When coming up with the topics for this blog event, I was asked to share about my outlining methods. It’s a wonderful topic, but I’ll admit that at first I felt pretty confused. How would I go about discussing my outlining methods? Did I even have methods? And the more I thought about what goes into my outlining process, the more I realized that my outlining methods encompass more than just the outline for my story. When I decide that I have a story idea worth writing, my outlining process has to encompass everything from world building to character building to the actual outline, or I simply can’t start writing. I know that my way isn’t one that will work for everyone, and a lot of writers may even disagree with my methods, but I’m really excited to share about my process!
When it comes to creating a new novel, the idea comes to me in the form of plot, then characters, then world. Most of the time I don’t know the nitty-gritty details of the plot; normally it’s just the overarching “here’s where the story begins, at Point A, and here’s what the ending looks like, at Point B.” Sometimes I’ll have a few random scene ideas thrown in there that I tend to write down for future reference.
Once I have the overarching plot written down, and the few random scenes if there are any, I don’t touch the plot again until after I’ve created my characters and world. Some of you may be confused by this, so I’ll quickly explain why I do this instead of finishing fleshing out my plot first and foremost.
I am a very character-driven writer. I like to know the people that will be taking center stage in my story before I figure out the details of my plot, and even my story world. I want to know what makes them tick. What are their features? Their individual goals? Their dreams and aspirations? Are their individual goals and dreams vital enough to be included in the details of the plot? If not, do they need to be revised or does my plot need to be revised? As you can see, even if I have an overarching view of my plot, I’ll then continue to build the plot around my characters, which is why I need to flesh out my characters first.
There are many ways to flesh out characters. If you’re friends with other writers, you can do what’s called a “Character Chat” or a “Character Lounge.” In Character Chats, you have your author friends or your author friends’ characters interview your character. A lot of writers have had success with these; I actually don’t enjoy them as much until I know my characters inside and out (which kind of defeats the purpose of a Chat, ha!). Character Lounges are where you and your author friends throw your characters into a fake scenario together – whether that be romantic, thriller/action-y, mysterious, whatever. The main point is to get your characters talking with each other (like they would with other characters in a story) and then to put them in action and see how they respond. In essence, it’s creating a fake, brief story to see how your characters respond in certain situations. Again, a lot of writers have had major success with Character Lounges. I have not, because I tend to find that I like collaborating with other writers and learning about their characters more than working on my own books, so I don’t use these since they become a huge distraction to my progress.
My preferred method of fleshing out characters is character interviews that I conduct myself. I was part of a writing forum back in high school, and one of the fellow writers had constructed a list of interesting questions to “ask” your character. I would take these questions, write them down, pick the character I wanted to interview, and go through and answer each question the way I thought the character might answer. While this method is long and does take multiple days to complete, depending on how thorough you want to be in your answers and how many characters you need to interview, it’s the method that has worked the best for me. Since leaving that writing forum, I’ve been gifted a character questionnaire sheet by my sister-in-law, and I’ve started using this particular character questionnaire more frequently.
I would like to go ahead and add that even after these questionnaires, sometimes I still don’t know my characters indefinitely. But that’s okay. Most of the time I don’t know as much about them as I would like until I start writing them; more appropriately, I don’t know as much about them as I would like until after I’ve edited the first draft.
Once I have my character questionnaires filled out to my liking, I’ll move onto world building. I’ll be honest – I used to hate world building. It was my least favorite part of writing. Building a fantasy setting from scratch or doing intense research sessions if my story setting was a real location was just overwhelming. Normally I would half-ass it. But since Smoke and Mirrors and having to really work on the setting for it, I became pretty interested in world building. I’m still not an expert at it, by any means, and there are plenty of days where I would rather chuck my notebook across the room instead of working on it, but I’m getting there!
What has helped me like world building so much? In all honesty: books on world building and then a world building questionnaire. (Can you tell that I love questionnaires yet?) After reading more about the craft and art of building a world, it really increased my appreciation of it. And with my handy-dandy, super in depth world building questionnaire which you can find here, it helps me to stay on track without feeling overwhelmed or stressed out. Side note: I normally don’t answer every single question in the questionnaire. I go through each category and pick the questions that really matter to my story world, and then I try to write really detailed answers. Sometimes a question that isn’t on the questionnaire will stem from one of my answers, and then I can write said question down and answer it too.
