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! 🙂