My Personal Process: Outlining/Plotting

Welcome to the second entry in this series of Personal Process posts! This series is keeping with the theme of the month, and for February I’m going to be talking about outlining and plotting, since I’m neck deep in planning The Laoche Chronicles and this gives me the chance to both share some behind-the-scenes with you, as well as give you some tips on how I make outlining work for me. This is just my process, and I’m not saying it’s the end all-be all for plotters, just another method that you might be able to learn from and adapt to suit your storytelling needs.

It works paticularly well for very complicated series, but if I’m working on a more straightfoward contemporary novella, I’ll skip over the whiteboard step and go straight into the document outline. For short stories, I might just make a bullet point list of Stakes, Beginning, Middle, Climax, End, Character Drive. I find that knowing how to tackle all the different angles leads to a better understanding of structure in general, so I find it interesting to study all the different scopes, then change this process to fit the needs of my current WIP.

Step 1: Brain Dumping

At this point, I probably have some semblance of a premise and characters for this idea, and possibly also an endgame idea of where I want to take the story but not middle or clue of how to get from point A to point B. This is where I collect ALL the thoughts. Usually, I do this between phone notes and a document on my laptop for brainstorming, but I also use voice memos or whatever else works. I’ve drawn ideas on my hand in pen during a lifeguarding shift before and just taken pictures of my inked-over arm before I have to jump into the pool again. It happens. In any case, you have ideas.

Step 2: Put it in some semblance of order by using a map

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[Image ID] a blurry picture of a whiteboard covered in ideas in various covered pens looking something like a conspiracy theory board. This is the outline I was working on last night for the first book in the Laoche chronicles but it’s so vague at this point that I don’t think spoilers really matter. [End Image ID]

The next objective is to put the random ideas in a linear order. I collect all the thoughts into one spot and dump them on the board. I color code, so first I write down all the set plot-points in the approximate order in the black pen, start to finish, and leave space above and below for stuff has to happen in the middle. 

Then the characters come in. I generally know backstories so those get dumped around the starting point in green. I figure out what characters are driving the plot and draw arrows between said plot points writing what the character does in the green pen. I include motivations, feelings, alliances, anything that might possibly be important to the plot too.

Then come logistics and filling in – that’s in red. You could also use conspiracy theory string. Where are they in the world? What needs to happen next? Where do I have plot holes? What makes the characters tick? What makes sense to happen next? What needs to happen to get to the end? What worldbuilding needs to get figured out to enable this plot point? I write it ALL down on a separate piece of paper and start brainstorming again. When I find a good connection, I add it. You’ll start to notice the board is starting to fill up. It won’t be linear anymore. That’s fine. 

Step 3: Flesh it out

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[Image ID] a poorly lit photo of a board covered in sticky notes of different, some overlapping each other. This is only a corner of the board because it’s the outline for Storge and I only took a picture of the first few chapters [End Image ID]

This is where it starts getting real. I take everything I have on the whiteboard (which at this point is a disaster) and transfer every plot point, character interaction, motivation, worldbuilding thing, pacing notes, anything about unreliable characters, author notes about who knows what at certain points (both the characters and the reader), plot twists, and anything else from the notes that didn’t make it to the whiteboard and reconstruct the story on a board.

The reason I use sticky notes is because you can move them around, layer them, and space them to create a cohesive narrative. If I need to play with timing, I can do that easily. If I need to connect plot points to characterizations or anything else, I can do that with layering and spacing next to each other. I’m still color coding at this point. I can start slapping on stuff like “which day does this happen on? What kind of transitions do I need?”, chapter divisions, and thematic elements. You’ll notice there are more holes. Fill those in sooner rather than later. And also possibly stock up on tape.

Step 4: Outline Time

I obviously can’t take my carefully made board with me to school so now it’s time to put it into a document. At this point I should preface this with the fact that I really like the 3 act structure, so I start my outline with that before anything else, like so, using headings to make a document outline – that way I can jump around the outline using the outline quickly. Probably a bit extra but it saves a ton of time:

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[Image ID] a Microsoft word document outline with a hierarchical structure that shows acts, plot points, chapters, and chapter titles. [End Image ID]

Once that’s been filled out, I start putting the information from the board into the outline structure, and I make sure to cover EVERYTHING something like this: (with color-coding)

