Workshop: The Tao of Outlines


Vision 73



The Tao of Outlines


Lazette Gifford

Joyously Prolific Blog

Copyright © 2013, Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved


Out of void, substance

Out of thought, understanding

Out of chaos, story


About this Workshop:

This workshop does not have the usual sets of assignments. Instead, there is only one -- to write an outline. With NaNoWriMo coming soon (November 1-30), doing some pre-work ahead of time can make the difference in reaching your goal.

For those not doing NaNo, there is still information in this workshop that can help you not only with outlines, but with plotting and pacing in general.

Part One: Attitude

Attitude may seem an odd thing to cover when talking about outlines, but I think one thing that can really help people with outlines is to approach them in a spirit of exploration, rather than thinking each point is a definite step in the story. The great thing about outlines is the ability to experiment and jot down things that are easy to delete and change before you actually write the story. However, if you don't start with the idea that not everything has to be perfect the first time through, then you lose some of the power that comes from outlines.

I don't recommend everyone write outlines. Some people have such an aversion to them that even when the outline is good, they'll believe they have ruined the story and never write it. Some believe outlines are also not creative (though where they think the story in the outlines comes from is kind of confusing) and that they will make boring books that trudge along one step to another.

Outlines are never meant to be solid, set-in-stone directions to writing. They are a list of events, with varying amounts of information, even within a single outline. Some scenes may have bits of conversation that the author imagined and doesn't want to forget before he gets there. Others sections may simply be a list of events.

There is no wrong way to write an outline. There is nothing you must put in it and not everything that is in the outline needs to be used. Outlines can be considered very slim first drafts. They are a way of organizing work so you can write a smoother longer version of the story with less need to rework the plot later. Outlines allow you to work out intricate plot points and get everything aligned properly in the story before you write the actual long novel. Hints and foreshadowing of an event are much easier to handle in this form. They do not require that you rewrite huge sections of previous story to fit in something new.

Outlines are not a magic bullet that will fix a plot for you. A person has to understand plot and storyline before they can create a reasonable outline. Making an outline can help you understand structure better by laying it out in simple pieces, but you still need to create those pieces to make it work.

There is one group of people who should seriously consider trying outlines. I can't begin to tell you the number of people I talk to who say they won't finish their current story. They have any number of reasons, from the story is boring to they found a much better version of the same thing.

Whatever the reason, stopping before they've finished this story is not going to make the next one better or easier. I'm sure this is hard to understand when you are facing a dying story on one side and a bright shiny -- SQUIRELL! -- story on the other side. All you need do is close one and start a new one, right?

Except for a problem: You are as likely to drop the next story when you reach a spot you can't work out. That's right when you'll get a bright new idea, too. You are giving yourself excuses to quit and not to work harder to fix the story you loved so short a time before.

A very basic outline can help get your through this problem. You want certain things to happen. Here is the place to line them up so each event leads naturally to the next.

This is about attitude. On the one hand, you need to be committed to finishing your work -- that is more important than an attitude about outlines. However, if you want to work with outlines, you have to be open to the idea that you can write them in any way that suits you. You also have to get over the idea that if you put down a set of notes, that means you have told the story and it'll be boring to write it again.

The Basics of an Outline

The most basic outline is a list of events that move the storyline forward. Some outlines are more complex, with motivations, bits of dialogue and reminders to foreshadow upcoming events. None of this is difficult to do once you start looking for simplicity.

An outline is a roadmap and doesn't preclude road blocks, detours and side trips. What an outline does provide is a basic itinerary for your character to follow and a place to work back to when the character gets lost. Creating an outline Doesn't mean you have told the story, any more than studying a roadmap means you've taken the trip. Outlines are nothing more than directions for getting to certain spots you want in the story.


There are basically two types of novel pacing (other than stream-of-consciousness).

One is the 'rush from start to finish' book in which everything builds to something more exciting in the next scene. There is no break from the tension as the main character races to the finish. This type of book works well for thrillers and horror novels where you do not want the reader to stop and consider the situation. It also works well for shorter novels and books with only one story thread. If you have multiple POVs and storylines covering various areas, keeping that rush going is nearly impossible. Not everything, everywhere, will have the same sense of urgency, especially since readers will often connect more with certain characters and be more interested in what they're doing.

