My Outlining Process: How I Prepare to Draft My Novels
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There’s no right way to outline your novel.
That’s something I quickly learned when I first joined the online writing community and something I later discussed in depth in our article on finding the outlining method that best works with your creative process. Outlines can be powerful drafting tools, you see, but we all have draft in different ways.
Today, I’m going to tell you a little about my own outlining and drafting processes so you have a better understanding of both what works for me and what may or may not work well for you. Sound like a plan? Let's jump in!
How I develop stories from idea to outline...
During the second half of September, I outlined a series of novels called The Books of Maveryn and did my best to share a little of that journey with you all on social media (@kristen_kieffer). Many of you then asked if I would share my personal outlining process here on the blog, and I was more than happy to acquiesce!
To understand why my outlining process works for me, I first need to share with you how I draft. Personally, I'm not a big fan of drafting. In fact, I pretty much loathe it. I’m an editor at heart and prefer to get the first draft down on paper as quickly as possible so I can move on to where I shine.
To make that happen, I need to know exactly what to write next at any given moment, which means I get to know my stories very well before I write them. But of course, you can't pre-write a novel without first conjuring up a concept, right? Here are the steps I take to develop my stories from idea to outline:
Step #1: Sourcing Story Ideas
I wish I could say there was some rhyme or reason to how I source my story ideas, but in truth, they seem to find me long before I go searching. The idea for The Dark Between stemmed from a scene I daydreamed back in 2012, while the idea for Dreamworld came from a literal dream I experienced last autumn.
The Books of Maveryn came about a bit more deliberately, as I sought out a standalone story I could tell within The Dark Between universe. In time, my ideas spiraled to fill out a planned four-book series, where each book is interrelated but can also stand on its own two feet.
At the end of the day, it's sheer luck and a little brainstorming that prompts the concepts for my stories. I then begin to push and pull at these ideas, stretching them like taffy until I have a premise I can outline.
Step #2: Developing characters
I firmly believe that character drives plot, and so I always turn my eyes toward character development when I first begin to expand my story ideas. I begin by asking what type of character would have the most profound experience when engaging with my story's concept.
For example, my concept for Dreamworld began solely with a question: "What if dreams were really a portal to the spirit world?" I quickly came to the conclusion that someone who lived a life heavy with grief would have the most profound experience interacting with the dead.
Drawing from personal experience, I knew I would grieve most for my mother if she were to pass away, and so I created the character of Em Sykes, whose dead mother appears to her in a dream to warn her of an impending danger.
"But what was that danger? And if her mother loved her dearly, couldn't she appear in Em's dreams whenever she liked? Why did she only appear when danger was at hand?"
Just like that, character turns into plot, creating a delicate push and pull that drives my pre-writing process forward.
Step #3: Defining premise
As I develop my story idea, I continue piecing together elements of character and plot, slowly adding in theme and worldbuilding as they play into the story I'm molding. I don't allow myself to outline, however, until I have a firm premise in hand.
A good premise answers the following questions:
- Who is the protagonist?
- What is their goal?
- How do they plan to achieve their goal?
- What disaster will throw your protagonist off balance?
- Who or what will oppose them?
- What is the core conflict?
I don't necessarily write a polished premise at this time, but I do make sure it answers the necessary questions. I can always edit the premise later.
Having this premise allows me to map out the actions my protagonist and antagonist will take as they journey through my story. I may not know exactly where they're heading yet, but I do have a strong understanding of the choices they might make.
Then, and only then, do I allow myself to begin outlining.
Breaking Down My Outlining Process...
At this point, I crack open my Scrivener project file and create a new document titled "Plot Overview." This is where I'll throw down all my ideas — the rough draft of my outline, if you will. I begin by mapping out the major elements of the 3-Act Story Structure:
- The Hook
- The Inciting Incident
- The First Plot Point
- The Midpoint
- The Dark Night of the Soul
- The Climactic Sequence
- The Resolution
In some cases, I may have to brainstorm these scenes as I outline them, but frequently I have these major beats in mind from the stretching and pulling I did to create my story's premise.
After I have these elements in hand, I begin to fill in the gaps. There's usually quite a bit of brainstorming involved at this point, but knowing that I need to move my protagonist from Point A to Point B usually helps make their path clear. I continue to lean heavily on the 3-Act Story Structure during this time, occasionally blending it with elements from The Hero's Journey as well.
The hardest parts of my stories to outline are consistently the chapters from the First Plot Point to the Midpoint and the Midpoint to the Dark Night of the Soul. Keeping in mind the idea that the protagonist is reactionary before the midpoint, then actionary after it, often helps me brainstorm conflicts that feed my story's tensions appropriately.
That said, the story is still very much an exploration of my imagination at this point in the game. I use this time to free-write, playing with any idea that may move my story forward. Sometimes, I do have to backtrack when an idea doesn't work out, but in time, I've always found myself with an outline that maps out my book in detail.
These rough draft outlines tend to be very long, both because I free-write them and because I far prefer more detail to less. Like I mentioned at the top of today's article, knowing exactly what comes next at any given moment is necessary to my drafting process, so I never shy away from an ultra-long outline.
To put that into perspective, the rough draft version of my outline for Morrow Lord, the third book in the Books of Maveryn series, topped out at a whopping 10,460 words!
The Final Step in My Outlining Process...
The rough drafts of my outlines aren't always the easiest to follow. To keep me from spending precious drafting time scrolling through the endless pages of my outline, I like to refine and revise the rough draft version using Scrivener's corkboard and index card features.
In a new folder in my Scrivener Project, I create individual index card files for each of my story's chapters. I then write a condensed version of each chapter's events on the card, which then serve as my guides as I draft. You can see what this looks like below, though I had to blur the chapter descriptions to avoid spoilers:
Typically, I have a strong idea of where each chapter begins and ends. However, I do think this is an awareness I built up over time and experience, so don't worry if you're unsure of how to break your outline down into chapters. You can always figure out your novel's structure in edits.
Then, with my scene card breakdown in hand, my outlining process is complete!
The entirety of this process can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, simply depending on how much trouble I'm having in brainstorming the scenes between my story's major beats. After completing the outline, I take a few week's break, then return to check for any plot holes I may have missed. If the outline remains plot-hole free, it's time to draft.
My outlining process has admittedly been a bit different for every book. I love learning more about my creative process every time I pre-write, and I'm not afraid to make adjustments to my process if I think they may help me become more in tune with the outlining techniques that work best for me. Our creative processes are ever-evolving, and that's okay!
I hope in sharing my personal outlining process with you today, you were able to gain some tips and tricks for your own, but don't feel overwhelmed if your outlining process looks quite a bit different. Rock what works for you, writer, and I'll be sure to do the same!
Writer, I hope you enjoyed today's inside peek at my outlining process. If you have any questions about how I work, I'd love to answer them for you.
I would also love to hear about what outlining methods work well for you. Do you pre-write quite differently than I do, or do we happen to share some of the same techniques? Let me know in the comments below!