  1. Chapter #/Title
  2. Day of the narrative: this helps me keep time and iron out the pacing
  3. The objective of the chapter: what does the reader need to learn, what is the one big thing that happens plot-wise
  4. Main Plot Happenings – this goes in red text and details what actually happens in the chapter. For Storge, this is the plotline that follows Luca and the Laine family (when they’re together)
  5. If there are subplots, these go here too in other colors. Orange for villainous cutaways. Purple for anything with the avian city/war subplot
  6. Character arcs: these are green. I bullet point a list and name every major character in this chapter. anything important to their arcs goes here, as well as how I’m writing them. What are the emotions involved? This is normally the longest part because I have a lot of characters
  7. Worldbuilding: What does the reader need to learn about the world from this chapter? This helps me space out the exposition. Details come up on a “need to know” basis, so there’s new worldbuilding in every chapter but no page-long dumps anywhere.
  8. Themes: WHY is this chapter important? How is it contributing to what I want to say with this story?
  9. Any other author notes about unreliable narrators, plot twists, foreshadowing, and what the reader should know at this point in the story. The goal is that you don’t anticipate the twist, but rereading it there’s a “HOW DID I NOT SEE THAT BEFORE” reaction, so this is more for my sake as a storytelling-craft thing.
  10. Any excerpts or dialogue or description that I pre-wrote in the brain-dump phase and liked and think would fit well in this chapter.

Repeat with every chapter until done.

This takes a long time, and I’m always revisiting and reworking that final outline once I’ve “finished” it but it’s such a huge help to set me on the right path without detouring 565479851321 times because I realized there was a plot hole too late. It’s overly complicated and incredibly intense and in-depth so it’s not for everyone but I like my 30-page long outlines, so here I am!

This post is also an updated reshare of a similar post I originally shared on tumblr last year that got a lot of attention recently, so I wanted to post it somewhere relevant so it’s always at hand if people want it as reference. If you’re still reading this, then wow, good job, and thank you! I hope this was somewhat informative! Now Go Forth! Be Creative! Have fun! 🙂

My Personal Process: Developing Characters

Welcome to the first of the Process Posts! This is a series that will be going live on the 2nd Friday of every month talking about how I personally develop a certain aspect of the writing process. Sometimes, seeing a different perspective on part of the writing process can be helpful in figuring out what method would work best for you, so I wanted to share mine! Of course, this is just my way of doing it, and I’m not claiming it’s the best that it universally works for every project, so feel free to chime in the comments with your own suggestions so we can learn from each other. 🙂

Step 1: Brain Dumping and idea gathering

As far as I can tell, there are two main approaches to character creation – ground up and plot down. Ground Up characters are the sort of OCs that pop into your head with a concept or image or premise, but you have to figure out how to fit them into a story. Plot Down OCs are the sort that arise out of a need for a specific role to be filled in the story, and then you have to create a character out of a few required traits to fit that the bill. This part of the process is where I’m just gathering ideas on how to turn a concept into a person and collecting them in one place. I use a lot of daydreaming, making playlists, finding aesthetics on unsplash and pinterest, reading through prompt blogs and saving everything that catches my attention. This is also the stage when they get a name and the beginnings of a personality.

I don’t know about you, but I hoard ideas like a dragon haha. When you’ve got several years of pinterest boards and phone notes and screenshots there’s no lack of potential for plot hooks and backstory. One of my recent favorite methods is going through my “Everything Playlist” (2114 songs and counting lol) and picking out songs that fit their story arc and point of view on the world. For the Ground Up characters, they help brainstorm what sort of character arcs work for them and how they react to certain situations, and can be the start of a backstory for Plot Down OCs. If you want an example of this, I have the playlists for all my Storge characters linked on the WIP page. I’m building playlists for the Laoche characters now, and Weswin has proved amusing because in-story, he’s a wandering bard. Coincidentally, he’s also the one with the longest playlist. 😛

Step 2: Listing!

When I first started writing, a lot of writing advice websites pointed me to character questionaires. There’s about a million of them but I’ve found that a lot go into a lot of extra detail about what’s in their sock drawer, which isn’t that important to me or the plot. Lists can be a good tool for collecting information about a character, but I find them to be the most useful whenever I’m into the thick of the outlining phase and just need everything in one place. Going through the list allows me to make sure I covered all the important parts of their person, so that way I don’t end up blindsided later with “oh, wait, that backstory I originally wrote down is actually OOC now that I’ve changed the plot.” These are the important things I try to cover!

Character Name: (including nicknames/epithets, if any, and how they got said nickname/epithet)

Category #1: Basics

  • Age, Sex, and Gender:
  • Race/Ethnicity/culture: Especially if they’re form a specific fantasy race, worldbuilding that culture will be important to the character’s worldview. If I’m writing in our world, this means lots and LOTS of research to avoid tokenism and make sure the cast is really diverse, without just slapping labels on them.
  • Appearance/physical details like height, hair/eye color, and general details
  • Other important details like scars, birthmarks, mobility/accessiblity aids, ect.
  • Clothing – style can say a lot about the character’s personality and background, and doing some research/worldbuilding on fashion can help round out the realism of the story.
  • Voice and mannerisms: if they have favorite sayings/catchphrases, use slang, or talk like a textbook, the character’s background will affect how they sound in the narrative of the story, so I like to start brainstorming that here, and writing little snippets in their POV.