The second type is actually more common than you might think. This is the mountain and valley approach. There are lots of obstacles (mountains) that come into the path of the main character, but there are also short rests (valleys) where the character is faced with something less troubling. This may seem counter-intuitive, but having small breaks can make the tension stronger. The reader knows more is coming, after all. So that bittersweet moment with the main character's family not only reminds the reader of 'normality' in the book's universe, but also reminds the reader of the stakes. This type of story works very well for a quest (and don't think of that as just fantasy) where the hero must find or overcome something to save others. Reminding the reader of who those others are increases the motivation for the main character.

Create better pacing

No matter which style of story you do, pacing is an important part of telling a good tale. One of the best things an outline can do is help you create better pacing. You likely have a number of interesting events you want to happen. So you write them -- but because you don't have any idea of the plan of your story, you bunch everything together at the start of your story and you're lost by the time you get to the middle.

In a story, the power and impact of big events is made better by building up to them. The best way to do this is to know what is going to happen later and start putting in hints, smaller problems leading to larger ones and leading your characters towards the biggest trouble at the end of the story.

Presenting one huge problem after another may work in some stories, but often if you present the plot with no respite and no change of pace, the problems themselves lose impact, no matter how important they might be. The reader needs breathing space between the larger events. That does not mean you need to lessen the overall tension of the story, though.

Even in the 'mountain and valley' method of plotting -- where high conflict is followed by lower, relatively quiet times -- you can still have things going wrong, and small problems leading, inevitably, to the larger ones. Things that don't appear to be related can be worked in until suddenly that missing doll is actually an important key to the rest of the story.

With an outline, you can see better how to pace your events. You want things to go from bad to worse, with the absolute worst of the problems at the end. You want the earlier events to lead to an ending where the main characters have no choice but to face the biggest problem of all. This final confrontation cannot be put off or put aside because the events have reached a point where there is no turning back. All the problems throughout the story have led the characters (and readers) to this point and all that is left is to make the final choices on how to deal with the trouble.

Think about the story you want to write. Do you think the story would do best from a rush to the end type of plot or a valley and mountains plot? Remember that horror and thriller type books often do well from the 'rush' type of story where everything gets more intense and dangerous with each new altercation.

On the other hand, a book with an on-going romance (no matter what the genre) would generally work better with hills and valleys so there is time to explore the romance side. Consider all the aspects of your story and make a choice.

However, like everything else in outlines, this doesn't mean you will be stuck with it. Outlines are where you explore possibilities.

Outlines and Timelines

When you are creating a simple outline, following the timeline for events is not difficult. If you have multiple Points of View, this can also help you make certain the characters are all getting equal time and facing equally important incidents. How about the sidekicks and other lesser characters? The love interest? Have you built their storylines up with equal power to reach the same end?

About Beginnings, Middles and Ends

Most people think of their novels as having three distinct parts, which is why so many of them get stuck in the middle. They know the opening and they can see the end -- but the middle is a vast wasteland to them.

I don't think in these terms. For me, a story is a series of events from opening that leads to the end, each step building to what happens in the last scene. However, if you do think in the beginning, middle and end terms, there are things that can help.

Beginning -- This is the part of the story where you introduce your main characters, the world around them and the situation in which they find themselves. When working on the outline, it is important to remember that you are not just giving this trifold of information. You must blend all of this carefully into an exciting storyline.

Often the story begins with something exciting happening, so considering how much to show and how much to explain is one of the difficult steps, especially for new writers. There is one thing to remember: The reader doesn't need to know everything right away, but needs to be intrigued enough to stick around and find out the answers.

Middle -- After you have set up all the introductory pieces, writers often don't know what to do with them except to rush straight to the ending. Skipping over the middle seems like the best thing to do since they don't know what to put there.

Middles are a great area, though. It's here that you can create all sorts of short term problems for your characters, create dissention between the various people, and let your main characters make mistakes. Everything that happens must be related to the larger problems of the story, though. Look for conflicts everywhere and really let your MCs make some mistakes and have to correct them. Just remember that you are building tension and that tension must lead to the trouble at the end.

Endings -- The most trouble people have here is when they do not have a clear idea of what they want from the story. They have created oh-so-lovely characters and put them through hell, but now what are they going to do with them? Where to leave them in the end?

This is where having an outline can be a real help. You have laid out a number of problems and you can now look them over and make certain that they lead to something that is the worst problem of all. If some of the items don't quite work leading up to the ultimate trouble, then cut them out. Now is the time, not after you've written thousands of words and then realize you can't use the material.

Take your main characters to the final, biggest problem -- and this is a problem that can't be avoided, at least if you have built your outline well. How they handle it (win or lose) is up to you. You might add a little denouement afterwards, which is a short piece showing the world after the final confrontation.

