Plotline 101: How to Create A Basic Outline



The moment I knew draft 4 of my novel, Star-Crossed was over, it wasn't because I had reached the ending. It was because I had written myself into a wall with no where else to go. I needed to bridge the middle to the ending, but knew that in order to do that I'd be writing a lot of extra material so that I could do so in a round-about way. After a substantial period of writer's block, I figured out that this was largely due to a lack of plotline planning.


See, I'm a hybrid between a plotter and a pantser at heart. I love outlining my characters and worldbuilding, but when it comes time to write a story I grow impatient. Instead of thinking out my plotline logically and mapping it out, I throw my head to the wind and see where it takes me. The result is that I have a lot of fun getting into all the shenanigans alongside my characters, but there always comes a time when my characters have created or found themselves surrounded by the consequences of their actions and their problems. This is the natural and true progression of a story. The problem stems from the fact that, like my protagonist, I too become lost and confused. As much as they can't see their way out of things, neither can I. The difference is that as the writer, I'm supposed to know how it all ends as though I've already watched it play out. You can see how this can cause quite the dilemma.


Armed with this knowledge as I began draft 5, I decided that in order to avoid making the same mistake again, something needed to change. I decided to properly outline my novel from start to finish, even if I didn't want to. I immediately began to feel feelings of dread the moment I decided to start. The familiar urge to throw caution to the wind and start writing again pulled at me. It would be more amusing, I reasoned with myself. But I held steadfast. Determined to outline.


The next issue that I encountered- the real reason that I was feeling that dread- was because I realized that I had no idea how to actually outline properly. For all my years of writing, I had never taken the time to learn, nor did I ever consider the need. Now that I'm pursuing this novel seriously I can see that that attitude was a mistake. Outlining is absolutely, without a doubt, necessary. It can mean the difference between a successfully completed novel and a discarded draft.


Today this series is as much about me learning as it is about showing you how to do it. I've been doing research on how to craft an outline and all the different ways it can be done. From what I've gathered and surmised, this is the best way to create a basic outline.


Step 1: Write Out Your Premise


A premise is the general idea you have for your story. An example would be "A girl gets lost in the woods and finds a portal to another world". As you can see, this is a vague, general sentence. It doesn't tell us much about anything other than the primary event. It's too simple to provide any guidance on where the story goes from there either.


To begin your outline, start with developing your premise. Write down the answers to the questions below and then combine them to create your premise sentence. This will be the start of your outline.



Once you have the answers to these questions, go ahead and write one or two sentences that combine the answers in a logical way.


For example: Reckless eleven-year-old runaway (situation), Lucy (protagonist) makes her great escape from her foster home only to be sucked into a portal and transported to an imaginary realm, where all she wants is to return home and discover who her biological parents are (objective). But when an evil troll (opponent) prevents her from going home (disaster), Lucy has a choice to make (conflict): she must decide whether finding out the truth about her parents is worth her never returning home.


Step 2: List, Highlight, Imagine


Once you have your premise sentence, the next step is to write a list of everything you know about your story. This mainly refers to scenes or ideas you have that you'd like to incorporate into your story. Chances are you have a bunch in mind but don't know the order of which they are supposed to occur. That's okay. Right now your only focus should be to jot down as many ideas as you have. We'll organize them later.



The trick is to identify any possible issues in your plot now. Once you're done, see if you can solve them. Doing this early on will save you a headache later on in the revision process.


Go over each of the highlighted sections. Write out your thoughts and ideas freely. Don't worry about connecting the dots or making everything make sense. Ask yourself "what if" questions. Don't worry about punctuation or spelling. Right now you're only brainstorming. Let your imagination go wild. Ask yourself: "Will the reader expect this?" If the answer is yes, write a list of alternatives that they won't expect. These will come in handy later.


Step 3: Interview Your Characters


Next, turn your attention to your characters. By the time you're ready to work your plot, you should already have them developed. Now it's time to find out who your protagonist is at the start of your story.


Begin by pinpointing where your story starts. Once you have that, think back a little ways. What happens in the moments before your protagonist engages your plot? (the "disaster" in your premise statement). What led them to the situation they are currently in? Does something in their past cause this disaster? What events have shaped their response? What unresolved issues can further complicate the plot's downward spiral?



Step 4: Make the Most of Your Settings


Whether your setting takes place in an imaginary realm or Mars, you're going to want to have a firm understanding of where your primary events take place. Don't choose your setting based off familiarity or because you like the image it brings. Make sure that it makes sense for your story.


