by Hugh Sullivan
Note: this is an article I wrote last year for NaNoWriMo, with the intent of publishing it then. For some reason it never got published, so I figured I’d start out some very pre-NaNo posts with this now.
I could write an entire article on the various ways of coming up with an outline… but it’s been done. A lot. Which is what I found when I started preparing for my first attempt at completing a full novel for National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo for short).
There are dozens of methods for coming up with an outline, maybe as many as there are writers. Some methods get reused a lot. Randy Ingermanson’s snowflake method is great for expounding something into a pulp-style 4 act format, and I used my own personal take on the concept to do the outline for my first NaNoWriMo story. Snyder’s ‘save the cat’ or Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’ beat sheet is good for adventure stories. A sprawling list of clues, red herrings, and possible deductions to be made in different situations can be used for a mystery story. A list of obstacles and how to overcome them can be a barebones outline for everything from a children’s story to a romance novel to a sprawling science fiction epic.
The first year that I did NaNoWriMo, I thought an outline would be enough. But a week before November started, I looked at my outline and realized that I still didn’t know how to make it go from an outline into a story.
So here’s what I did, and I hope this will help you too.
Step 1) Map out your foundation
The very first novel I ever wrote for NaNoWriMo (or at all, for that matter) was written in a very episodic format, made to be published serially in short audio format, and then as a whole novel afterward. The main story had four acts, each act had four chapters, each chapter could be divided up into four 10-ish minute long podcasts. (Should I choose to make four books in this series, then I suppose the structure will be completely fractal at that point) This made it easy for me to separate out each episode to do this step. However, not every outline is going to be as clearly delineated. You may have to go through every point in your outline, or you may be able to find small logical groupings of events.
Then you start listing out what each section actually does for the story.
In general, the early parts will involve setting up the characters, world, and plot. Later chapters will illustrate more about the characters, move the plot along, and show how the characters change and grow.
For example, here is a basic example of a chapter outline from my first NaNoWriMo novel. My original outline had a basic overview of each chapter, and four separate points divided up into what would happen in each ~10 minute podcast.
Chapter 1) Jacobs washes up in Crown Bay, setting the story in motion
- Jacobs washes up on shore in Crown Bay. Jim Leatherby uses a magical item and finds him.
- Jacobs gets drunk, screams at a statue commemorating the massacre ten years prior, then gets cornered by guards and subsequently rescued by Jim Leatherby.
- Jim brings Jacobs somewhere quiet to get sober, and then recognizes him.
- Cut to the governor’s office in the city. The governor confides in his right-hand man, Commodore Briggs, that he’s near breaking down. He lost his wife during the massacre ten years ago, he can’t afford to lose his daughter. Briggs brings him the good news that Captain Jacobs has been spotted, and he takes a group of soldiers to find him.
Once the outline of this chapter was done, I went through and wrote down all of the functions that this chapter served in the novel.
Functions of Chapter 1
- Hook the reader into the lead character and world.
- Introduce the reader to the two protagonists.
- Introduce the idea of magical items in this world.
- Show that Jim has a very simple life, and that the magic item he possesses can lead him to find adventure outside of that life.
- Show that Jacobs is in fact the captain of a pirate ship, not just a sailor who fell overboard.
- Show that Jacobs is well known enough that the governor would be looking for him, and leave the reader with enough questions as to why to keep them reading further.
- Show that this town has a history, and link that history to why Jim is an orphan and Jacobs left to became a pirate.
Most of these functions will seem simple and obvious to the writer of the outline. Even so, it’s good to actually list them out so that you know what your foundation is supporting. Now that we’ve mapped out what the outline currently supports, we move on to the next step.
Step 2) Figure out where to place your support beams
Every story has basic needs that need to be fulfilled. A story needs a beginning, a middle, an end, and action or conflict to move itself along while keeping the reader engaged.
The basic outline of my novel was a very simple four act structure, similar to the potboiler pulp stories of Lester Dent and Michael Moorcock. In the first act, the world, characters, and the adventure were introduced. In the second, the characters found themselves embroiled in that adventure. The peak of the growing adventure hits between the second and third act, where the characters have to choose whether to blunder on or give up. And by the end of the third act, they have found themselves in so deep that there is no longer a choice. They have to see their way to the end. (Those who have looked into popular story and act structures may recognize this as somewhat similar to the current Hollywood 3-act structure, and both styles are compatible with most popular beat sheet formats as well.)
That meant that for my story, the basic needs for each act were simple. I needed to hook the audience at the beginning with an interesting world and characters. I needed to keep building the story in such a way that it kept people tuning in for the next chapter or episode.
But every plot point creates a set of needs as well. Let’s say that in your story, part of your plot entails a group of people traveling into a dangerous area.
So now you add to your list of story needs:
- Show the reader that the area is dangerous
- Show whether the characters know it’s dangerous.
There are also some more subtle needs that you may not think of right away, but once you get into the habit of looking for them, you’ll find them fairly easily. Some of them may not have to be in any one particular place in the story, they may simply need to be inserted somewhere before the point where they are used in the story. Think of this is kind of a reverse Chekov’s gun. If a gun is needed at the end of the story, then make a note to show that the gun exists in the universe.
