Effective Outlining: Learning from the Outline

During the outlining process, take note of inconsistencies, missing information, and dangling plotlines. These are opportunities to improve the structure, characters, flow, or pacing of the story and should not be ignored.

Consider these questions while outlining and address each one before completing the outline:

  • Do any scenes present an idea that is left hanging?
  • Do any scenes need a bridge to improve the flow?
  • Are any scenes redundant or irrelevant?
  • Are there any plot holes?
  • Are any hints or questions left unanswered?
  • Are any character arcs left unfulfilled?
  • Does the ending provide a satisfying conclusion?
  • Are there any lagging sections where there is little to no progress?

Just as a story takes multiple drafts before reaching completion, so should an outline. Review the first draft of an outline for the issues mentioned above and rework those areas that aren’t working.

And remember…

Outlines should act as a guide, not a box.

Outlining is a great tool for developing all the big-picture aspects of the story, but the process should still leave room for flexibility while writing. The end goal is a great story, not a perfectly followed outline.

Effective Outlining: Creating An Outline

Step 1

Start with the big picture by crafting the premise/underlying idea of the story.
Expand on this premise, asking:

  • Who is the main protagonist and how will they change from the beginning to end?
  • What is the situation and central conflict?
  • What are the character’s objectives and wants/needs?
  • What are the stakes—what will happen if the character fails or doesn’t get what they want?

Write a one-paragraph summary of the novel

Step 2

Determine the setting. Setting should relate to the story, either because it directly effects the story or characters or because it sets the right tone/mood.

Research the details and plan how they will interact with the story

  • What elements will impact the story?
  • What elements will set the tone/mood

Determine secondary scenes.

  • Determines which scenes will play out in what settings
  • There should be a good reason for each placement

Step 3

Write character profiles

  • Include backstory, current situation, and endpoint
  • Determine what the character needs to learn by the end of the story
  • Plot the steps the characters will need to take to resolve internal issues
  • Determine what external forces will push the character to develop

Develop secondary characters

  • Develop limited backstory
  • Develop how they influence or support the main characters
  • Determine their mini-arc in relation to the main storyline

Step 4

Construct the plot

  • Construct a timeline of events broken into the 3-Act structure
  • Act 1: Meet Cute, Refusal/Rejection
  • Act 2: Giving in, Testing the relationship, Midpoint crisis, Reconciliation, Falling in love, Breaking up
  • Act 3: The sacrifice, the HEA/HFN

Break the timeline events into chapters

  • Each chapter MUST have a timeline event
  • Don’t cram too many events into each chapter

Step 5

Develop individual scenes with a chapter-by-chapter outline

  • Organize major events into appropriate chapters
  • List one major event/scene for every chapter
  • Each chapter should have its own theme and major/minor plot point

Add limited details about what will happen in each scene

  • Something must happen in each chapter: action or character development
  • Each plot point should move the story forward and be relevant
  • There needs to be constant progression in the storyline and the characters

Add as much details as necessary to guide the writing

  • Develop setting, character traits, backstory, and more
  • Focus on the big picture elements first