Fixing small problems with mini outlines

You can get stuck at some spot in the story, with no clear path of exactly where to go, even if you know the general plan of the story. Sometimes all you need is a quick outline of the next few events to see how things work at this specific spot in a story. In those cases, take the time to jot down the events. Move them around, add and subtract things, until you find a sequence that will get you through this section.

These mini outlines are nothing more than brainstorming with notes so you can track the yes/no ideas you get. You are talking to yourself between brain and paper and arguing out the ideas. Sometimes getting them out of your head and onto paper/screen can help to make the problems easier to focus on.

There are no rules

Sometimes writing down notes for a new story while editing another one can help to fight that 'I want something new' feeling which can draw you away from finishing one piece. Don't overdo it if writing too much takes away the joy when you start the new story. Notes on characters, world building and some basic story plot is all you need.

Don't be afraid of outlines. They aren't the horrible things you were forced to do in school. Outlines are another tool writers can use when they need them, as long as they're willing to get over their high school homework reactions.

Part Two -- Outlines and NaNo

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) starts on November 1st. The plan is to write (at least) 50,000 in one month. For people who have never written anything that long, let alone in 30 days, the idea looks crazy and daunting.

Well, it is crazy.

Should you write outlines for NaNo? Sometimes, yes.

Some people take on NaNo with the idea of doing nothing but silly, fun stuff all month. There is nothing wrong with that, and they are not likely to need outlines if all they intend to do is use the site's challenges and such to write.

Some people want a novel that they can edit and publish later. This takes an entirely different approach, obviously. They also want to write at least 50k (whether that is all the book or not) during November. This means extreme concentration on the novel and no time to put it aside for a day or two while you work out a 'what happens next?' problem.

This is where a very simple outline can make all the difference. One of the simplest outlines you can use is where you write down 50 steps in your story and write at least 1000 words for each of those entries.


Chapter 1

1. Dark, ominous cloud sweeps down on secluded temple. Demons leap from cloud and attack, killing hundreds of priests.

2. Dozens of priests fight to get to sacred treasure, Eye of Orantis, a palm sized glowing gem. In group is Brennus (MC), one of the three last ordained into the sacred order. Raised at the temple, never known outside world, but knows every nook and cranny of here. Helps others stay clear of demons.

3. Get gem but can't hold back demons. Fight to get clear and finally escape from Temple into swamps. Only ten left. Heading for a related temple to the east. See Temple of the Eye in ruins. Fear they are the last.

Chapter 2

4. Difficult journey through swamp. Only one has gone this way before. Dangerous animals, sink holes, etc.

5. Demons follow for first two days, but then seem to have given up. Brennus suggests they are only going to wait at other side of swamp. Others decide best to change direction and even dare use Eye to help them find a path.


That is already 1/10th of the way through the outline. Do nine more sets like that (which I intend to do with this story) and you will have a basic outline.

However, there is a way to make this even better for writing. Instead of 50 points, make 100 -- and then you only have to write 500 words per point to reach 50k. So how do you expand something like this? By adding more detail.

Chapter 1

1. Dark, ominous cloud sweeps down on secluded temple. Demons, dark and huge, leap from cloud and attack, killing hundreds of priests.

2. Battle fought on the terraces, but soon push into the sacred building itself. Use of magic by master priests holds back some of the demons, but there are too many. Head of the temple dies trying to protect the sacred altar. Demons destroying everything.

3. Realize they are looking for special treasure hidden in Temple. Dozens of priests fight to get to sacred treasure, Eye of Orantis, a palm sized glowing gem. Moving through maze of building, but being followed.

4. In group is Brennus (MC), one of the three last ordained into the sacred order. Raised at the temple, never known outside world, but knows every nook and cranny of here. Helps others stay clear of demons.

5. Get gem but can't hold back demons. Fight to get clear and finally escape from Temple into swamps. Only ten left. One is injured messenger who travels between temples. He is leading the way, but have to go slowly.

6. Creatures coming from the swamp, drawn by battle. Snakes, dragons, wisps -- all dangerous, but as dangerous for Demons as for them. Group decides to head for a related temple to the east. See Temple of the Eye in ruins. Fear they are the last.

Chapter 2

7. Difficult journey through swamp. Only one has gone this way before and he's weak and feverish. Dangerous animals, sink holes, etc.

8. Second day in swamp and must rest. Find an island with some plants to eat. Rest there but the messenger dies. Brennus accepts magic transfer of info from him, but it isn't complete. Can only see parts of the path out.

