them together so there's sort of a push and pull. I think of try/fail cycles a lot while I'm doing this--because it helps me figure out character actions/reactions and fill in those gaps of cause and effect.

    Those both sound very convoluted when I write it all out like that, wow.
  12. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    I've been trying to give you a better answer than I gave earlier, but it keeps ending up as me rambling about Smughitter in ways that get off topic. :(

    I think the key is to figure out the single important thing in your book and to let that be your driving force. What's the part that makes you really excited to write it? Focus purely on how to bring that out. Let's say - just for example - that it's your ability to describe big flashy magic. Then obviously you want your climax to really, truly show it off. And you want a character that uses it often - maybe at the start he's got the job of magically geoengineering a new landscape and .... there I am, getting off track.
    Stardust likes this.
  13. Firefly

    Firefly Troubadour

    (sorry for double posting, Penpilot's response wasnt up yet when I wrote mine)

    Yeah, I think a big part of why this is often so vague is that its really hard to talk about without examples. I noticed that writing mine too.
  14. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    If you haven't seen this already, here's some links to a three part article I wrote on story structure a long time ago in a head space far far away. It basically outlines--no pun intended--my process of breaking a story down into the big picture parts and how I weave the plots together into scenes. I use Star Wars as an example.

    Big Picture Story Structure – Part 1: Three-Act Structure
    Big Picture Story Structure – Part 2: Three-Act Structure
    Big Picture Story Structure – Part 3: Seven-Point Plot Structure
  15. johnsonjoshuak

    johnsonjoshuak Troubadour

    I start with a 1-sentence idea for the novel. Then I write the beats. Then a summary and then the real work begins. I write a chapter-by-chapter outline usually 2-3 paragraphs. This usually ends up being between 8-10K words all together.
    Sian likes this.
  16. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    > I start with a 1-sentence idea for the novel.
    Oh, if only I could. I'm more in the soup with Firefly here. I have what I *think* the story is about, but that initial idea rarely holds up. I'm coming to believe because it's more about plot than about people. I'm working on that one.

    As an example: the initial idea for Goblins at the Gates was that a goblin horde invades the empire. Some hero or heroes defeat it. And sure, the end product had that, but it was really more about how various characters dealt with that invasion, with that disruption of their lives and their reality.

    My current WIP is the story of how Frederick became emperor. Nice clear sentence, but that can't be what the story's about because it needs to be about Frederick himself. How he deals with challenges, how he changes. There's no way in the world I can come up with beats when I don't even know the tune yet.

    FireflyFirefly, I'm curious about the exact same thing. I even had a thread on it, but we wanders a bit, we does. Soup is exactly the right metaphor, because it's a mish-mash of specific ideas, vague notions, declared ambitions (e.g., a word count target), hints of themes, ideas about settings, and so on. My previous post asked how one gets from that to writing, but we can back it up a step and ask how we get to outlining.

    Here's my current muddle. People sometimes call it a process, but surely a process is something you can do more than once, right? I seem to come at it from a different quadrant with every new story. Anyways. I'm aiming to get the ending clear. I want to know where Frederick is at the end of the story. Where is he standing? Who's with him? What's he thinking? More structurally, what in that finally scene recapitulates a theme? Are the plot lines tied up? (I know, what plot lines we don't even have a plot yet, but it at least gives me something to consider)

    Waypoints. Is there something big that happens that causes Frederick to reassess himself or his goals? It might be discovering a malevolent evil lurking behind the scenes. It might be he realizes he's been treating his friends badly, in danger of becoming a tyrant. It could be he discovers he can wield magic. Any number of things. The something big could be a turning point or it could be a plot twist near the end, but if it's big and it connects with plot and theme and character, then it belongs somewhere.

    In this particular story I have a skeleton on which to hang some of this, because I know Frederick went from Sicily to Aachen, and I know the route he took. I can modify the route, of course, but at least there's a structure there. So I can start pinning waypoints to physical places, and see how it fits. I did something like that with Goblins. Some day maybe I'll write a story set all in one town, but so far having a journey involved has helped with structure--which is another way of saying helps with outlining.

    A final comment. When I listen to some describe their process, it sounds very much front to back (a few work back to front). IOW, you start here, take the next step, then the next, then the next, until reaching the end (beginning) of the story. Not only have I been unsuccessful in working that way, I can't even begin to think that way. I'm working top down (bottom up?). That is, I need to be seeing the whole of the story in my head--and eventually on paper--then I work on filling in details. The closest parallel is with painting, where the artist first sketches in pencil, working a bit here then some over there, then up at the top of the canvas, back to the center. Usually starting with some broad strokes that define the general shape of the painting.

    I'm quite sure prolific authors don't work that way. I'm envious of them.
  17. ifearsnowmen

    ifearsnowmen New Member

    I've never actually had a written outline. I just have a general idea for where the story should go, but other than jotting down a few notes, I don't set anything in stone because the story changes chapter by chapter.
  18. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    But how much of that suggests that "process" is just a bonkers unknowable thing, and how much of that is you experimenting and learning and growing your process through trying different methods?

    Let's say you pants through story number 1. When you sit down through story number 2, you use that experience to project or forecast how you might "pants through it" ahead of time and that becomes a first draft of an outline. For some people it may take some experience to really be able to think that way. It's like a math problem where you didn't show your work.

    What I mean to say is, sometimes it's not about the process changing, but about the process collapsing in one area and expanding in the next, developing like your characters do.
  19. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    If it's not replicable, I'm not sure "process" is the best word for whatever-it-is.

    I wish I could say I'm experimenting and learning. It's more of just gaining experience. I again go to painting, but also to music. Sure there are some specific things one learns, but the real growth comes--if it comes at all--through just painting a whole lot of canvases, playing a lot of music. Somewhere in there, you get better at it. And, equally important, you make your art more of yourself, for good or ill.
    Chessie2 likes this.
  20. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

    I don't really outline although I'm starting to wonder if I should. I typically sit on ideas for so long that by the time I start brainstorming (which could be considered outlining of sorts) I already know what's going into the story for sure. Then it's just a matter of sitting in the chair and working.

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