Exercise #1: If your main locale can be changed without it altering your plot in a significant way, then it's time to go back to the drawing board. Find a setting that is more integral to your scene. You'll know you've found the right one when you can't change it without swaying your plot, theme, or characters.


Exercise #2: On the same page, list the settings you want to use in order of importance. Look them over. Chances are you listed way more than you actually need. While there's nothing wrong with an extensive story locale, there needs to be a reason for it. Think Lord of the Rings for example. Because Frodo needed to journey away from home to find the ring, it made sense for him to travel through many different settings. Now compare that with The Old Man and The Sea by Hemingway. He only needed the land, sea, and air to make the most of his story. Now is the time to see whether you can eliminate, combine, or rework your settings so that you only have the essentials. This will allow you to make the most of your settings overall.


Step 5: Write Your Outline


Congratulations!You're ready to start your official outline. I like to call this outline #1, or the messy outline. I say this because this is the moment where you lay it all out on paper for the first time. While the first three exercises allowed you to clarify your vision, now it's time to figure out how it all comes together.


Begin by working through your story in chronological order. Make sure you use some sort of system to help you keep track, such as numbers or a timeline. In this stage we're no longer in brainstorming mode. We're focusing on ordering our structure and molding the ideas we sowed in the prior exercises.


How in-depth you want to go with this is up to you. Personally, I'm an intentional writer. I like to know the full story down to the smallest detail because, to me, it means that I've at least considered it. Nothing is left up to chance that way. But not all writers write the way that I do. You many decide to write a single sentence for each scene, such as "Lucy has to find the key in the garden of carnivorous dandelions", or you may choose to take it a step further with, "Lucy is standing on the edge of the forest trying to come up with a plan on how to distract the dandelions. She decides that the best way is to offer up some kind of bait for them to chase. She looks at her friend, Phil the pig, and wonders if they like bacon."



String together these events until you have a chronological, well-ordered outline without any gaps in the plot. If you encounter any lapses in judgement or something that doesn't make sense, take a moment to fix it. If you get stuck, jump ahead to the next chapter and come back to the one giving you trouble later.


A useful trick is to work backwards. Say you know where your protagonist ends up, but don't know how they get there. Try piecing together the events that happened prior to them arriving there. Eventually you'll know what happens start-to-finish. Think of this as the creation of your roadmap, if you get it right, then you won't have to worry about getting lost later on while you're on the literary road.


Step 6: Simplify Your Outline


After your outline is finished, you'll want to take a few moments to create a condensed version (outline #2). Here is where you'll cut things down to the bare necessities, thereby eliminating extra fluff and possible hassles. The chief reason you'll want to do this is because your full outline will most likely contain some rambling and extraneous thoughts. If you're anything like me, you'll probably wind up with several pages of notes- or even entire notebooks! That doesn't exactly translate to an easy reference list. It's especially irritating to need to check a tiny detail while you're in the middle of editing a chapter, only to realize you can't find exactly where you wrote it. Then you wind up diverting the energy you should have used writing to finding it, or you give up and have more editing to do in the future. By doing this reorganizing now you'll save yourself a headache later. It works particularly well for if you write your original outline by hand. This way you can type up your reference version on a Word page, Scrivener, or on yWriter and be all set whenever or wherever you are. If you're strictly old-school you can use index cards which are portable and work just as well.


Step 7: Put Your Roadmap To The Test


It's time to hit the road! You're probably super excited and can't wait to start, but before you do, don't forget to do what you would on a roadtrip- check your map before you get going. Each time you sit down to write, take a moment to review your outline. Double check it before you start a new chapter. Making sure you're following your map is crucial in order to stay on track. It also has the added benefit of allowing you to screen for any other potential problems that you may have missed or that have come up due to changes you've made along the way. This saves you time and rewriting energy.


Another important thing to note, is that your outline isn't permanent. You should never hesitate to go off-road if the opportunity should arise. These adventures into the unknown are full of surprises, intriguing ideas, and delightful tidbits that could lead to a breakthrough in your work. Don't be afraid to go exploring. You can always update your outline or go back to the original one should you decide your excursion doesn't fit.


Creating an outline will be the best decision of your writing life. It will keep you on track, focused, and give you a "map" to help guide you through to the end of your story. While you should have a plan when it comes to writing, don't be afraid to explore new ideas. Your map may show you the way, but don't forget that there are many other routes to the same destination.


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