Fiction and Writing

Outlining: A how to do it my way.

I’ve touched on outlining a bit here, I suppose I have outlining on the brain. I realised that while I’ve touched on my method I haven’t really broken it down and explained it step-by-step. I figured that could help some of you wonderful people out. So here I am.

First things first, I start with a character and usually an opening scene. Sometimes that scene isn’t quite clear, as is the case with my tattoo magician. Either way, I have a character. You may start with a plot idea, or an opening scene, that’s great. Whatever you start with, whatever sparks this, write that down as your starting point.

For me, I’ll use the tattoo magician. My notes to begin this whole process will look something a little like this:

Male, mid twenties, dark hair, bright green eyes, tattoo magician. On the run? Mixed-blood, native american shaman mother, french-american father. He’s unusual, his father knows but no one else, he has to keep his exact skills hidden. Where other tattoo magicians can only work one form, he can imbue all ink with magic. Quiet, intelligent, watches and sees everything, thinks before he acts, not much of a people person, fiercely loyal, stubborn, very earth elementally in persona.

For you, it could be a question such as “What if unicorns were the ruling race?” or an opening scene such as:

An older woman in a red silk dress freezes, her heart racing, the breeze whispers through the sole tree in the neighbourhood. She tells herself she’s imagining it, it’s like last time, nothing more than a stray cat. Taking a deep breath she continues walking. The shadows stretch behind her, the temperature drops, her heart stops. 

Your starting point will, or should, spark questions. This is where I look into the main character, and the world they’re in. I consider physical appearance, background, personality, where they fit in their world, goals, ambitions, fears, drives, quirks, traumatic experiences. I figure out who and what they are. While I’m doing that I’m also building the world. This applies to those of you writing in the modern real world too, yes you’re setting it in Seattle this spring, but which bit of Seattle? Are you focusing on the streets with the drug dealers? The elite in their mansions? Flesh it out, explore, pick out those details.

If you’ve started with a question such as the unicorns, then poke at the question. What would the world look like? What would the characters be? Keep poking, keep asking questions.

Once you’ve done that you should have a main character and a world. So now you can start figuring out a plot.

With my tattoo magician the plot is that people are showing up with black spots tattooed on them, only to be killed three days later. That’s the backbone of my story. With the woman it could be that she was important, and the plot is unraveling her mysterious murder. The unicorns could be how they’re evolving, some are becoming pegasi, others are becoming shadow horses, that leads to a war.

At this point I have my character, the tattoo magician, an idea of the world, and a single-line plot. (This is where I stop using my real plans and series. ) So now I have to poke and question and bring out an actual plot from that single line.

To do this I need to figure out my antagonist. In the mysterious murder, we know who she is and the world she lives in. So you now need to figure out who killed her and why. This usually involves more world-building and character development, fleshing out their back story and exploring the world around them. This also usually brings about some secondary characters. She was murdered out there on the street, how does her wife react to the death? What about their son?

Now you have your main plot, and you have a how and a why this happened. This is where you start breaking it all down into an actual plot. Let’s say our mystery woman was a scientist, she was working on a way to make contact with creatures on the other side of the veil. She thought they were angels, wise beings that would help humanity ascend, however they were actually the opposite. She figured this out too late and was killed by one of their shadows, the veil had already shimmered and weakened, allowing them to creep through into this world.

As her death is your opening scene, she wouldn’t really work as your protagonist, unless she was a ghost working with a medium. We’ll say that your protagonist is a detective trying to solve the murder. I’d strongly suggest figuring out your big climax here and now. That’s how I do it. The veil’s weakened, she was the only one that knew the truth, the big climax is the shadows breaking through and war starting.

I then have to look at how I get from point A: Her scene where she was killed to point B: the veil breaking and war starting.

This is my main plot. I’ll start with very broad strokes such as:

  • Opening scene.
  • Detective rocks up, has suspicion something’s odd there.
  • People think was natural causes, he doesn’t agree.
  • Investigates her and the death on his own time.
  • Finds out what she was researching.
  • It doesn’t quite fit together them being all wise.
  • Realises the truth of the veil and shadows.
  • Too late no one believes him.
  • Scientists helping the veil crumbling believing it to be awesome.
  • Can’t stop them. People refuse to prepare.
  • War

Once I have that main plot down I start looking for subplots. In this case it could be a romantic subplot with another one of the scientists that he ends up working closely with. Another subplot could be that he develops a stalker.

