We’ve all heard of plots and outlines, and we all get the general principle. They’re things you write before you really write, right? Yes. And plotting a comprehensive outline gives you one of the most powerful tools a writer can wield.
Collect a Wealth of Ideas
Whether you brainstorm, work off prompts from your favorite writing blog, or free write until your hand cramps, get those ideas flowing. Everyone asks where writers’ ideas come from, and honest writers either confess they don’t know or refer to this process. They say there are no new stories, and while that’s debatable, your original take on an old trope or subject will come from the juxtaposition of ideas and themes you find here. Use notecards with tantalizing characters, settings, or threats. Fill a notebook or two with clouds of words. Even if you don’t use them for this tale, they’ll be ready the next time a brain storm rolls in.
Look Outside Your Comfort Zone
If the brainstorm just won’t burst, or you find yourself looking in the same old corners of the same old library shelves for inspiration, you need a wizard to yank you out of your hobbit hole. Go on an adventure and look at something new. Maybe that means asking social media followers for interesting words or random prompts. It may be time for a vacation to parts unknown. At the very least, you must go to another shelf in the library. Even if you want to write YA fiction, or thrillers, or romance, you should read from other categories. Try nonfiction, biographies, classic literature, or even poetry.
Determine the Central Conflict
You can’t tell a story until you know what it’s about. The central conflict propels your plot from ‘Once upon a time’ to something that lives, breathes, and eventually comes to ‘The end.’ Characters may need to destroy an item of power, win a competition, find true love, or fight off the barbarian horde. If you aren’t sure what your central conflict should be, play with that treasure trove of ideas you collected. You need a character in a situation facing an obstacle. That’s all any story boils down to.
Find a Few Story Arcs
Great stories don’t just coalesce in a single, grand shape all at once. Let the story build itself one act at a time, or even one long scene at a time. Every journey requires several steps, right? We all take them one at a time. Do your characters go somewhere? Meet someone? Do they get sidelined early on by a secondary disaster or realization? Don’t imagine you’ll have a full plot the first time you sit down to outline.
Subplots make the book grow stronger. They work best when they brush up against your central conflict, too. The emotional struggle of Gollum/Smeagol’s potential redemption ties directly into the Ring quest in The Lord of the Rings. Circe’s relationship with her rival leads to a final battle she must pass in order to win her own physical and emotional freedom in Circe. Relationships, romances, and secondary quests all belong in subplots, but they must link to the central conflict eventually, or your story will slough them off like snakeskin as that central premise develops.
Build Your Outline
Now comes the fun part, right? Build your outline. This is more than just the ramshackle collection of ideas you’ve organically cultivated up to this point. Structure grows here, and applying an intentional framework will make the entire process easier. A timeline is a great tool for anyone using multiple POVs, or for stories spanning multiple years or settings. What happens when, and what happens elsewhere that moves your plot forward? Add as much detail as you can. If you’re a pantser, that may not be much, but the more you work through now, the easier answers will come down the line.
Check for Logic, Loose Ends, and Character Development
Editing starts early. Don’t settle for the first draft of your outline (yes, even if you are a pantser). Look over it at least twice, on two different days, and look for three keys: logic, loose ends, and character development. Do your characters actions follow cause-and-effect? Do their decisions make sense, or are you forcing them to do something no sane person would in their shoes? Follow every subplot through to the end, and look for characters, ideas, and important props that fall through the gaps. Supernatural is famous for losing a Winchester brother down the line and never picking him back up. Finally, make sure your characters grow as you write. Do they change by the end of the story? Is there enough development throughout the story to keep readers emotionally involved?
Plotting a book is like writing a preshow. You get to play. You get to edit. You have to face the fact that character in act two just sank between the floorboards, and you have to do something about that. If you jump through the hoops, though, you get to start writing with the best possible companion: a fleshed out plot.