Let's Talk About... Outlining Your Story
Long time no talk.
So far my Let’s Talk About segments have been personal stories about my journey and my experiences. I thought I’d do something a bit different this time and talk about writing in general. More specifically, I want this to be helpful for aspiring writers/authors, or even just something my readers are curious about when it comes to my method of outlining my story.
I want to preface this by saying that no writing journey is the same. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, all journeys are so different and valid. No one is right or wrong in their own process. I only want to share mine to see if there’s anyone out there who has the same method as me, or who might want to try out my method.
So, let’s get started.
How do you outline a book?
For me, it always starts as something simple as an idea. Now, an idea can stem (for me) from literally ANYTHING. I could see a picture on Pinterest, hear a song lyric, see a pyramid, watch the volcano next door blow up, or even watch my calico burying her shit in the garden and thus…
An idea is formed.
Okay that last one was super specific and please know I’m mostly joking.
But anyway, it starts with something small. Think of it like a plant. You have to nurture that idea. And let me use the example of how I came up with the inspiration for A Dance with Fire.
I was wasting away, scrolling through pinterest when I came across an image. I won't post it here because of copyright and because I don't own it, but the image was of a woman kneeling in a church before what appeared to be villainous-looking priests. Her back was exposed. She was crying. And there was a scar on her back.
Now, this image made me stop. Made me pause. I stared at it because 1, the art is fucking beautiful. And 2, the concept was intriguing as absolute fuck.
Now I took this picture as inspiration and suddenly, I began to nurture it into an idea. I began asking questions to center around that little flash of inspiration.
Who are these men surrounding her? What religious group are they a part of? Why is she scarred? What did she do?
And so… I began to create a series of WHAT IF’s centered around this inspiration image.
What if… she did something illegal?
What if… she is being punished?
What if… they’re a part of some weird brotherhood and are performing a ritual?
What if she were a fire Fae and the world they lived in, Fae are illegal?
And so… A Dance with Fire was born.
Now, once you have your image, your lyric, your little piece, the thing I always do is nurture it. If it’s a lyric, what’s being said? Why is it being said? Who is it being said to? Maybe when you ask yourself those questions, you’ll start to develop a better idea of who your characters are. Is a woman singing this lyric in her head as she expresses her desire for world domination? Is she saying it to the villain as she stares down the end of his sword?
Create a fake scenario if you can. After all, the best books were born off vibes, and we love a good vibe.
So create the vibe for this situation, for this scenario. And suddenly, another thing will be born. And then another, and another, and another.
And pretty soon, you’ll have a notebook full of ideas and snippets, sentences, names, characters, that you didn’t have before.
This is how I do it.
I have throw away notebooks in which I just jot down any and everything that comes to mind centered around my initial idea. I’ll have a list of names I like thrown around at random, sentences, things a character could say that match the vibe of the story…
And then what happens next is a toss up. I’m not entirely sure what I create first, it really depends on the book and vibe, but I will either create the main character(s) first, or deep dive into an idea of what kind of world they live in. Usually it’ll be a bit of both, or at least a general idea of what the world will be like and that way I can create a main character.
This is important for so many reasons. It’s where all the little details later on will come into play. I hope I’m making sense, hope you’re following me. My method is a mess.
Let’s see if you’re still with me.
A vibe from something you see, hear, touch, feel, etc.
Nurture the vibe into an idea.
Ask questions that are centered around that general idea.
Answer them on paper.
Start expanding on that single idea with quotes, names, worlds, any and all ideas that come to mind. Don’t hold back, no matter how ridiculous you think an idea might sound. Write it.
Start crafting bits of your main character and your world.
Why is important to craft your main character AND the world at the same time? Honestly, I’m not sure I can even explain it (but I’ll try).
People are a product of their environment.
Which means that characters will be a product of their world.
Is your world rich with magic? Does everyone practice magic? Is everyone extremely wealthy? Incredibly poor?
If you have at least the foundations of what you want your world to be, then you’ll know how to craft your character. If the world is rich with magic, and everyone practices magic, what will your character be in this society? Or will you be cruel and give them the curse of being magic-less? If the world is extremely wealthy then your characters might not know what it is to go hungry. If your world is poor then your character might be a criminal, a thief, (Six of Crows much?), or just very good at getting out of prisons.
Look, the point is, outline both at the same time!
Anyway, this is going heavily into worldbuilding territory, and I’ll save that for another post.
