I outline my books. I know this about myself, and I no longer try to fight it. I have a thing for complex characters with complex relationships. Without an outline, I wouldn’t be able to sustain the tension or wind my way through bewildering relationships. I’ve finally found a method that works for me, so I thought I’d share it with those looking for tips on outlining.

  1. I generally write about 20-50 pages before I touch the outline. This helps me discover who my character is and what their voice sounds like. Once I have a handle on this, the outlining begins.
  2. I plan for 30 chapters as a guideline. Why? Because I like how solid 30 is. Using a piece of notepaper, I number each line 1 thru 30.
  3. Get to know the Three-Act structure which divides the story into three main parts:
    • Act I is the beginning where you  introduce the characters and the situation they are in before a conflict occurs to change things
    • Between Act I and II is Plot Point #1. This is an event or external action that changes everything for your character and sets the story in motion.
    • Act II is the middle of your story and is littered with all the obstacles you keep putting in your character’s way until you reach the Black Moment of the story
    • Between Act II and III is Plot Point #2. This is an event or external action that happens AFTER the Black Moment and shifts your story toward the resolution.
    • Act III is where you wrap up all your storylines and resolve any conflicts.
    • This website gives an awesome breakdown of the three-act structure, along with movie examples.
  4. So keeping my structure in mind, I take my piece of paper and pencil in the Black Moment and Plot Point #2 (around Chapter 26).  My stories usually come to me with these moments in place.
  5. Now, here’s the tricky part. I like to start my stories in the thick of things. In my last novel, the very first line of the book introduced my Plot Point #1. Does this mean I skipped writing Act I? No. I combined Acts I and II, layering them together.
  6. Okay. I know where my story starts (Plot Point #1), and I know the worst it’s going to end up (Black Moment). What about all the stuff in between – that honestly used to terrify me?  Every few chapters I pencil in an obstacle. I think about my character’s goal, and situations that could get in the way of that goal. I generally have about 6-7 of these obstacles that get increasingly worse as I near the Black Moment.
  7. That takes care of 9 chapters, you say. What about the other 21 chapters? My last WIP had an MC that had complex relationships with 5 other characters in the novel. Each of these relationships had to have an arc, with the relationship changing over the course of the novel as the MC changes. So over the course of those 21 chapters I rotated between those 5 different arcs, including a beginning, middle, and end (or resolution) for each.
  8. Beware sustained tension. Readers get fatigued if you never give them a break from the tension. I had one particular character arc that acted as break from the tension. Each chapter or scene my MC had with this character gave her a mini-break before she hit another obstacle. My way of relieving the sustained tension and giving the reader a chance to rest.
  9. Note on Plot Points, Obstacles, and Black Moment: These should be events rather than emotional moments. Rather than “MC finally gets mad,” an obstacle would be “X Character does Y .” The MC may very well get mad, but that’s an emotion and not an event per se. Events spark action and change (and emotions). They are required to move your story forward.

Here’s an example of a single chapter’s “outline” from my last WIP:

Chapter 1: Carey is MIA/Blake calls/Mom left

Cryptic, right? Just a few notes like this per chapter provide me with a writing goal. The brevity allows me the freedom to let scenes develop as I write without outlining myself into a corner. So I know in Chapter 1 I want to announce that Carey is MIA, have Blake call my MC about it, and introduce that the MC’s mom abandoned her. Thee conflicts to introduce, but it’s up to my muses how much of each conflict I introduce and what type of scene I do it in.

I like to think of my process as a freeway with lots of exits and places to go.

I hope you can find something useful in my mad method!

Here’s a barebones view of how I layered things in for my last WIP:

Chapter Act Act Structure
1 Plot Point #1 Plot Point #1
2 Act I/II
3 Act I/II Obstacle #1
4 Act I/II
5 Act I/II
6 Act I/II Obstacle #2
7 Act I/II
8 Act I/II
9 Act I/II Obstacle #3
10 Act I/II
11 Act I/II
12 Act I/II
13 Act I/II Obstacle #4
14 Act I/II
15 Act I/II
16 Act I/II
17 Act I/II
18 Act I/II
19 Act I/II Obstacle #5
20 Act I/II
21 Act I/II
22 Act I/II Obstacle #6
23 Act I/II
24 Act I/II Obstacle #7
25 Act I/II
26 Black Moment/ Plot Point #2 Black Moment/ Plot Point #2
27 Act III
28 Act III
29 Act III
30 Act III