I’ve had three different friends ask me variations on “how do you outline?” in the last month or so. My response goes something like this:
- Sure, um, here’s a tip or two
- Howabout I send you an example of one of my outlines?
- Maybe I should write a post about outlining
- Wait, surely there are much better people to get outlining advice from than me
But like most writers, I love to write about writing, and this love is undeterred by my lack of expertise on any given aspect of it. So with the caveat that actual experts can offer much better ideas, here are mine. I’ll use A Rational Arrangement as my example because it’s the book my readers are most likely to be familiar with.
I start with an idea, or more often, a whole slew of ideas. The first idea for A Rational Arrangement was “wealthy heiress makes extremely blunt and clinical marital proposition to titled-but-poor man*, which horrifies all of their relations but intrigues the man, who appreciates both her forthrightness and her contemplation of non-monogamy.”
Other things accreted to this. Wisteria became neurodiverse because that went well with “confused as to why she’s not supposed to be forthright about various things.” I like fantasy and wanted to write a character with mental powers used for healing instead of mind-reading or control**, so Nikola became a mind-healer. (There was, btw, no connection between these two ideas; I was halfway through writing the outline before it occurred to me that at some point they should talk about whether or not Wisteria wanted to be neurodiverse and whether or not this was a condition Nik could treat.)
I wanted religion to be a meaningful part of the world and the characters’ lives, so Nik’s culture regarded his mind-healing gift as a blessing from their god. I wanted to write a polyamorous romance, so I gave Nik a boyfriend and made their society homophobic to explain why he hadn’t married the boyfriend. I didn’t want to succumb to the traditional horses-like-bicycles*** of most fantasy, so I added giant riding cats and made them sapient because the only thing better than a cat you can ride is a TALKING cat you can ride.
At this stage, I don’t know how the story goes. I just have a pile of “this sounds cool! And this! And ooh that! Shiny!”
Glueing ideas together into a story
The outline is where I stick all my ideas together into some kind of narrative. In the case of A Rational Arrangement, I knew that I wanted to write a romance.
Basic romance plot:
- Introduce protagonists.
- Obstacle(s) exists which prevent protagonists from being happily in love
- Protagonists overcome obstacle(s) and live happily ever after, together and in love.
To make it even more generic, the basic formula for any story is:
- Character(s) wants thing(s) and doesn’t have it
- Obstacle(s) prevents character(s) from getting thing(s)
- Either obstacle(s) overcomes character(s), or character(s) overcomes obstacle(s)
There is an enormous variety of “things that are wanted” and the protagonists don’t need to know what they want, and can be wrong about what they want. The thing romance novel protagonists want is “to be happily in love with other protagonist(s)” but romance novel protagonists often don’t realize this until the end. Obstacles are likewise varied; they can be purely internal (“I don’t believe love can last”), or external (“society forbids our love”). They can be personal (“my parents want me to marry this person I hate”) or inanimate (“I don’t have enough money to support a spouse”).
With A Rational Arrangement, I already had plenty of obstacles:
- Wisteria and Nik aren’t in love
- Nik and Justin are in love but incapable of talking about their feelings
- Nik is impoverished and too proud and stubborn to accept help
- Justin wants to help Nik but can’t get around Nik’s pride and stubbornness.
- Nik and Justin both think marriage has to be horrible and also would end their relationship
- Wisteria thinks her neurodiversity renders her too unromantic to be loved
- Nik misinterprets Wisteria’s lack of typical body language and expression as a lack of passion and interest, and accordingly finds her unattractive as a partner
- Homophobic society forces Nik and Justin’s relationship to be furtive and fraught
- Wisteria is incapable of not talking about a topic if it interests her, regardless of whether or not other people think said topic is verboten
- Nobody really thinks polyamory is an option
- The whole thing around mind-healing is A Mess, with healing at the discretion of the healer and payment at the discretion of the healed, so if a healer says “I can’t fix this” there’s no way to tell if they really can’t or if they just don’t think it would be worth their time. This causes Problems for Nik.
... this is not even an exhaustive list. No wonder this book was so long.
So writing the outline is mostly a matter of figuring out what scenes will showcase my characters’ personalities and flaws, and the obstacles that they face, and what they do to overcome said obstacles.