Those subplots then get their own bullet-point list, the same as the main plot.

  • Meets romantic interest in the lab, spark of chemistry there.
  • Mild flirting.
  • Misunderstanding.
  • Reunited by a common cause.
  • First kiss
  • And so on and so forth.

At this point you’ll have somewhere between three and perhaps five bullet-point lists, it depends on how you work and how complex a narrative you’re weaving here.

Now I flesh out those bullet-point lists and expand them. They remain as sentence fragments or sentences, but there are less gaps between them.

This starts out as this:

  • Investigates her and the death on his own time.
  • Finds out what she was researching.

Then becomes more like this:

  • Investigates her death on his own time.
  • Sneaks into office after hours to track down contact details for work.
  • Approaches the family to get more info.
  • Finds out her place of work, but shut down.
  • Sweet-talks someone into getting him into the work building.
  • Digs around and finds relevant files.
  • Finds the research files but they’re encrypted.
  • Pulls in a favour with a sneaky friend to decode them.
  • Finds out what she was researching.

Each of the subplots and the main plot get that treatment. Once I have those lists I line them up next to each other in Trello and I start figuring out how they work together. They need to advance each other, the plot points have to bounce off each other and form a coherent, cohesive narrative.

This is where the colours come in. I make myself a list of the plot/subplots, and scene types. For example, my Infernal Hunt one looks like this:

  • Fae
  • Lycans
  • Witches
  • Action
  • Sweet/romance
  • Tension
  • Main

The one with the veil might look a bit more like:

  • Main
  • Stalker
  • Romance
  • Action
  • Romance Scene
  • Tension/conflict

I use tension/conflict to mean a scene or chapter where there’s tension there, but not a fight scene. That could be an argument, something dark revealed about the plot, some form of non-combat conflict basically.

Once I have my colour scheme set up I pull together the plot and subplots and make one big list. I aim for 60 – 70 points, each one should be a chapter (my chapters run from 850 – 1400 words). They’re then colour-coded one colour for the plot/subplot they’re working with, the other for the type of scene they are (action, romance, tension).

The final thing looks like this (This is the Infernal Alliances outline so text as been removed):

AI Outline Blog


Now I can look down that and assess how well balanced everything is. To give you an idea of what you’re look at, the coloured squares on the left (the orange and red) are the main plots. The middle squares are mostly the type of scene it is, you can possibly read it saying tension, action, etc. The far side are the minor plot types that may be in there too. Each square represents a chapter and has a sentence fragment summary by it in my proper copy.

I’m pretty happy with how that looks. The focus is the orange which is the big main plot, but the subplots and minor plots thread through there quite nicely. There’s also a reasonable balance struck between combat-action and tension.

From here, I’ll put that back into Trello and expand on every chapter point. Where is may now say

  • Approaches the family to get more info

I’ll flesh it out to say

  • Having found out how her home address and family structure he places a phonecall to the widow. He explains who he is as a detective and his purpose trying to be as gentle as possible while also trying to glean important information and gain access to her home. He frames it in a way that shows sympathy to the family and plays off their desires for understanding and full closure.

So now I have a pretty good idea of what I’m writing with each chapter. Now this might seem really stuffy to some of you and that’s completely fine. This outline isn’t set in stone, I regularly alter and update my outlines as I go along. A scene might come out differently to how I originally expected or I might realise that I’d over-looked something. Either way the reason I use trello is because it’s so easy to move the cards around, add and remove them as I need. It’s a fluid evolving outline.

There we have it, this is my approach to outlining my books. I do keep story-structure in the back of my mind when I do it as I mentioned in this post. 

Now we come to the part where I share blogs and such that might help you refine your own outlining technique.

My method looks like somewhere between the snowflake method and story-beats. Here are some more details on the snowflake method:

The Snowflake Method.

Story Beats by Jami Gold.

Story Beats by Save The Cat.


I have read and can personally recommend these two books on outlining:

Take Off Your Pants.

2k to 10k


I hope this helped you guys. There are lots and lots of different methods and approaches to outlining out there, keep playing and see what works for you. 🙂

11 thoughts on “Outlining: A how to do it my way.

  1. I truly wished I was this organized. I often just am a “go with the flow” type of writer. With my series, I had to get a notebook to start taking down details and writing where I wanted to tie up plot…and started having to organize my head lol

    Liked by 1 person

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