Outlining—I Think I’ve Got It #amwriting

Occasionally I’ve blogged about @#$%@# outlining my novel. I’ve cursed. I’ve touted the latest book I’ve picked up telling me “how to outline your novel” or “how to write a good novel fast.” I haven’t spoken to the failures, the dead bodies, the frustration of being three-quarters of the way through 90k words and having NO idea how I’m going to END this sucker.

Outlining process… evolved to utility. At freaking last.

I talked a little about how Brandon Sanderson’s lectures helped out in The Short Story Rolls Forward! Now it’s time to reveal my… system. It worked for my short story; it’s working for my Novel In Progress. Let’s see if this process for directed seat-of-the-pants writing can stand the light of day.

The key idea that both Story Genius (Genius) and Save the Cat (STC) emphasised was that a story is about a lesson that is learned. A Deep Life Lesson. The protagonist is usually the one who learns it, but it can be another character. And the character in question can either a) learn it (drama or comedy) or b) not learn it and endure dreadful consequences (tragedy or tragicomedy.)

My story ideas almost always start with a character. This is where I can get stuck—I put my wonderful character through all sorts of situations but if I don’t have a lesson in mind, it means zilch. Hello, 70k words and no ending in sight.

I’ve learned that for me, that’s OK. Since I start with a character, as long as those cool scenes don’t run to more than about 20% of my eventual intended word count, I let ’em rip. It gives me a feel for my character, my situations, and my story world that I can’t get by top-down character construction and world building. It especially gives me a feel for what this character is good at—and where her weaknesses are. This stuff comes fast; it really doesn’t take that long to pound out about 10K words if I don’t have to direct it.1 This happens right in Scrivener, in my project.

Now come the hard part; taking a look at this hot mess and coming up with a lesson for my character to learn. This is the logline, theme and pitch building part of STC; the “What if?” portion of Genius. But for this, and much of the rest, I use STC, mostly because its practical language speaks to my engineer’s brain.

I’ve learned that I don’t have to “get this right.” Yes, my theme (the actual lesson) the logline, and the pitch (the blunt tool I’m going to use to bludgeon my lesson into my character’s head) can evolve. My first cut at this will be crude; I’ll know, for example, that the theme has something to do with the character’s relationship to her mom. I’ll take a good guess, but it doesn’t have to be right on. In practice, I evolve the theme more than I do the logline and pitch. I work these out on a whiteboard, scan them to Evernote, and transcribe them into a mind-map app. Alternatively, I can use a free-drawing note taking app (thence to Evernote and mind-map) instead of a whiteboard, but I strongly prefer a whiteboard.

Now, with the theme and logline in mind, I give my character(s) a past. What old ideas do my character(s) need to chuck? (Genius: Misbelief.) They must have them, or they wouldn’t need to learn anything, and I wouldn’t have a story. And how did they come by those ideas? (Genius: Worldview) Yeah, I go through the whole Genius “misbelief origin scene” and “reinforcing scenes” for my protagonist, and at least an origin scene for important sidekicks and villains. The only problem with this is keeping the theme in mind; but I find I can let these rip almost as fast as the original exploratory writing. This happens directly in Scrivener.

Finally, I fill out the fifteen “beats” from STC. I start with my bookends (my “Opening Image” and “Closing Image”) and fill in the rest of the pieces as they come to me. For this, I use a whiteboard, and I pace and talk to myself a lot. This is where I do classic brainstorming, which I can’t do while I’m sitting in a chair. This gets cleaned up, scanned into Evernote, and transcribed to that mind-map, which finally gets imported into Scrivener, both as documents and as a link to the original map.

It sounds a lot more structured than it is. Really.

What I don’t do is plan individual scenes / chapters. I know that STC and Genius both insist on planning scenes / chapters. All of them. In advance.

Other “how to outline” books and “how to write a novel fast” books do too; if not in advance, then just before writing the scene or chapter.

Sheesh. Every time I try this I get blocked for weeks.

Instead, I estimate the number of words between beats based on where I’d like the overall word count to be.2 I then draft a path of words from one “beat” to the next. If I get stuck I do a very loose mind map of a few things that have to happen between the beats. Once I make it to the next beat (I think of them as “islands”), I’ll do a preliminary trim to my beat’s target word count, as well as a quick “fit” to what’s gone before. If I need to adjust theme, logline or pitch, now’s the time. Then it’s typing a path of words to the next beat. Repeat until done.

I structure my Scrivener draft into folders based on beats (NOT acts) so that I can check the word counts on the fly.3 This keeps me from spinning off into the weeds writing forever on a cool side-plot. I write in documents inside the folder, breaking them into scenes as I go (based on change of location or time.)

This is working structure. When I’m ready to give output to someone else, I group the scenes into real chapters… about 3-5K words each that end on a natural cliffhanger. But I no longer work with chapters while I’m writing a draft. As far as I’m concerned, a chapter is a construct for readers, to give them a natural stopping point that nonetheless keeps them coming back to finish. I now first structure my draft so it’s easy for me to write, and add reader-friendly things like chapter breaks later.

So that’s it—my outlining “system”, such as it is. It’s designed evolved to give me maximum seat-of-the-pants room to wander around while herding me upstream towards my goal of a finished draft.


  1. A word about research: I research continuously. I write something that seems real-world based; I look it up, save the research to Evernote (no, I don’t use Scrivener for this) and modify the writing (or not.) I do the same thing for fantasy settings and science fiction settings, except using spreadsheets, typed documents, and drawn diagrams, scanned from whiteboards or created in a freeform note taking app. Certainly a lot of my research tends to happen towards the start of writing because that’s when things are still fluid, but I don’t research extensively in advance. It’s that seat-of-the-pants thing again. 
  2. I wrote a word count milestones estimator spreadsheet based on the pages in a script that STC suggests a certain beat be accomplished within. OK, I used to write apps for a living. Setting up an spreadsheet to do that is not hard for me. 
  3. A STC beat for a 90k-word novel runs anywhere from 3k to about 12k words. 
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