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Monday, August 2, 2010

Outlining for Plan-sters

When I was a writing newbie, a critique partner introduced me to the 3-act play.

He had gone to a conference where the instructor spoke at great lengths on the subject. My CP kindly sent me a copy of his notes.

His notes were so structured and detailed I immediately saw a pattern on how the play developed. It also gave me a basis for creating an outline. I started with a nugget of an idea. Like a seed, I let it sprout, one leaf at a time.

Maria's Outline Tips

Start with a blurb: I know a lot of people do the blurb last, but I do it first. I want to know how I would pitch this. Not only does it give me the tone of the novel, but also a clear understanding on where the conflict lies.

Know how I want it to end: I know what the conflict is (from the blurb). Now I decide how it needs to end. There's nothing specific yet. 'Hero beats bad guy.' 'Heroine gets her man.' That kind of thing.

Decide how many chapters I'll need: I tend to write short chapters. I know for the average 80k book, I will need a minimum of 35-40 chapters.

Blurb the chapters: Every chapter gets a two or three line sentence diagramming what happens. There must be a conflict and there must be a resolution -- or a segue to the next conflict. For me, this is the most important aspect on how I outline.

Every chapter must have an obstacle. If I can't identify the hurdle, then the chapter has failed. It isn't moving to the next, more challenging problem leading to the black moment.

When I finish, I will have 35+ chapter headings with a two line description for each chapter.

These little pods of information keep me honest. I know the story is always moving toward its inevitable conclusion, yet it gives me total freedom of creativity when I write the actual story.


Fooled you with this post, didn't I? LOL.

I don't write a lot of 'writing mechanics' posts, but
Elana Johnson suggested today's topic because she was looking for ideas on how to outline. Elana has like a billion gazillion readers and she'll probably get more ideas on outlining than she needs, but this is my take.

--and I needed a topic! Thanks, Elana.

My system is easy-peasy, especially for my cluttered brain.

Writers: Do you outline? Do you have any tips you'd like to share?


Sue Guiney said...

This was very helpful. Although I've published 2 novels, and am now beginning to plan the 3rd, the preliminary process of each has been quite different. For my newest novel I used a modified version of the "snowflake method" which is similar to yours but with more flow charts! I like yours better -- especially because it reminds me that every chapter needs a problem to solve!

Maria Zannini said...

Hi Sue!

Ref: ...every chapter needs a problem to solve!

This is my favorite part of this process. When I used to write off the cuff, it was easy to meander and not stay true to the story.

The story is less likely to slow down or sit around doing nothing.

Mike Keyton said...

I usually have one very vivid, compelling image - often from a dream - that I know has a story in it. Then it's a matter of letting it ferment - build up a head of steam. (Don't you love mixed metaphors?)

Then, with minimum planning I write - bit like kindling - just to get the fire started.

After a sizeable chunk I stop, because by then I have a fairly clear idea of where it's heading and can see the conclusion. It's then I plan, chapter by chapter - and with a great sense of relief.

But I can't plan at all before that initial raw chunk. For me it's much easier to get the momentum going before calculating a plan. It's much easier to that raw chunk, cutting what's no longer relevant and reinforcing the major themes by judicious seeding.

The only tip this sums up is that there's more than one way to skin a horse, or indeed a well endowed pig.

Mike Keyton said...

Sorry for the typos. I was rushed and frustrated, having made an initial comment that froze on the screen and then disappeared. What followed was hurried and marred by irritation

Renee Miller said...

I outline, although the amount of detail I use depends on the story. I've gone from a simple synopsis to outlining every single chapter and character.

I used to just write the story from one idea, pantsing it the whole way, and after many false starts, crappy results and many tears while rewriting, another writer mentioned outlining to me and although I balked and resisted with every ounce of stubborness in me, I did give it a go. That outline produced one of the best manuscripts I've written (IMHO) and I was converted from a pantser to a plotter.

Kait Nolan said...

I'm a huge fan of Larry Brooks' series on story structure over at His method takes the 3 act structure and breaks it into 4 (Act 1: set up, divides the middle into Acts 2 and 3 which are separated by the Midpoint, and act 4, which is the resolution). Which just makes a lot of sense to me. His ebook on it is well worth the cost.

Falen (Sarah) said...

my process is very similar to yours. I don't plan out how many chapters there will be, but i do list each scene and perhaps give a sentence of explanation.
I also write a blurb and a query beforehand

Liz Fichera said...

Blurbing the chapters is an excellent idea! I must remember that. I usually write with a rough outline in my head, but usually nothing more restrictive than that. However, like you, I can't help but *see* the overall blurb/pitch for the story as I start it.

Lia Bal said...

Wow Maria, I use a very similar method to yours. Just like you, I start with a short blurb of the story and I always know how it will end, but then, I write five or six chapters completely freehand before I sit down and make an outline. I used to try making an outline ahead of time but that way I always write myself into a whole and the story gets completely deleted.

Maria Zannini said...

Mike: You know, that's how I used to write. I'd chunk out a piece of it to get into the mood.

The only reason I don't do that anymore is because I think it takes me too long to come to a reasonable conclusion.

But I like throwing myself into the story. The story feels bigger when I do it that way.

Ref: well endowed pig
I'm not sure where you're going with that. --and maybe it's better I don't ask. LOL.

Maria Zannini said...


False starts. I think that nails it on the head for me. I feel like I don't get into the grit of the real story.