9. Demons seem to have given up. Brennus suggests they are only going to wait at other side of swamp. Creatures are starting to gather again by dawn, so they must move on. Free the messenger's soul in a quick rite -- dangerous, but reminds them of what they are.

10. Brennus does best to keep to the path, but his knowledge is sketchy and fading. Has to backtrack a few times. Everyone getting worn, some ill from wounds. Others decide best to change direction and even dare use Eye to help them find a path.

If you wrote this with 500 words in mind for each entry, you would now have 5000 words. Obviously, the more points you write, the fewer words you need per point:

50 points = 1000 words per point

100 points = 500 words per point

200 points = 250 words per point

But how do you get those sorts of word counts from such a small piece of info? By 'seeing' the scene and realizing all the implications. Let's look at the first entry from the second set and see how to get at least 500 words from it:

1. Dark, ominous cloud sweeps down on secluded temple. Demons, dark and huge, leap from cloud and attack, killing hundreds of priests.

100 words -- someone seeing the cloud coming. Most likely this would be Brennus since he's the POV character. He will be uncertain at first, thinking it might be natural, then knowing it can't be.

100 words -- description of temple, sounds, feel of magic in the air that is not normal.

100 words -- Brennus rushing to warn others because he can feel the magic and knows this isn't good. Do some ignore him? Are some annoyed he interrupted their meditation? Does he go to bell which is only rung in times of emergency?

100 words -- Demons begin leaping from the clouds. Description of creatures. Feel of magic that links back to somewhere else.

100 words -- Deaths of the first priests, some of them too surprised to fight back. Brennus unsure if should fight or try to get more help.

There is some ambiguity in this set of notes because until you actually write and see what is happening, you aren't going to have a clear view of what you need. Could you write out an entire outline with those 100 word notes? Sure. You would need 500 of them -- but it would be boring the write the outline and since the story is bound to morph along the way, you'd end up discarding a lot of the material.

You want your outlines to be fluid and to be guides, not rules. You want to see the path, but not always exactly what your character will see or do unless it is a specific plot point that has implications for later. For instance, what does Brennus feel when he first sees the cloud? Awe? Fear? Does his slowness to react endanger the others? Or does he, looking back at the moment, believe that he acted too slowly and caused the fall of the temple. How does that affect his actions later?

And here is another thought on the situation: What was he doing there? Was he put up in a tower to stand guard, something that all priests do? Was it purposely given to this younger priest on a day when someone else knew there would be trouble?

We have not even begun to look at what the Eye of Orantis might be, or anything about the mythology and magic that goes with all of this. There are so many possibilities for expanding this story that the myriad of paths can become overwhelming, especially without an outline. Just the simple questions are enough to send the story on completely different paths. Should Brennus be captured by the enemy? Should he escape to the other temple? Should he get cut off from every one.

Every one of those ideas gives a completely different story, of course. And if you didn't have an outline you might find yourself dithering over which one to go with. At any time other than NaNo, that's not a huge problem.

Three Things to Remember

Coming up with ideas can be difficult. There are three questions to ask whenever you are stuck which can help.

1. Why did the last important thing happen?

2. Who else is involved and what are they doing?

3. What could go wrong now?

The first question allows you to dig deeper into what is going on and can give you new insights into more you can add. Did a car not start? Why? Out of gas? Who was supposed to fill the tank? Could the car have been tampered with, and if so, who would want to do that and why? Did the driver purposely kill the engine?

Looking at who else is involved in the story -- even if they are not an on-screen person -- can also give you more ideas. Other people can create problems that circle around and hit the MC in unexpected ways.

What can go wrong now is far more open. This doesn't have to be something drastic. Think of small things that can lead up to something larger. The car that won't start might be the beginning of a way to get the person out on foot, rather than safe in car or in building. Is there a reason someone else wants this person on foot? Don't rely too much on coincidence in a story.

Get the outline done

Here is the great wonderful part about doing an outline -- you can have the entire thing done in a week if you apply yourself to the work. You do not need a lot of details. You don't have to be absolutely certain of every single piece. You are experimenting with the story. Once you have the basics down, you can go back and play with it, adding and taking out sections, if you feel you need to.

But you might want to put the outline aside for a while before you start writing the novel. This will allow you to put some distance from what you wrote and will make it more fun to write because you are not likely to remember every little step along the way. (This also works when you have written the book and before you edit it.)


Write your outline, in whatever style or length you want. Remember that you are not telling the story, but rather exploring the possibilities for what you want to write.