If you’re curious as to how much world building I’ve done for the stories I have out and the stories I’m currently writing, it varies. Smoke and Mirrors didn’t have much world building done until after the first draft, when I did a crap ton of research on Newburgh, NY, including finding maps of the streets and different locations on the city’s website. Je Te Veux felt like simple world building because I wrote most of the setting details shortly after getting back from Paris. With my fantasy duology that I’m currently writing, I have over sixty pages worth of handwritten notes for my story setting. How much world building you need to do varies with what story you’re writing, as does how much of your world building notes and details will actually go into your novel.
Only after I have my characters and world fleshed out to my liking do I then return to my plot. With the knowledge of how my world works and my characters individual goals and aspirations, I’m able to plug some of the nitty-gritty details into the plot that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. From there, it just depends on how much brainstorming I need to do. If the plot is to go on some sort of quest, I often times need to brainstorm different obstacles to throw in my characters’ paths – be this obstacles from other characters or from the story world. If the plot has something to do with the characters’ relationships with each other, I’ll need to brainstorm what problems can arise to twist their emotions.
Once I have brainstormed the nitty-gritty plot ideas, depending on how many there are, I’ll go through and figure out which ones I want to be my key plot points. Having key plot points definitely help because then you can say, “Oh, well the story starts here at Point A. Then, Plot Point Z happens. Then Plot Point Y. Then Plot Point X.” And you go on and on, weaving in the plot points in the order you want them to go, before you eventually arrive at the story’s end, Point B. Sometimes, after lining up my Plot Points, I discover that something doesn’t work right or two or more points should actually be switched; don’t ever be discouraged if you have to go back and rearrange! We’re still in the pre-outlining part. There’s plenty of room to make mistakes. I’d also like to add here that if you’re wondering whether you really need to list your plot points out chronologically instead of jumping straight to outlining, I’d highly recommend that you stick with Plot Points first. I used to not list out key Plot Points, but once I did, I was able to pick up on a lot of inconsistencies and plot holes that I wouldn’t have noticed until after I outlined (or maybe even not until after I had finished writing my book based on my outline!).
Let’s recap. I’ve written out an overarching story plot. I’ve fleshed out my characters as best as I can before writing them. I’ve figured out the details of my story world. I’ve brainstormed key Plot Points, went back through to choose the ones I liked best, and then I listed the Plot Points in chronological order. Assuming that everything looks good at this point, I’m free to move onto outlining.
My actual outlining stage is pretty simple, especially since I now have so many details about characters and setting and Plot Points at my disposal. Using my chronological list of Plot Points, I’ll go through and write out the details of my chapters. I tend to be rather detailed when it comes to outlining, so each chapter will have at least one paragraph of information in it; however, some people are less detailed when it comes to outlining or even more so than I am. Do you. In my list of details, I’ll say how the chapter is supposed to begin and how the chapter is supposed to end. If I have multiple point of view characters, I’ll say which point of view this chapter will be in. If I have details on scenery that I really need to focus on, I’ll make myself a note to focus on the scenery.
Since I like to include so much in my chapter outlines, I figured I would include an example from book one of my fantasy duology to eliminate any confusion:
“Chapter One: (Vivianna’s POV) “I’m not a storyteller” mini scene*. Nothing but love + respect + awe + looking up to her mother. Helping her mother dye the cotton different colors; Jax apprenticing to Ochar, the fisherman. Participating in a festival when she notices her mother ____________**.”
*Mini scene was actually written as one of the random scenes before I fleshed out the plot.
**Blank here because this is a huge spoiler that is a catalyst for the entire series. 😉
As you can see by my example, I list what chapter I’ll be working on, the character’s point of view that the chapter will be in, and then I have a short paragraph of what I want to happen. You’ll notice that while I do like to be detailed, I also like to leave room for my imagination to take off. I’m definitely more of a plan-things-out (“plotter”) person, but I do like to have enough details unknown that my imagination is free to put something new in the book that I wouldn’t have thought of originally.
To wrap up, I’ll go through the rest of my outline in this manner, planning out however many chapters I feel best serves the story, only stopping when I arrive at Point B, the story’s end. Another thing I’d like to add here is that I don’t like going by a target word count. Some authors find it easy – they say their manuscript is going to be 70,000 words and then they reach that goal or surpass it. Going by a word count goal scares me, and after experimenting with it, I realized that it hindered my writing more than helping it. In that case, I always, always, always just go by how many chapters I have in the outline for my story. Chapters feel more tangible than word count to me, and this particular method definitely keeps me focused.
I hope you’ve found this post helpful or interesting! Do you have any questions for me? What is your pre-writing process?