Thanks for giving it a name!

Maria Zannini said...

Kait: I am going to look up I have never heard of that before, but I'm all for learning something new.


Maria Zannini said...


That is very smart to do the query first. I do the blurb, but not how I'll present it to an agent/editor.

I might try that with my next one and see if that helps me. Thank you!

Maria Zannini said...

Liz: Doing the blurb first has made my life so much easier. I get a real feel for what I want to tell my readers in one little nutshell.

Maria Zannini said...

Lia: You are definitely more of a pantser than a plotter.

But like Mike above, everyone skins that horse differently.

You have to use what works best for you. But I kinda like the idea of blurbing and writing six chapters before making an outline. I can see its benefit.

Mike Keyton said...

The only reason I don't do that anymore is because I think it takes me too long to come to a reasonable conclusion.

Exactly, horses for courses. I can't think of a conclusion, never mind planning something starting from cold. I need a ball of yarn before I start spinning

Ref: well endowed pig
I'm not sure where you're going with that.
Either am I but you do the blurb...and I'll try to plan it out :)

Sherri said...

I like it *g*

For me, each story needs something different. The one I'm working on now came to me in clumps of dreams which I wrote as they happened in June. Then I sat down with the Marshall Plan and plotted the thing. I've been writing the story, including what I need/can from the barrage of wordage I got in June.

But hey, I'm not published and am mostly just playing and learning right now.

Elana Johnson said...

You have several things here that I can use. Like setting up how many chapters I need.

My biggest problem is that I don't know what happens. If I did, I don't think outlining would be such a plague. So do you just have the whole book already imagined in your head?

Angela said...

I'm still wet behind the ears when it comes to writing but I usually take a pen and paper and let the gist of the story flow from my fingers. I let that simmer for a day or two then come back to my free hand product and divide it up into major moments of the book, then take those moments and break it down further until I've developed a series of action events. Then I go from there to add to or take away from the story. By knowing the basic beginning and the basic ending, I'm able to write and revise the story without feeling "married" to anything in particular. That outline idea certainly sounds like a really good approach.

Claudia said...

Hi Maria,
Outline? What's that? J/K ;) I birth my stories directly on my computer screen. I see the story in my head, sit at my desk and type nonstop until it's finished (let me clarify here, short stories, not a novel). Outlines don't work for me at all. My fellow writers in my writing group do the same. They either write it long hand or type it directly.
P.S. I was able to fix the problem I was having with my link. ;)

Maria Zannini said...

Sherri: You bring up an interesting point. Are some books better outlined or pants?

I know in my experience one of my books was a bear to outline. I don't know why. When I decided to run with what I had it seemed to go smoother. Then I went back to the outline once I felt comfortable with it.

Maria Zannini said...


Ref: So do you just have the whole book already imagined in your head?

Oh heck no. It did happen once but I think that was a fluke. I just have a vague idea of how it should end. As long as I have a destination, I can figure out the rest.

Maria Zannini said...


That is very similar to my modus operandi. I like to let it simmer too. I've found even when I'm not actually thinking about it--I really am.

The story is always working in my subconscious.

Maria Zannini said...


Ref: I was able to fix the problem I was having with my link.

Oh, good. At least now people can reach you.

Ref: I birth my stories ...
That's like the stuff of miracles. LOL.

I can never work off the fly. I need some guide wires or I'll fall off the balance beam.

Lydia Kang said...

Three cheers for outliners! Hooray!
I start from very general to very specific. That's a simplified version of how i do it!

Oh, and I also do character sheets before hand.

Linda Leszczuk said...

I'm glad I wasn't able to visit any blogs until late in the day today. The original post was excellent but lots of great ideas in the comments, too.

Julie Musil said...

My outlines is vague and loose. I just have an idea of where I'm going. With my first novel, I outlined so much it stifled me. Thanks for your suggestions

Maria Zannini said...

Lydia: I have tried to do character sheets and for some reason it holds me back. I don't know why.

Everyone else I know who uses them, loves them.

I think I'm just being difficult.

Maria Zannini said...


Ref: ...lots of great ideas ...

I know. I really like all the suggestions people have been contributing.

Maria Zannini said...

Julie: Vague and loose works for me too. I don't like to get too specific. All I need is a general road map.

Barbara Ann Wright said...

I love the phrase: Heroine gets her man. It makes me happy. I use notecards instead of doing a traditional outline. But then, I have a lot of pens that need using.

Tia Nevitt said...

I might tackle this on my own blog. Our approaches are actually quite similar! I have definitely started coming up with the one-sentence hook before I start writing, then I expand it to a six sentence synopsis. And then . . . well, I'll save it for my post.

Charlie said...

Great tips! I think every book is a little different for me. I usually start with a basic timeline. I write suspense and I need to have a good idea of what is happening when. Beyond that I can play pretty freely from plot point to plot point. But, I'm always open to trying new ways of doing things.

Maria Zannini said...


Ref: Notecards!

I have a friend who does that and she loves it. I couldn't make it work for me. Obviously, I don't have the right pens. ;)

Maria Zannini said...


Ref: I'll save it for my post.

Looking forward to it, Tia. I'm always looking for better ways to skin a book.

Maria Zannini said...


Ref: timeline

Charlie, you brought up something that I completely forgot about. I usually don't bring in the timeline until the end, but I can see how doing it first could help a lot.