My Story Outlining Process

There are a wide variety of ways to go about the outlining process for a story, and each writer handles it in their own way. Some prefer to just sit down and write with no pre-development except the ideas in their head, while others like to outline scene by scene in great detail. Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle.

One thing to keep in mind is that everyone outlines their stories. I know . . . I know . . . the pansters out there are about to grab the pitchforks and start rattling the palace gates. But trust me, even those writers who don’t do any real pre-writing work on their stories are still outlining. How is that? Simple. Even as characters and scenes pop into their minds and begin stringing together on that great mental movie screen, they’re outlining, they just might not realize it. Despite what a lot of writing books claim, I’m not of the school of thought that all outlining must take place by putting words to paper (or a screen) in order to record and track it all.

Some of the most beloved writers out there don’t outline in the traditional fashion, one notable such fellow to science fiction and fantasy fans being Roger Zelazny. From what Roger always told me, he jotted a few notes down about the characters, jotted notes here and there about his three major Plot Points, but generally wrote the story as he went along, and discovered things as the characters did. He once talked in interviews, as well, about discovering the world of Amber at the same times as the story’s main character, the amnesiac Corwin, did.

One thing that Roger did that was kind of unique, however, was that he would write a short story for each of his major characters. The story would be about a situation or event that had nothing to do with the novel he was going to write, but would function to solidify the characters in his mind and show him how they would react to completely unrelated situations. Such stories never saw publication, except in one instance where he was tight on time and a story commission had come in from a publisher.

I was lucky enough, thanks to my association at the time with the Baltimore Science Fiction Society (of which Roger was a member when he lived here in the 1960s and 1970s) to get to know Roger via letters and the occasional phone call. I bring him up because his advice and guidance helped shape my writing habits, so I wanted to give a nod back to the man responsible.

When I outline a novel, I tend to do so in a slightly freeform method. It was a method I’ve used since I first started writing and understood the underlying formula, even before I discovered that Roger did things in a similar fashion. What I do first is consider my characters. As I said in the last post, that usually involves developing my Story Premise and going through a series of What If? questions that further flesh things out for me. When it comes time for the story, I usually create the opening scene first. I’ll write this scene, which usually starts the hook and the right questions being asked (for more on the Hook and those questions, see a previous post on the topic HERE).

Once I have that, I tend to put the thing aside and consider what my three, core plot points will be. Those things I jot down, including at about what page/word count they should be dropped in for the expected length of the story. If you don’t know about the three Plot Points and why they’re so absolutely vital to any successful story, check out my post on it HERE.

Once I have that, I’ll start writing. Since I know my characters, my premise, what the story is to be about, and my main plot points, I have a lot of my required structure already accomplished. Now I let the story flow. As subplots and further ideas come to me, I’ll jot down notes about them so I understand where I’ll want to place them in the story.

Now, I write about three to four hours a day, and for fiction I’ll hit about 3k to 4k words for that on average. Some days more, some days less. I could probably pen even more words, but I have a certain writing style where I’ll edited that day’s work as I go, or at the very least at the end of my writing time. I like to have what I consider Next to Final Draft done with each section as I go. I polish sentence structure, look at verbiage, watch my descriptions, and look at pacing and characterization. Once I’m satisfied, I put it away and repeat the process the next day.

I say Next to Final Draft because I always go over a manuscript again after the entire thing is completed and I let it sit for a week or two. That gives me a fresh perspective on it, and I can find any flaws that still remain. After that, it goes to Beta Readers, then the editor.

For a novella series, the process alters slightly. After I decide how many novellas the series is to be, I create the three Plot Points that will span the entire series, and where in a particular novella it has to appear. Then, for each individual novella, I break them down into their individual triple Plot Points. I also make notes on all the interpersonal relationships between the characters, as well as all the necessary subplots and where they overlap (if they do). In that sense, I do a lot of the same prep work one would associate with a television season.

So that’s basically how I handle the outlining process: characters and story premise, the three core plot points, and jotted notes on scene and subplots.

Remember, there’s no right or wrong method to handle writing a story. Find a process that works best for you, and let the story flow.