Tag Archives: writing to an outline

Outlining is Pantsing it in Advance so you can Wing It Later #amwriting

Over the years, I have learned many tricks to help people get a jump on their NaNoWriMo project.

Most writers will start an entirely new story. Some have an outline, but others are flying blind, or in author speak, “pantsing it.” Other writers will continue writing the first draft of an unfinished work-in-progress.

plotting as a family picnicI am a planner, but I’m also a pantser. I’m just writing to a loose outline. All I need is a little free time in advance of November to let my mind wander.

When I first began writing, I found Excel useful, but any document or spreadsheet program will work. The outline becomes my permanent stylesheet for that novel. I think of outlining as pantsing it in advance—a visual aid for winging it later.

Once I’m done winging it through the story and am in revisions, some scenes will make more sense when placed in a different order than originally planned. An outline allows me to view the arc of the story from a distance, so I can see where it might be flatlining. Perhaps an event should be cut completely as it no longer works. (I always save my outtakes in a separate file for later use.)

Over the years of editing and reviewing books, I’ve assembled a list of questions that help me nudge a novel from an idea into an outline. If I make notes as I think of things, I’ll never lose those characters or their story. Even if I can’t get to it right away, I’ll have all the essential stuff in a document and saved.

The first two questions I ask are what genre do I think I’m writing in, and what is the underlying theme? I prefer to write character-driven fantasy. A world will emerge with the characters, and I will make notes as bits and pieces of that environment occur to me. I have a deep streak of gallows humor in my personality, so humor in the face of disaster will be a theme. This theme comes out in most of my work.

Who are youNext, I ask the creative universe who the protagonist is. I create a brief personnel file, less than 100 words. It’s a paragraph with all the essential background information. Sometimes it takes a while to know what a character’s void is (a deep emotional wound), but it will emerge. I note the verbs, adjectives, and nouns the character embodies, as those give me all the necessary information.

Let’s create a protagonist. He doesn’t have a story yet, but that will come along once I have a few other people figured out.

Brand (MC) (Fire-mage, armsmaster, 36, divorced. Brown hair, brown eyes, suntanned.) Parents were mages, now deceased. VOID: Deep sense of failure. A convergence of personal tragedies led to a failed suicide attempt. VERBS: Act. Fight. Build. Repair. Protect. Create. ADJECTIVES: wary, sarcastic, hopeful, dedicated, considerate. NOUNS: sorrow, guilt, purpose, compassion, wit.

Does Brand have close friends? If not, will he gather companions? This question is important. If he doesn’t have friends at first, I will leave space on that page to add them when they emerge from my imagination. As I contemplate Brand’s story, perhaps a love interest will show up later, or maybe not.

What happens to take Brand out of his comfort zone? Sometimes I don’t have the answer to this for quite a while. Other times, it’s the spark that starts the story.

The entire arc of the story rests on how I answer the following question. What is Brand’s goal, his deepest desire? Currently, it looks like he’s hoping to regain his self-respect. That will become a secondary quest when a more immediate problem presents itself.

What stands in his way? Who or what is the Enemy?

Let’s name the enemy Silas. What is his deepest desire? How does Silas control the situation at the outset? Once I know who the antagonist is and what they want, I give them the same personnel file I give all the other characters—I identify a void, verbs, adjectives, and nouns for him.

Once I have Silas described in a paragraph, I can determine the quest. Silas is the key to what Brand must achieve. A believable villain is why Brand’s story will be fun to write.

Now we come to creating the plot. I decide where the story begins, then list a few possible scenes, using keywords to show mood and intention.

Mood words for meditationMeditating on mood words often precipitates a flash of brilliance that has nothing to do with anything. What if …

Newly arrived in the border town of Axeton, Brand discovers an ancient gate sealed with a magic lock. Beyond it, a faint path leads into the Deadlands, but where does it go? No towns exist in the moors, and no country wants to claim the Deadlands. The elemental creatures are too dangerous. Could it be a beastmaster searching for rare elemental creatures to use as weapons? If so, who has that skill, and what could they intend to do with them?

This plot twist forces me to rearrange the outline, and now I have to change Silas’s paragraph to make him a beast master. He can’t be two-dimensional, a cartoon villain, so why does he do evil with this talent? Why does he think he is the hero? The answers to those questions should give Silas a personality. We should feel some empathy for him.

How does Brand react to the pressure Silas exerts? Side characters may emerge as Brand works his way through the problems, people who will influence the plot’s direction. As the outline evolves, I will see many places where the struggle can deepen the relationships between the protagonist and their cohorts/romantic interests.

