Part of writing is outlining, and even if you don’t choose to do it in the more concrete ways of writing it down, we all outline to some extent. After all, if you start a book with literally no idea where it will go or end, odds are strong that won’t be a good book, or one that even gets finished. So we all outline, and as we gain experience we find the way that works for us and refine it further and further, learning to get the most from our planning methodology. And, when you’re lucky enough to do the work full time, sometimes people will ask about how you outline in hopes of getting a jumpstart on their own process.
Today, I’m going to talk about the way I currently outline works, but only with the very strong caveat that this is my way of outlining that works for me. If you read this and it sounds like it would be a terrible way to do your own work, then feel free to ignore it. Outlining is a process we all have to find out our tweaks and methods for, mine is no more or less effective than others, it just happens to be the one that meshed well with my books. Now, with all the warnings out of the way, let’s jump on in.
I use a method of outlining I tend to call “checkpoint outlining” although in all honesty I don’t know if that’s the real name or just a slang term that got adopted somewhere along the way. Checkpoint outlining works first by figuring out the major turns you want your story to take. A big fight at point X, a love scene at point Y, a jailbreak at point Z; you get the idea. The ending is especially important here, since all of your major events in the book need to be leading toward the finish. I should also add that by “major” events I mean events integral to the story, even if the scenes aren’t big ones themselves. Passing off a key item in what seems like a trivial scene in a gum factory would still be a checkpoint, for example.
Once you know your major events, plot them out chronologically. What leads to what that in turn leads to what. Get those down, and you’ll effectively have a road map of your story. The start, the end, and all the major points in between. And here is where my outlining process in terms of story tends to stop. For me, part of the joy of writing a story is not knowing everything I’ll type. The thrill of discovery keeps things fresh and unpredictable on my end, which in turn makes the writing experience more fun. I always know where I’m going, heading toward the next checkpoint, but having space in between those events to play with is where I get to do my character exploration and find the most natural ways to take them to the next checkpoint.
It does bear saying, however, that writing like this usually means some heavier work in the post-writing edits. Since you didn’t have every detail plotted out in advance, there are bound to be a few false starts or pointless elements in the book. Part of editing with this kind of outline is either stripping those bits out entirely or re-working them so they foreshadow the proper plot points. Remember, it doesn’t have to all be perfect and cohesive on the first draft, that’s why we take our time to edit and re-write, sewing things up and making sure it all flows smoothly.
Honestly, that more or less explains my outlining process; it’s a fairly straightforward one. That said, we’re much too short on content to end the blog, so let’s tackle a different aspect of outlining: character creation. I’ve talked before about building superheroes (or similar) for high-powered stories using RPG mechanics to ensure they don’t come out overpowered, but there’s really some outlining work to do for all characters, regardless of genre or role.
I like to keep notecards about my characters, first in paper, now using a site called Trello. On those cards I do basics: names, ages, distinctive parts about their looks, things that I’ll want to keep straight at a glance. Beyond that, I also like to include details about them that are important to the core of their character. Fears are useful, alliances and friendships doubly so, the more history the better in general, but there is one aspect that I consider absolutely essential to the card: what does the character want?
It doesn’t have to be a big, emotional desire, like to pay for their sick grandma’s surgery. Few people are motivated daily by something that grand. No, this is the question more centered on what gets through the weekly grind. Are they saving up for a new car? Paying for night school to get a better job? Hoping to afford rent? Plotting to overthrow a guild of superheroes? Dreaming of opening their own shop one day? There isn’t a wrong answer to any of these; it’s just a question of knowing what that character desires. Because if you know that, then every time there’s a conflict for them, a choice to face or a task to clear, you can look back at what they want and decide how that desire coupled with their personality would have them choose. If they’re the self-denial type, maybe they go away from their desires for the good of others. If they’re ruthless, maybe they move forward regardless of the cost. Knowing a characters wants doesn’t necessarily give an automatic answer to every question they’ll face, however it does provide you with a compass so that at least the direction of their actions should be consistent through the story.
That’s a pretty good rundown of how I outline these days, although as I age and get more practice some details here and there will surely change. Give it a shot if it sounds like a good system for you, or go read about other forms of outlining if you know this won’t work at all. And don’t be discouraged if you have trouble finding a tactic that clicks, we’ve all got to find our ways to do this job. Keep trying new things, and eventually you’ll find yours.