From Idea To Outline

There are a few things we need to do before we can put everything down in an outline, but these are at least the first few steps. For me, outlining is a big part of the writing process. It probably takes me longer to write the outline than it does to actually write the story. That’s fine with me. Even with everything written down, the outlines still tend to be fluid. But Lee, what about being boxed into your outline? Isn’t that a formulaic approach to writing? I don’t like that. Well, foo! To me it’s not formulaic. Forgive me, you romance writers out there reading, but the romance genre is formulaic. Most other writing is not. Writing an outline is your map to get where you are going. It’s a map, not a box, so you can take a different route to get where you’re going or you can take the established route.

When I write my outlines, I go into it knowing full well that it’s not complete. If I waited for it to be complete, I would never write anything! As creators, we all want to have that perfect idea, that perfect concept that will take us to the end. While that is good and all, it can also be a detriment. Just as a person who is indecisive will never get anything done, so a perfectionist will not be able to get past page one. If you go into your outline knowing that it’s going to change and there’s nothing you can do about it, then you will be on your way to getting past page one and way beyond.

Why do I say that an outline is never complete? Experience has taught me that I might not have the best ideas on any given day. It could be that I didn’t have enough coffee in the morning or I didn’t eat cheese or greasy pork the night before (usually that’s what I remember having the night before one of my vivid dreams…don’t laugh, it’s what works for me, alright?) I have days where ideas just pop into my head at the oddest moments. All I can do is just write them down and remember to put them where they belong in the outline. Many times, it’s even after I’ve started writing the book that I have these epiphanies.

As for boxing me in, outlines don’t do that for me. In fact, I find it freeing. I no longer have to wonder what’s going to happen from start to finish of a scene. I’ve planned it out, so I know everything that’s supposed to happen. How I get there is still up to me. We’ll get into this a little deeper in future posts, but my scene are planned out a 2,500 words. Let’s let that sink in for a bit. Two thousand, five hundred words. That’s a lot! That’s actually ten pages if you use Courier New font, 12-point, double spaced. Now knowing that a scene is the basic building block of a novel, then you could easily see that ten pages is really ample space to play around in. That’s why I say it’s liberating because now, instead of wondering what I have to do, I get to put my efforts into to how it’s going to be done and how the characters are going to progress through the structure to get the goal accomplished (or not).

For now, there are a few more things we need to do before we say that we can truly begin our outline. At least, that’s how I approach it. And since this is designed to provide you with a glimpse into how I do it, I will focus on that way.

I have mentioned it before, and it is worth repeating, I use the Snowflake Method to flesh out my ideas before I get them to paper. Here is where I begin the next step. I take that logline that I created earlier and stretch it out to reveal a bit more detail of the story.

In this step, I write a paragraph extending all the ideas that I had compressed into twenty-five words or fewer.

In this step, I write a paragraph extending all the ideas that I had compressed into twenty-five words or fewer. The idea here is to get the major disasters written down. Remember that (whether you believe in the three-act structure or not) a story have three parts. Beginning, Middle, and End. Or for those that do believe, Act I, Act II and Act III. In other words, we need to find a disaster between the first act and the second, we’ll need a disaster between the second act and the third, and then there’s the doozy toward the end. But, that last one truly isn’t a disaster, right? Right. It isn’t, but there is one missing. The midpoint. That one needs to be taken into account. Really we should have about five sentences. The first introduces the character by name and what changed in his or her life to start them down the trail the story is leading. The second sentence is going to tell about the disaster the propels him or her into the story to where they cannot go back. The third explains a little bit more that happens ending with a disaster that changes the way the main character thinks about what’s happening. Usually this sentence will be a game changer for him or her. The next sentence will describe the next part of the story and also, ending in a terrible disaster. This one should be where everything falls apart for the poor main character and his or her followers. Relationships get tainted, toys get broken, mayhem ensues. Whatever it is, it will be the main character’s lowest of low points. There should be no hope at this point. And of course, the last sentence is what ties everything together and helps the main character win the day.

This should only be one paragraph at this point. It doesn’t have to be detailed at all, just enough to give yourself an idea of what the story is all about and to help you focus on what major issues are going to happen before everything is said and done.

Here’s our logline from the last post:

To help a stranded bugbear save his kingdom from evil trolls, outcast summer campers must help find a way to reopen the portal between their worlds.

So let’s work through this.

I like to come up with the disasters first. I like this approach because it’s more fun. Here is where I just sit and brainstorm on a Word document to hash out all things I could put my unsuspecting characters into. In this case, I have already come up with a few (yes, I already played around with ideas in my document beforehand). Now, you don’t have to have any earth-shattering details just yet, just remember this: it will change. Some people will probably say, “well, what about finding the main character’s internal flaw and external flaw, and all that?” Well, that’s not the point of this exercise. You want to get some power punches set up so that whichever of your characters gets chosen to be your main character will be unprepared as ever.

Right now, I’ve chosen the main character to be the writer kid. He’s the imaginative type who will see the bugbear for what it is. So, the first sentence would go something like this:

During the initial bonfire of summer camp, young Wade Adams notices an odd-looking bear following him around. Wade learns that the bear was a bugbear who was forced from his home by troll trying to take over the kingdom where he lives and now Wade and his friend are being hunted because he is helping the homeless bugbear. Wade discovers the way to open the portal, but is nearly killed by one of the troll hunters and the item needed to open the portal is captured. Wade is able to get the portal key back, but at the cost of his friends who think he betrayed them all. Wade is able to recover the key, save his friends and send the bugbear back to save his kingdom from the trolls.

There. Not perfect, nor is it meant to be. There will be revisions as we go along. That’s because our brains can’t think of everything at once. If they did, we’d be all geniuses and our significant others wouldn’t be getting on us about forgetting things all the time. So now we have a good foundation from which the rest of the story can be built. The next step, one that we will take in the next post, is to make one of these for each of the main characters. When I say each, I include the antagonist as well since they are the heroes of their own story and among their own people.

I hope this has been helpful and that you’ll continue with me on this journey in writing a novel. If you have any questions or concerns, want a specific topic covered, just leave a comment below or you can email me at I’ll do my best to answer your questions (as long as they’re writing related). As always, Happy Writing!


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