Lisa A. Nichols

author of Vessel

Welcome to the fourth post of six in a series, “I Have a Story Idea, Now What?” This time we’ll be talking about the thing everyone seems to hate, outlining.

Obligatory disclaimer: there is no one true way to write or outline or plot or edit. What I’ll be doing in these posts is talking about how I do things, and why, and what I’ve struggled with. Feel free to use anything that seems useful and ignore the rest.

This post is very timely for me because I’m reworking the outline for a book right now. This book has had about four different incarnations, but I think I’ve finally found the right path, and working on an outline will confirm that.

“Why would I outline?” I hear you saying. “Doesn’t that kill the magic?” Or, if you’re like me, you flash back to having to write outlines for essays in school. God, I hated that. So when I started writing books, I just dove right in and did what felt right. I figured, yep, I’m a pantser instead of a plotter. And you might feel that way too! And you might be, but here’s what I’ve learned: for me, writing by the seat of my pants produced two novels that are nigh-uneditable. I didn’t know where to begin, they’re both such a mess.

I’ve experimented with other methods with varying degrees of success. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t have a firm “process” yet because every book seems too different. But in the hopes that some of my flailing might be useful, I’ll ‘outline’ the methods I’ve used below. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

The first time I outlined, I didn’t outline so much as plan.  I played with three-act structure, mostly, which meant I knew which scene would end Act I–the end of the beginning, when the conflict and all the players are in place. And I knew which scene would end Act II, the big oh shit moment when things look as bad as they can get. And then the climax of the book itself. I didn’t have a road map so much as a rough sketch of a few landmarks. It helped a lot–I was actually able to make it coherent in edits. But… it was still kind of a mess, and writing it took forever.

So… I went a few steps further. I’ve read many many books on plotting and outlining, and I can’t for the life of me remember which one I got this from, but in addition to my three scenes above, I included an inciting incident and a midpoint for each act–the thing that kicks the action off, and the point where the story shifts under the protagonist’s feet. Better still, but… still messy.

Then I started working on Vessel. I both simplified and complicated things a little. I had my characters and all of that, so I did a few things. In addition to the inciting incident, and act ending scenes, I also used a tentpole or midpoint scene. That’s a scene smack in the middle of the book, as you might suspect, where everything changes. It isn’t like the Act II ender, where everything is the worst, but it’s that turning point that says things are going to get rough. In Vessel, without spoiling things, it’s where I yank some props from beneath Catherine, so she can’t rely on some of the things she’d hoped to rely on.

Then with the outline, I went one step farther: I broke everything down into chapters, and wrote a couple paragraphs or so detailing what happened in each chapter. I’ll be honest: I hated doing it. I really wanted to just half-ass it, but I couldn’t, because it was part of the book proposal, and it wasn’t just for me to read. The final version of the outline clocked in at 29 pages single-spaced–about 16,000 words. Whew!

Funny thing happened, though: Writing the book itself, the first draft, was about the easiest time I’ve ever had. There were no false starts or blind alleys, because I’d already done that work in the outline. And the first draft–although it was very rough and had a lot of problems, was probably the most solid first draft I’ve ever written. The structural changes that happened in edits were the result of “oh wait, this chapter sounded like a good idea, but it turns out it wasn’t”, or “wait, I need a different chapter here…”

It was enough to convince me that outlining is worth the pain.

So here I am, working on the next book. For this one, I am using a particular system that appeals to me a lot–we’ll see how it works! I’m using the methods described in Libbie Hawker’s Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing. As you might have guessed, she talks about moving from being a pantser to a plotter.

It relies on similar information from the Goal, Motivation, Conflict system from last week, but also includes the protagonist’s ally and antagonist, and their flaw. Using all of that information, Hawker breaks things down into seventeen core scenes–that sounds intimidating, but it’s really not!–that lead you through the character’s story arc.. I like it a lot so far. I have two protagonists in this book, and I’m creating a story arc outline for each of them, then I’ll weave them together. The book is a short read, and it’s $3.99 at Amazon at the moment (obligatory disclaimer: that’s an affiliate link). If you don’t want to buy it and don’t mind flailing a little, there’s also this version on Storyplanner.

Speaking of: check out Storyplanner!! I have only just discovered this, but they have a wealth of options for how to plan your story, and I am going to dive headfirst into it the next time I get stuck.

Anyway: yes, I will do another chapter by chapter outline/synopsis, even though I hated it, just because it helped so much.

I suppose this post is more of “why should you outline your story” than how, but for further info on plotting and outlining, here are some books I’ve found helpful (again, they’re affiliate links, just fyi):

Story is the granddaddy of them all, and even though he’s talking about screenwriting, as does the Truby book, a lot of it also applies to any story form. McKee is a tough read, or it was for me, but I came out of it with my mind blown, so if you’re only going to read one, I’d pick that one.

As always, hit me up with questions and comments! Next time we’re on to the biggie: writing the first draft.

About the Author


Lisa A. Nichols lives in Michigan with a tiny ridiculous dog, too many cats, and a crush on Luke Skywalker that she should’ve outgrown thirty years ago.

Subscribe to Blog

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

%d bloggers like this: