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Wednesday, May 24

A Quick Way to Outline Without Outlining

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Some writers find outlining a daunting task that saps the joy and spontaneity out of writing. I’m not one of them, I love outlining, but I can understand the freedom of writing to see what happens. I don’t plan my characters, even though I do a lot of work on my plot. Letting a story develop organically is fun.

But sometimes, having no direction makes it harder to write that first draft. We flounder, we wander, we write into far too many dead ends and then we get frustrated.

If this sounds like you, try this little trick:

Make lists.

I do this in the very early days of an idea to help me capture those bursts of inspiration that happen at the rough idea stage. I list the things I know (or think) will be important and whatever thoughts come to me about the story. I don't always use everything, but the act of writing the ideas down puts them in my head and they often work their way naturally into the story.

If you're not a plotter, or find outlining too restrictive, try making lists. Here are some things consider:

1. What emotional issues might the characters deal with?

These are issues that could be strong motivators for your characters, or provide the fuel for their character growth. It’ll also give you an idea of the tone of the novel.

2. What are the potential cool moments?

Some scenes pop into our heads fully formed, or close to it. So do snippets of dialogue that we know our characters will say. If something really strikes you, keep it handy in case it's exactly what you need when you get stuck.

(Here's more on a very basic three-point plot structure)

3. What are the key moments in the story?

Are there moments you know have to happen? Maybe they’re aren’t relevant to the plot, but you see them clearly anyway. Or you know you want to show an aspect of a character that perfectly reflects who she is.

4. What are the key turning points?

This can be a helpful way to create a very rough outline and block out the key turning points of your novel without knowing too much about it beforehand (or knowing a lot if you prefer to work that way).

(Here's more on busting the outline myth)

5. What are the surprises or twists and turns?

Some novels are based on a twists, and knowing the red herrings and secrets ahead of time helps a lot when it comes time to write it. Characters also have secrets, and if you know what they are, you can make great use of them as you write.

6. When do you want to reveal those twists and secrets?

You might know when you want certain information to come out, such as at the midpoint or during the dark moment of the soul. You might even plot using reveals, using the discovery of information as your guide instead of an external plot event.

7. What are the themes or symbolism?

Themes can be a great unifying force in a novel. Jot down some ways in which you can show yours in your story. Or ideas for symbols you want to use.

8. What is some of the backstory?

If you know certain facts about your characters and their history, make a list. This is also a good tip for any history that pops up as you write. It’s not uncommon to spend a lot of time on backstory to better understand the characters and world before you write—that way, the information works itself in naturally as you write.

9. What about any foreshadowing?

Are there any moments or characters you know mean more than the let on? Jot down events that you want to foreshadow, or drop a few hints about the bad guys.

Making lists is a great way to outline without actually outlining. Even if you enjoy outlining, you might list ideas you want to have happen and then look for good places to put them in as you write. Even better, lists are handy to have on hand when you write yourself into a corner or just don't know where to go next. They can act like writing prompts and get the creative juices flowing again. Not only do lists give you a bit of direction, they’re also a handy reminder of what you were thinking about before you started the book.

Do you make lists before you write? 

Looking to improve your craft? Check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel. 

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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  1. Great post! This little is pretty much how I plan my stories.

  2. Awesome post, Janice! I'm going to write down these nine questions and file my snippets/notes under each one! Cool!

  3. Thanks for this wonderful post, Janice! I've been doing research on self-editing tips and was going through your old posts, looking for your thoughts on that topic, but then kept finding great tips for beginning a novel -- and then today's post popped up. And it keeps striking me that the things we must be aware of while creating our novels are also the things we must then re-visit when we self-edit.

    Thanks again!

    1. We really do. And I think the more experienced we get, the easier it is to "forget" the basics and just do them out of habit. Which makes it easy to skip them. That's one reason I like reading blog posts and writing books, because they remind me of the fundamentals.

  4. Great list. These are definitely the main things you need to know before starting to write.

  5. I always love your helpful writing posts. Thanks so much!

    1. Most welcome :) I'm glad you're finding them useful