 Category #2: Relationships

  • I know the orphaned hero trope is really popular, and I understand the narrative incentive to just handwave annoying questions like “why are there no responsible adults to stop the 14 year old from becoming a war criminal and saving the world?” but I’ll be honest, I don’t really get it from a storytelling point of view. Most people have families and a home life that significantly impacts their worldview irl, and so do my characters, so that sort of discussion goes here.
  • I discuss (briefly) each member’s personality (if they don’t have their own outline) and relationship to the character. This is also where work out how their friendships developed with other members of the cast. This is a good opportunity to get info down for side characters who might not need a ton of background but do feature in the story in some way.
  • I also note how the MC is generally perceived by his/her acquaintances and strangers, and what sort of reputation they have outside of their immedieate social circle.

Category #3: Romance

I’ll be honest, I rarely write romance, but if that’s going to be a major subplot in your story, it’s probably important to develop that here. Important questions to ask might include: Does this character have any past experience with dating that might affect how they approach this relationship? What’s their orientation? Do they want a relationship, and if so, what do they want out of a relationship? Do they flirt, and how do they flirt? What sort of misunderstandings would lead to obstacles in the relationship and how would they work to get past them? If there’s other distracting plot stuff going on (like solving a crime, fighting an evil king, or saving the world from reality unravelling, y’know, typical Tuesday stuff), how would they react to The Feels and balance their time between their romantic interests and their duty?

Category #4: Skills

  • General Skills: if they know art, fighting, other languages, ect, anything goes here. explain WHY they know that.
  • Smarts: This would be a character’s general approach to solving problems, thinking fast under tough situations, and general background knowledge. I’d also include schooling in there if it’s relevant, but education doesn’t necessarily correlate to intellegence.
  • This is also where I touch on their occupation and hobbies. It’s a fun way to round out a character and subvert expectations if they have an interest in something you wouldn’t expect on first notice.

Category #5: Fundamentals – the fun stuff, where I start drawing connections to the plot. At each major decision, I come back to this section and ask myself “what would they decide to do based on the following? Why?”

  • General Personality Categorical Stuff: like Introvert or Extravert, MBTI type, Hogwarts House, Enneagram, Alignment like in DnD, an excuse to makeup fun uquiz questions and figure out their general behavior and voice on a day to day basis.
  • Strengths: there are many different types of character strengths and I don’t have the space to summarize them all here, so Here’s an excellent blog article on types of strengths. to give you some ideas! I try to make sure that I include a few for my villains too becasue they need to be effective in their villainy, and to include a variety of strengths so that the characters can play off of each other’s strong points.
  • Weaknesses: These usually reflect what the strengths could be if taken to their extreme, and connect with plot points where the characters fail to reach their goals because of a mistake or choice they make.
  • Goals/Dreams/Aspirations: The driving motivation behind their actions in the story
  • Beliefs/Affiliations: If they’re part of a religion or have a certain philosophy that plays into how they behave, it goes here.
  • Fears/Insecurities/Mental illness: the angsty part of this outline, where the tragic backstories come out
  • Role in the Story: Why are they here and what do they contribute to the plot?
  • What are they doing after the story ends? If the story has sequel potential, that goes here
  • Any formative memories that might be important go here
  • What would they die for? How much are they willing to sacrifice? How far are they willing to go with their actions to meet their goals before it’s crossing a moral line for them?
  • If I have any motifs for them at this point, they’d also go here.

Step 3: Repeat for each character and Connect the Dots

At this point, my characters have usually changed a lot from the original concept, and now I have to figure out how they change in the story. While I’m developing them, I’m simultaniously working on the outline (which I’ll discuss in next month’s Process Post!) and as I work through the plot in each chapter, I’m also working through the character’s arcs. This is my favorite part of the creative process – when I get to see how the messy, complicated people come together with a messy situation and how they clash and world together and make their way to The End. This is a process borne of a lot of trial and error on my part, and so I hope that by sharing it today, it helps someone too.

If you’d like, take this as an opportunity to ramble in the comments as much as you’d like about your favorite OCs. I’d love to learn more about my reader’s characters, and about the stories they live. Thank you for reading, and happy writing! 🙂

Photo by Benjamin Davies on Unsplash