Later, after I have the characters figured out, I will work on the plot outline and try to shape the story’s arc. This is where roadblocks and obstacles do the heavy lifting, and my outline will contain ideas I can riff on. Brand will have to work hard to achieve his goal, but so will Silas.

Information and the lack of it drive the plot. Brand can’t have all the information. Silas must have more answers than Brand and be ruthless in using that knowledge to achieve his goal. My outline will tell me when it’s time to dole out information. What complications arise from Brand’s lack of information? My outline will offer hints for what he can do to rescue the situation.

With each chapter, Brand and his companions acquire the necessary information, but each answer leads to more questions. Conflicts occur when Silas sets traps, and by surviving those encounters, Brand gains more information about Silas’s capabilities. He must persevere and use that knowledge to win the final battle.

I could actually use this example as the genesis of a story, but I have a different outline in progress. Having my characters in place and an outline on hand helps keep me on track when I am pantsing it through NaNoWriMo. New flashes of brilliance will occur as I am writing, and hopefully they will make the struggle real. But two fundamental things will remain constant:

Brand’s determination to block Silas and wreck the enemy’s plans is the plot.

Brand’s growth as a character as he works his way through the plot is the story.


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The creative process #amwriting

My writing projects all begin with an idea, a flash of “what if….” Sometimes, that “what if” is inspired by an idea for a character, or perhaps a setting. Maybe it was the idea for the plot that had my wheels turning.

When I have that flash of brilliance, I don’t want to lose that thought. I carry a notebook and several pens at all times because the batteries never fail. I can write myself a note anywhere, anytime.

I developed the habit of keeping a small pocket notebook on hand when I worked at a daytime job. No one knew I was writing a book, but all day long, little ideas would pop into my head and I would jot them on a notepad.

Fortunately, bookkeepers keep a lot of notes, so my writing things down was not out of place. If a boss had looked at my notes, they would have seen something like “Put the bodies in the trunk of the Jaguar,” which might have raised an eyebrow or two.

A lot of people nowadays use a note-taking app on their cellphone to take notes. However, doing that at work might be frowned on, as some places limit the time you spend on your cell phone.

Note-taking by hand is old-school but will enable you to discreetly write your ideas down, and you won’t appear to be distracted or off-task.

In my last post, I mentioned that for me, a broad outline of my intended story arc keeps me on track toward arriving at a good ending. Experience has shown that I work best when I have a specific goal to write to. That way, the story flows smoothly to the best conclusion.

It’s okay to have several possible endings in mind, as long as each fits logically when viewed with the events that led up to them.

The list of ideas is important as it keeps me focused on connecting the beginning of the story to a proper ending. Even with the outline, I’ve been known to write several different endings before I find the one that works best.

When I try to “wing it” all the way through writing a book, I usually end up with a mushy plot that wanders all over the place and a story I can’t sell.

That’s why I make outlines even for short stories. I ask myself

  • What is the inciting incident?
  • What is the goal/objective?
  • At the beginning of the story, what could the hero possibly want that pushes them to risk everything to acquire it?
  • How badly do they want it, and why?
  • Who is the antagonist?
  • Why are they the enemy?
  • What ethical choices will the protagonist have to make in their attempt to gain their objective?
  • What happens at the first pinch point?
  • In what circumstances do we find the group at the midpoint?
  • What is their health like?
  • Why does the antagonist have the upper hand? What happens at the midpoint to change everything for the worse?
  • At the ¾ point, the protagonist should have gathered plenty of resources and companions and should be ready to face the antagonist. Do I have the story set up correctly to this point so I can choreograph that meeting?

All stories must have a logical arc, but each character should too. It’s my job to make sure that the characters evolve and grow over the course of the story. For me and my style of writing, the character arcs benefit most from the outline, even more than the overall story arc does.

When you are winging it through a story that encompasses 75,000 to 100,000 words, it is easy to get involved in large info dumps and bunny trails to nowhere when you begin fleshing out your characters.

With the loose outline, I’m more likely to avoid getting sidetracked by interesting but nonessential stuff.

I would suggest you don’t go into too much detail in that little framework because you might feel like you have written the story, and there’s nothing left for you to say. You might lose interest in it. But if you give yourself a general outline that has the highpoints listed, you can wing it to connect the dots and you won’t lose your way.

I’ve said this before, but when you have a simple outline, you’re less likely to become desperate and resort to killing off characters just to stir things up once the real work of writing starts.

And you won’t have to kill off random characters and hide their bodies in the Jaguar’s trunk.

Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Notebooks.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Notebooks.jpg&oldid=366931573 (accessed January 22, 2020).


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