Vision: A Resource for Writers

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Revisiting Simple Outlines ...
and NaNo Tricks

By Lazette Gifford
Copyright © 2009 by Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved

This issue of Vision has a few articles featuring programs you can use to expand story ideas and to create outlines.  However, it may help some of you to look at the process of outlining itself.

First, one caveat: Outlines are not for everyone.  Some people do quite well without them, while others find that they flounder around helplessly in a sea of possibilities if they don't have at least a simple path to follow.

When thinking about outlines, remember that they are nothing more than road maps.  They'll show you the direction you want to go on your novel journey, and they will point out a few important spots along the way, but they are not going show what exactly your characters are going to say and do.  Your characters are also likely to take side trips and detours along the journey.  When they do, the road map -- the outline -- will help you bring them back to where you want so you can continue the story.

When actually considering the creation of an outline, clear out the idea that this has to be the type of work that would send your high school English teacher into throes of ecstasy.  This only has to work for you.  Don't worry about points and sub-points and if they are properly labeled.  No one is going to grade you on this work, and the only way you can fail is if you make something which doesn't help you.

Finding the right level of outline that works for you is an exercise in experimentation. Also, different stories will require different outlines.  Don’t' try to shove a story into a style that doesn't work.

The type of outline I'm going to cover is a plot-driven one.  Some people will add things like theme points, but for this exercise, just seeing now a story develops in an outline will be enough.

 Let's start with a very simple step -- expanding out the initial idea.

Step 1: The Idea

I am not going to go into all the work I usually do to expand an idea into a viable storyline like worldbuilding, character creation, etc.  Either you do that ahead of outlining (my favorite) or you figure it out as you go.  Since I am aiming this somewhat at NaNo, let's just go with something basic and work it all out from there.

Here is a very simple story idea:

A young man leaves the civilized world he knows to travel across wild, dangerous lands.

Even with just a simple single-line idea like this, I can easily see the possibility of a novel.  This is wide open story territory  and a story based on the single line could be anything from fantasy to historical fiction.  I'm going to create a fantasy although the idea itself is inspired by Francis Parkman's The Oregon Trail and would work very well as a historical fiction.  The story will be nothing like Parkman's memoir, however.

Ideas can come from anywhere. 

Some people will divide outlines into three sections -- opening, middle and end.  I don't.  I think those kinds of divisions create unnatural divisions in the story.  In my mind, the story should flow from start to finish, each action building on the next.  However, I do know that once I've gotten past the introductions and before I have to tie up the end, I can do a lot of fun stuff.

Your Turn:

Try your hand at a simple, one-line idea.  Okay, you can do two lines ... but keep it simple! 

Step 2: Event list

When you start an outline, try to find something interesting to start out with. What can your character be doing that would be interesting to see?

Hold on.  Character?  Where did he come from?

He or she came out of your head.  For this exercise, think about someone you would like to write about.  Don’t worry about cliché, depth, or anything else right now.  This exercise is to help you write something that appeals to you, and having a character you like is an important first step.  Whether you are going to spend only November or several years working on a novel, you want to write about someone (and something) that interests you.  If you lose interest, or if you don't like the character and story from the start, it will show.  It won't matter if you finish it -- your disconnect with the story will show in what you write.

You are your own First Reader.  If you can't please yourself, you cannot expect to entertain anyone else.

So... start with something interesting happening.  Then look at what might happen next.  If you have a list of things you want to happen, write them out.  You may have to arrange and rearrange the list to make things flow.

Don't worry about much else at this point.  You may later find that some of your ideas don't work.  That's all right.  Outlines are meant to be fluid and easy to change and correct -- much easier than doing the same with an actual manuscript.

How do you find ideas for each step forward in the story?

Ask yourself what could go wrong next.  Stories move forward through conflict.  It can be little conflict or big conflict.  Conflict leads to change and change means progress through the story as you document it all.

Below is a simple little outline based on the idea in Step 1:


  1. Intro to Conal as he prepares to leave the city after brother sends map, via magic, to a local temple for him.  Set up of world.

  2. Conal hiring people and gets a mysterious warning from a local priestess.

  3. Conal attacked while still in city and someone tries to steal map.

  4. Conal and his group head into the mountains where they run into more trouble and Conal realizes someone doesn't want him to join his brother.

  5. Leave the usual trail and avoid trouble as they go past the (something) peaks and through the pass that leads to the wild lands.  Trouble with this people.

  6. Barely three days into wildlands and more trouble with his own people. Sends most of them back.

  7. More trouble.  What makes the wildlands so dangerous? Must face dangers.

  8. Attack by someone from his group and saved by priestess from earlier.

  9. Forced to head into the wildlands with no supplies.

  10.  Run into wildlands tribe.  Taken with them to encampment.  Expect death. Find brother instead.

  11. Learn trouble in wildlands created by people exploiting area for own gain and to keep people of city occupied.  Lead wildlanders back to city, save it from destruction by others.

  12. Brothers leaving to go to the wildlands.  Priestess joins them.

With those 12 points, I have a viable, simple outline that can help you through a story.  Or you can use a list like this as the basis of something with a bit more detail.

Your Turn:

Using your simple idea, see if you can expand it into a set of story actions for 10 to 12 points -- or more, if you like.  Remember, the easy way to move a story forward is to think about what can go wrong next! 

Step 3: Expanding to fill in spots.

The above outline will take you along a simple path and help keep the story directed.  It could easily work for a book with 12 chapters.  There are some things that will be important to the story, like the encounters with the priestess.  The other things are just enough to set the idea and let the writer play with what happens.

