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What pattern for an outline?

One for the plotters… pantsers might find this interesting, but it won't be meaningful to you…

I'm in the process of trying to standardise what I include in my story outlines. In a structured way. Not just a summary of each chapter/scene, but details about characters first introduced, worldbuilding elements covered, the purpose of the scene, etc.

What do you include in your outlining? Are there elements that must be included, without which the outline is incomplete? And what granularity do you go to?

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Replies (16)
    • Do you mean the outline for submission to an agent? Or the outline 'blurb' on the back jacket?  The former should be 1-1.5 pages of A4, and the latter two or three paragraphs.
      Assuming the former, the key elements are - genre, protagonist and major characters. Plot summary, including any 'surprises' and reveals. I first submitted one where I simply alluded to a twist late in the plot, but the advice from agents was to tell them exactly what happened.  In answer to the level of granularity, I would say less is more so long as you give the outline of the journey taken.

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      • No, this is the outline to write it correctly - the full skeleton of the eventual story. The outline I'm currently working will probably end up at 10% of the final book length.

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        • Sorry, misunderstood. I know I should do an outline but my method is just to start, try and get to the middle and then figure out the end.
          Having just read a book about how Lee Child writes his thrillers, I was encouraged that I am not the only one flying by the seat of the pants like this. As Child puts it, he wants to put himself in the place of the reader, being constantly surprised by what happens next.
          Having said all that, I am a bit stuck on my next book as all I have right now is a good first pageand with no idea of where that will go and I am reluctant to get started until I have a bit more structure in place. :(

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        • When I first started, my outlines were pretty scrappy - basically one page of what 'sort of' happens at the beginning, middle and end. Which I then dispensed with almost immediately! Now I'm on my fifth book and I've come to rely on them more and more. 

          I  now follow the James Patterson method of outlining the whole story. Essentially, with no flourish, just the basic plot points, I write down everything that will happen. I can then see any holes, any areas that are going to be dull and a bit flabby, any potential themes that I should pull out more etc. I refine the outline again and again until it feels right and then I start to write the actual book. I do deviate a bit, but if I get stuck or write myself into a corner, I have this big 'how to' guide to refer to! (My current outline is 10 pages long...)

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          • Thanks Holly.

            My question goes a little deeper, though. Do you use any semantic structure within that 10-page outline? Yes, you summarise the what, but do you include separate notes to explain the why, from a story-structure perspective… when you are setting up clues to plot threads, changes to pacing, the emotion you are hoping to elicit from the reader? Effectively, structural justification for everything within the outlined tale.

            For example, I have included a few chapters entirely as empathic enhancers: the main character is unlikable and incompetent, lacking redeeming characteristics, so I've scattered in a few chapters from another's perspective where she worries about how he will cope (while she's off elsewhere).

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            • I personally don't, I'm focussing entirely on the narrative order of things. But I know that some authors do this. For example a friend of mine does it in Excel and alongside each plot point she will have a cell that contains information about the characters' development, a cell about red herrings/features that will later be referred back to etc. I know someone else who colour codes for the mood of the scene. I think for me, too much detail like that takes out some of the joy of discovery. I like knowing what needs to happen within a chapter as a framework to then be more relaxed about letting my characters develop etc. It sounds like you're thinking really creatively and practically though, and you have to find what works best for you of course.

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            • Rick,

              I use a version of what Holly described along with an additional document I call "Additional Scenes" that gets at what you are describing, I think.

              Here is how it works for me:

              My WIP went through two initial drafts where I was just trying to create the characters, tone, style and basic plot. That was brutal.  Near the end of draft two, I finally "saw" the real plot and story and quickly wrote about 10 pages of about 40 points that defined the entire book. This came to me in one powerful "Aha" moment once I had several rough drafts.  Those ten pages describes WHAT happens, WHY it happens, and HOW it moves the story--answering those questions for each of 40 or so major plot points or "events" from beginning to end.

              On ANOTHER word doc I make notes of the "additional" scenes I need to add to increase emotion, character insights, subtle character development, atmosphere, whatever. These "scenes" (or microscenes) can only be a paragraph or a page, and I keep them separate from the major plot points. The second list is evolving, and I add to it each day.

              Both lists are in Word on a tablet and they are the two major lists I use to focus my daily efforts, which are done on Scrivener.

              So, that is my workflow as I am trying to keep it simple, while also addressing all of the points I think you raised.

              Everyone creates differently. It is smooth sailing for me now, because I have some edgy and spontaneous drafts to work with.

              If I had tried to plot too much too soon I think it would have become too mechanical--for me. But again, I know people work differently. That is just how I work.

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              • Wonderful timing, a new blog post has just been published all about outlines with examples: https://jerichowriters.com/plotting-a-novel/ 

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                • Holly, This is wonderful!  Great timing for me, too. This will come in so handy!

                  Also, for the question Rick asked above there are some elaborate tools and software that provide pathways for intricate plotting that you might see in Fantasy Fiction,

                  One is DRAMATICA. Tons of free books and pdfs on their methodology if you Google. I would not use it, because I find it overwhelming, but some people love it.

                  Another is the work and software of Anatomy of Story author John Truby. He has the "blockbuster" software that some film writers seem to like. The pdf manual is available from his site by searching BB6 manual, Truby Writers Studio. Like some others, he seems to not be a fan of the three act structure, and has a more elaborate method. I think some points are interesting, but I like to keep it simple. I think three acts are fine.

                  So, for me what you just posted is perfect!!

                  I do see how other people doing some deep, deep plotting and world building might want to investigate Dramatica or John Truby, though as food for thought in highly complex narratives. K.M. Weiland has some great stuff as well.

                  Thanks again!  

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                  • Hi all, 

                    Just to add to this very interesting discussion, we have another blog post here that you may find very useful: https://jerichowriters.com/hub/plot/ 


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                    • This is exactly where I am at now. I started with the 3 Act, moved to Save the Cat, and now, I find I need a little something else. My plot begins with one institution that is bad, but another one replaces it later (Act 2/Act 3), so the plotting of scenes has become a little more confusing. Looking at the 5 act. Any suggestions? Thanks for these great posts, albeit they are mostly from last year. Thanks!

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                      • That maps to the base principle behind five-act structure, which is that the Act-III crisis is the point where the initial goal is achieved in some form, leading into Act IV (reversal) being learning to deal with the consequences. So you'll get a full classic arc over two books as well as within each of those books.

                        As to being "too much," the only question is how long is each book, and how believable do you want what she achieves to be? To pull off the revolution you are talking about, in a single book, it's not going to be light-weight. (Note how poorly many who have tried it in some form have done over lifetimes.)

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                        • That's exactly my concern! I've been trying to run from a two-book story, but talking to you is really giving me what I need to push forward and try something different. 

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                          • It might be worth approaching it sequentially, too, rather than looking at act structures - just as bullet points, what are all the things that need to heppen, in order, to reach the initial climax? Work that list for a while, ensuring that things do follow logically, that there are suitable challenges and counterpunches to progress.

                            Then, realising that each of those bullet points will likely expand into 5k words (or more), figure out what length work you're really looking at. Personally, I could see it being at least a six-book series (three and three), given how difficult reaching that first climax is going to be,

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