Once you have a bit of your outline, your characters, the world, you need to create a central conflict, a plot, the JUICY FLESHY BITS that will give your story and characters life!
This is where the heavy outlining comes in.
And this is how I do it.
Have you heard of the three act structure?
This is how I start my books.
I introduce my main characters. A brief introduction of them, their lives, their family, who they surround themselves with, what type of world they’re living in, their dreams and aspirations, their life goals…
Make them fucking hurt. Rip those goals away from them. Tear down their foundation. Put an obstacle in their fucking way that makes them feel hopeless.
They’ll go on a journey of self discovery as they try to overcome these obstacles, exciting things happen along the way, the big realization and the end.
This is what you need.
Create your hero, your world, their life, their circumstance, give them details. Make them intriguing. Give them flaws and give them strengths. Give them purpose.
And think heavily on how you can fuck it all up for them within an instant.
If we are thinking of A Dance with Fire, which I will grab as an example again…
Introduction to character and world: We meet Shula Azzarh, a Fae who lives in a dreary world in which Fae are illegal. She is afraid for her life because she knows that Fae are hunted and killed. She pretends to be human. Her personality stems from fear of watching people die and of not getting caught, therefore she’s very cautious with everything and everyone. Her goal is to just remain hidden for the rest of her days.
The obstacle: I ripped up her foundations and everything she was living for by having people around her discover her secret. She is taken away by the Brotherhood, the threat to her life is made known. All hope seems lost but then…
Journey of self discovery: She meets the Resistance, is pulled unwillingly into their fold and fights them the whole way. During this time many secrets are revealed about the Emperor, about herself, about her magic… All the people she meets has her shifting her perspective and views, facing her fears until we reach the conclusion in which she decides to join them and find the other Elementals.
I always think that when you write a book you have to create a major conflict in the story and then have little tiny pieces of separate or interconnected conflict in between each chapter. Each situation is going to put your main character(s) to the test and change their perspective. So that by the end of the book, they’re hardly the same person as when they started. There has to be a change, and the change isn’t always good. Hell, maybe even your main character will become villainous, who knows. But they have to go through something that will shake them completely. They are good, and the shaking will make them morally gray maybe. LOL. No but, for real, as readers, we have to root for the main characters, you as the writer have to make the reader feel the character(s)’ pain, let the reader go through it with them, so that by the time they defeat the BIG BAD, or get to the end of the conflict, readers are rooting for them to win.
When outlining, I always start on pen and paper first. I write one or two worded sentences of the three act structure. “This is the character, this is the world, this is how they feel, this is going to happen to them, this is the bad guy who they have to defeat, this is how they end up by the time it’s over.”
And then when I have the central thoughts and ideas of my 3-act structure, I will add all the necessary details in between, creating situations and scenarios that the character(s) will go through to shift their thoughts. Things that will make them weak, as well as things that will make them strong.
I always like to keep in mind too that things can never be too easy for the main character(s). Readers don’t want to read about someone constantly winning. Give them heavy trials. Let them lose. Don’t be afraid to pick up those pieces. But also don’t make them miserable. (Or do. Heheheh)
Start nurturing all those little details into your story. Once you have those down, you can start writing your first draft.
Now, don’t try to perfect it on the first go. I promise you, nobody’s first draft is ever fucking clean. They’re messy. You will read it a thousand times. You will edit, delete, remove, rewrite, etc so much as you go. You will add new scenes, take scenes out, change the plot or the villain midway through…
It’s a natural part of writing.
Before I start writing my first draft though, there’s a step I do before that.
After outlining on pen and paper and creating my 3 act structure, after nurturing my details, I open a word or google doc and then I will summarize every single chapter in the document.
Prologue: Shula is a child, running for her life, she sees the circus and goes to join.
Chapter 1: Introduce Shula and Fanny at the circus years later, what is her life like now?
Chapter 2:.....etc etc
Doing this as a part of my outlining process is very helpful because then I have the details of how many chapters I can guess my book is going to have, and I have each one summarized so that I don’t lose my way. Then in that same document where I wrote each chapter summary, I start writing. I do this so that I can have the summaries right beneath what I’m writing to keep me on track and so I don’t let my characters completely derail the story like they sometimes like to do.
Once the first draft is done, then it is constant edits, vodka, and the best of fucking luck.
So I hope this all made sense.
If you have questions, blog post recs, or want to chat, don’t forget to drop a comment below!