This might be more than enough of an outline for many writers.  It represents just a few points to keep the storyline on track and remind the author of where to head next.

However, it would also be simple to expand this slightly for a little more detail.  If we take each of those sections as a chapter, it will be relatively easy to expand for a little more detail.

Also, in this particular case, I am worldbuilding as I go.  If you look at the outline above, you'll likely wonder where that whole 'bad guys' group came in at the end, and why they weren't mentioned earlier.  Well, because I knew there was going to be trouble, but I hadn't seen what it was until I wrote those last parts of the simple outline.

Knowing, now, that there is trouble with the group means I'll want to foreshadow it in the opening section of the book.  So, let's look at Chapter 1:

This is the original entry from Step 2:

Intro to Conal as he prepares to leave the city after brother sends map, via magic, to a local temple for him.  Set up of world.

So, how to break this down?

  1. Conal making weekly trip to temple as father ordered while he's away on a trade mission.  Brother left two years ago on journey through wildlands and presumed dead, but father won't give up.  Conal is ready to, though.  It's too painful to go and wait for a sign.

  2. Sitting alone by altar.  Ready to leave, and sudden flash, power builds -- and hears brother's voice.  "It's all we feared.  Here is the map.  Come quickly so I can give you everything.  We have very little time.  Be careful, father!"

  3. Conal grabs the map.  He's elated to know brother is alive, but not sure what he is supposed to do.  Notes that some of the priests and priestesses have noticed the magic and probably saw the map and heard his brother.  Worried.

  4. Description of city as Conal goes to see father's friend and together they start working on an expedition. There has been trouble on the streets in the last few days, and he sees what looks like another riot starting.  Conal avoids it and heads for capital building.  Has trouble getting through.

  5. Tells about the map and the message.  Agrees they must mount an expedition immediately.  Conal insists on heading it.  He's annoyed that he's been kept out of this for so long, but father considered him too much of a dandy. Conal determined to do this right. 

There.  That expands the first chapter into several steps.  The trick is just to try and see a logical 'what would happen next' time line with a bit of 'what could go wrong' thrown in.  We start with conflict of Conal wanting to give up on his brother.  We have conflict when he realizes others saw the map, and we have more conflict between him and father's friend. Conal, who is the main character, has to face and deal with each one.

Your Turn:

Take the first of your list from Step 2 and expand it out to four or five points.  Keep the scene in your mind and see not only what your MC is doing, but what is going on around him or her.  Find the exciting part things and jot them down -- but always remember that when you actually write, you can change, ignore or expand anything on your outline.

Do this for all your sections, and you'll have an easy outline to work with.  You can even leave expanding each section until you have written the one before it, thereby giving yourself more material to work with.

Write as much or as little as you like in the outline.  It's to help you.  Don't worry about anything anyone else thinks of it!

Extra: The simple NaNo outline

For NaNo, the trick is to write at least 1667 words each day.  If you start with a list of 31 sequential things that happen in your story, you will have something to write about each day.  If you do this, you are less likely to be stopped by the one thing that makes most NaNo people drop out before they finish -- the inability to decide what should happen next.

Unless you plan to do totally random things for NaNo (and that can be fun), having a simple list like that  to do a simple NaNo outline and to have something to write about each day.  Write out the 31 items.  Do this work early, and then put it aside.  Do another one on a different story, if you like.  Give yourself choices on what to work on, and don't fret over them.  Remember that NaNo is fun.

Don't go for anything complex.  Don't think of this as an outline but more as cue cards you can glance at for easy ideas.  Like the material in the rest of this article, remember that the NaNo outline is not set-in-stone.  Change it as you go, expand it, delete lines and add new ones.  Try to keep at least one line for each day left in NaNo, though, just to keep moving.

Here is the last little NaNo trick -- the more entries you have, the fewer words you need to write for each one.  If you go with 31, you will need to write 1667 words for each section.  If you have 62 entries in the outline (two for each day), you need only write 807 words for each entry.  93 entries (3 a day) equals about 538 words for each section.  More sections make each section easier to write. 

Always remember that the word count isn't going be exact.  Sometimes you will get more words than you need and other times you will get less.  As long as you keep up with what you need for NaNo, don't worry about it.  However, if you are constantly running short of words, look at description as a way to fill in.  Details are often the things we skip when writing quickly.

Here is an example of 10 points for the start of a simple NaNo outline. 

  1. Mandy argues with boyfriend Bob

  2. Mandy, annoyed, heads for work.  Gets ticket.  More annoyed.

  3. Arenith May, Elven Prince, is lost in suburbia

  4. Arenith is being pursued.  He's never been to human world. 

  5. Mandy, startled by something running along the sidewalk, hits the gas to get away.

  6. Mary Sue hits Arenith, scared she's killed him, calls boyfriend who is surly.

  7. Arenith, a bit dazed, wakes up to find a hysterical woman standing over him.

  8.  Boyfriend arrives and more misunderstandings and near fight with Arenith.

  9. Attack by those who were after Arenith to begin with.

  10.  Arenith confronts the enemies and uses magic to save them all.

This type of outline leaves plenty of room to add in anything, including ninja pirates, if that's what you want.  However, it also gives you at least one thing to write about each day.  If you write the entire outline, you can let it sit until November or add to it -- or even expand it into chapters like I did the earlier material in this workshop.  Or you can do several and pick which one calls to you on November 1.  They also make a great exercise just in learning how to make those forward movement steps in a story, even if you don't actually use the outlines afterwards.

Don't be afraid to experiment with outlines and see if you can find something uniquely your own. 

Have fun and don't stress over the writing, especially for NaNo.

Good luck!