I already had the Horrible Proposal scene in mind, so I started with that. That leads nicely into “Nik’s parents leave with him in a huff” and “Wisteria has a conversation with her father to establish her mind doesn’t work the same way as the people around them.” Since Nik is intrigued by the Horrible Proposal, he visits Wisteria later. Oh right, Nik has a boyfriend, I need some scenes with the boyfriend to demonstrate how that relationship kind-of-works-but-has-issues. Nik is a mind-healer so I need to show him doing that and also introduce this petitioner that will cause Problems later, which Justin and Wisteria will help solve and that will bring the two of them closer together. Etc.
Some people like sub-points on their outlines, but my outlines are just long lists of bullet points describing each event. Sometimes these have specific details about what happens. This was the bullet point for Nik & Wisteria’s first private conversation:
- The next meeting. A chance for Nik & Wisteria to talk in private-ish. Probably with her father present. Possible other talking points: Nik thinking that Wisteria doesn't want to marry him either -- why would she? Some money-hungry titled-and-entitled brat. Not something he'd suggest in front of her father. Nik ends up inviting Wisteria to attend an event with him -- he's still not consciously courting her, but is aware that he likes her. I really want to showcase Wisteria's sense of humor here -- more importantly, that she has one, even though she doesn't laugh or smile. They also start getting into the habit, already, of having these honest, forthright conversations about things You Don't Talk About. Not just sex! Money! Religion! Why Nik doesn't want to get married. Uncomfortable questions.
More often, they’re vague. This bullet point eventually became the Ascension ball scene:
- Nik and Wisteria at whatever function. Nik is having a wonderful time, enjoying Wisteria's conversation, her keen but cool eye for observation.
I vary between writing outlines in chronological order and writing them in the order the events will be covered by the book -- so I might outline flashbacks first and then the actual start, and rearrange it later, or I might figure out the flashbacks when they come up instead.
A Rational Arrangement was the second book I wrote where I crafted an outline first, and the actual book diverged wildly from my original outline. It was so far off from the outline that while editing, I made a new outline that followed what I’d actually written. Among other things, Justin was an afterthought in the original outline. The original outline centered on Nikola, with zero scenes between Justin and Wisteria. Since I wanted a triad romance, I added a lot of Justin-and-Wisteria scenes while I was writing.
With ARA, I didn’t go back to revise my outline when I went off-script; I just forged ahead. With later books, I’ve usually revised my outline if I find I want to do something different. I’ll also revise the outline if I feel like it’s not detailed enough. For instance, in The Moon Etherium, my outline had:
- Ardent & Miro have to go to a party in Ardent's honor, hosted by the Moon Queen. Moon Host parties are Not Boring Cocktail Things. They are more like thrill rides. Coupled with jump scares. Party games crossed with plays, where the attendees are part of the performance, LARP-style.
When it came time to write this scene, I got stuck, not sure what I was supposed to write. So instead of leaping into writing, I outlined the “LARP-style-party-game-turned-play” in considerable detail, using it to flesh out the history of the setting as well as show the villain at work and the protagonists thwarting her.
Which gets to the reason I outline: it’s much faster to get where I want to go if I have a map. The outline is me writing out the story as briefly as I can, and making sure I know how to get to the end of it. I’ve finished stories without outlining them, including one novel. But I’d get stuck for weeks or months, not writing because I wasn’t sure What Comes Next. Working from an outline means I know what comes next. I do still get stuck sometimes, when I realize the outline doesn’t work after all, or I want to make a major change. But for me, it’s often easier and faster to add to or fix the outline than it is to try writing the next scene without one.
By way of providing examples, here’s a link to the original outlines for A Rational Arrangement and The Mortal Prince and the Moon Etherium. (You can purchase A Rational Arrangement here if you want, and The Mortal Prince and the Moon Etherium is for sale here, or available as a freebie if you subscribe to my newsletter.) I figured I’d provide the novelette outline too, both to show an outline for a short work, and because it’s a freebie so the full story is also easily accessible.
* I took this half of the idea from a Brandon Sanderson novel, The Alloy of Law.
** "Medical applications of mental powers" came from a Bujold novel, Ethan of Athos.
*** "Horses work like bicycles" is from Diana Wynne Jones’s The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. My answer to “where do you get your ideas?” is “mostly from other authors.” Ideas are not subject to copyright. Take as many as you like. I like to isolate my very favorite parts of an idea and then smoosh those together with favorite bits taken from other sources.