For example, when I realized that a minor character was going to be killed off at the end of the story, I decided that his past life before the story needed to at least be hinted at, if not expounded on so that when he died he could pass on some sage advice and maybe make some of the sappier readers get a little bit misty-eyed. (Not that I would know ANYTHING about that. Men don’t cry. Not even when a house-elf breaks his promise and sacrifices himself to save someone else’s life. Nope.) So that was added to the general list, as a note of something that needed to be worked in where it could be.
Some obvious things to put on the list of overarching story needs are things like:
- Get the audience to know the characters well enough to understand their motivations and capabilities. (There’s nothing better than a villain whose motivations you understand… but can’t condone.)
- Display the basic traits of the important characters and settings. (Even if your protagonist is going to be a boring everyman character for the audience to project themselves onto, the rest of the cast has to be three dimensional and interesting.)
- Find some way to fill in any important backstory that’s relevant to the current plot. (Sometimes this may end in a simple flashback or prologue. But if you just keep it in mind while writing, you can often find a spot to weave it into the narrative much more naturally.)
- Give the reader a question. (Who killed the butler?)
- Answer the reader’s question. (It was the maid in the drawing room with the candlestick.)
Now that you have your foundation and you’ve set up support beams on it, it’s time to make sure that the beams can actually support your story.
Step 3) Build your crossbraces
Now that you have a list of what each chapter accomplishes, and what each chapter and the story overall needs, you can start going through and finding the holes in your outline and plugging them. Sometimes this is as simple a step as leaving yourself a note to mention something important in a character’s backstory. Other times it may require adding in a few extra plot points that you hadn’t thought of in the original outline. Something that you may have been able to do on the fly when writing, but now you don’t have to.
Keep in mind that even if you miss something in the planning phase, this method can help while writing as well. If you reach a block, don’t try to figure out how to get around it. Try to figure out what the story needs to continue. Does it need an outside force to make something happen? Or do the characters need to find their own way? This can be a wonderful spot to allow a person to step forward, do something to show growth and character, and help move the story along.
At one point in my novel outline, I needed a way for a character to escape after being tied up. So I made a point to mention in earlier chapters that he hid several coins in hidden pockets in a leather bracelet, and he was quite adept at sleight of hand, repeatedly making the coins appear and disappear. So when the time came, it wasn’t a shock to the reader when he produced a coin and used it to saw away at the rope. A simple bit of characterization early on saved me from a plot hole at the end of the novel, and simultaneously helped illustrate the character better for the audience.
Step 4) Start building
Now that your outline has filled in, you’ve got more than just a list of plot points. You’ve got a guide that you can use to write your story. A solid, but not inflexible scaffolding to build on.
For an example on how to use the guide in practice, let’s break down the plot point that I mentioned above. In this case, we’ll say that the characters are going to go into this dangerous area, and they will be made aware of the danger.
In the original outline, it would have simply said, “The protagonist, his sidekick, and the guide go into the Blasphort Desert.” Now, you have a bit more set up to write the scene when it happens.
“Hmm,” the guide said, poking the ground with the toe of his boot. “Not good.”
“What is it?” the protagonist asked.
“Wyrling tracks. Their territory is close. Probably near the canyon, for access to water.”
The protagonist shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. We have to get through. And if we stray too far from the river…”
“Only one way to deal with wyrlings,” the guide said.
The sidekick piped up, “At least there’s something. How do you deal with a wyrling?”
“Run faster,” the guide replied.
The protagonist looked at the guide curiously. “I didn’t think you could outrun a wyrling.”
The guide shook his head. “Can’t. But outrun someone else, and…”
“Oh,” the sidekick said.
The protagonist put his hand on the sidekick’s shoulder. “Doesn’t matter.”
Now when the scene is written, both the audience and the characters know they’re walking into danger, and some other needs outside of the scene have been fulfilled. For one, the audience now knows a bit more about the personality of the three characters and the danger that they’ll be facing. The guide is simple and straightforward, the hero determined but sensible, the sidekick a little more worried about the situation than the hero, and wyrlings are some sort of dangerous creature, but will stop to feed.
From my own experience, I’ve found that there isn’t a clever pun or turn of phrase that I’ve come up with that makes me feel half as clever a writer as when I write a short passage that manages to fulfill a half dozen story needs. And when facing the normal amounts of self-doubt that one faces while writing a novel, those moments where we as writers feel clever should be cherished.
About the author
Hugh Sullivan has been a long time dabbler in writing, music, and tabletop and video game design. After a ten year hiatus from creative work, the voice in his head finally convinced him that not having a creative outlet was going to eventually drive him crazy, so he went back to school to do a minor in video game design, worked on designing a tabletop role playing game, started participating in NaNoWriMo, and composing soundtracks to accompany podcasts of his writing.
Ironically, doing all four at once may be a clearer sign of madness than following the advice of a voice in one’s head. Follow his work at his website, chickenscratching.com, or his slightly more active tumblr account, chickenscratchingdotcom.tumblr.com.