If you’ve been hanging around in writing circles for any amount of time, you have probably heard about one of the most fundamental decisions you will ever make as a writer. And that is- whether to outline.
You probably think I’m joking, and I am. According to most writers, this isn’t so much a decision as a personality type. Some people- ‘pantsers’ or, more poetically, ‘discovery writers’- come up with an idea, sit down with their pen or laptop, and the story comes out fully formed. No planning, no making story maps in the shower with your children’s bathtub crayons, and then your terrible poetry is just up there forever, because that stuff does not wash off as easily as advertised….
Ahem. This is not for those people.
And let me clarify by saying that unless you’ve already managed to write a novel that way once already, I do not suggest trying to write your first novel that way. Society has this expectation that creative people are spontaneous and mystical, and our work just comes to us like visions from the gods.
I’m not discounting story ideas that arise from dreams or that one time you breathed in too much Sharpie fumes, but to have a successful story, you have to have structure. Unless you have a lot of practice and an intuitive understanding of narrative structure, you need an outline, or your story will fall flat.
Or more likely, it will never be finished. If you’re the kind of person who comes up with a killer hook and and amazing ending but then can never get past chapter one, an outline is just the thing you need.
I’m saying this from experience. I hate plans. I have been accused of having a ‘chaos aura.’ But I never write without an outline anymore because as soon as I started using one, I went from having never completed a narrative in my life to writing a 50,000 word romance in six weeks.
Building a Narrative for Fun and Profit
So what do I mean by narrative structure? You know every story has a beginning, middle, and an end. You probably learned in school that stories build to a climax before concluding. That’s all really basic stuff.
The purpose of structure is managing reader emotions as well as conforming to their expectations. In every genre, there are conventions about how the story goes that need to be followed if you’re going to reach the right audience. For example, a mystery begins with a crime, a romance ends with a happy ending, a fantasy has magic etc. There’s nothing wrong with experimentation, but if you aren’t an experienced writer, I’d suggest you stick to more tried and true methods.
For fantasy, and most other types of popular fiction, you’ll want to use some variety of three-act structure, based at least partly on the Hero’s Journey as written by Joseph Campbell. If you want a deep dive into the subject, you can read his book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, but you can find quick explanations of the fundamentals all over the web.
What I plan on doing is taking you through my preferred outline, one step at a time. I’ve been using it for five years, and I have no idea where I found it, but it begins with…
Stage 1: The Setup
This is where you show the protagonist living their normal life. And I don’t mean that it’s time for an info dump about the world and the plot. Don’t show your protagonist in front of a mirror describing their appearance. What readers want is a sense of the protagonist’s life, their personality and relationships. Look at any popular or famous fantasy story and you’ll see what I mean.
Start with Lord of the Rings, which is about as basic fantasy as it gets, even if it is on the dry and wordy side. We begin at Bilbo and Frodo’s birthday party. There we meet our protagonist and his friends, including the mysterious Gandalf, and we get an idea of the way they interact. We learn about hobbit culture and get a glimpse of the troubles in the wider world, even if they don’t affect the characters yet. And it doesn’t feel like exposition.
Let’s look at something more modern like The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. It starts with our protagonist, Percy Jackson, on a school field trip. We hear about his troubles with school, meet his best friend, Grover, and his favorite teacher, and we see him deal with a bully.
In both cases, we get a sense that the protagonist has problems for which an immediate solution doesn’t present itself. Frodo loves the Shire but feels restless and unfulfilled. Percy just wants to have a school year where he doesn’t get expelled, despite the fact that everything he does seems to go wrong. This dissonance between their wishes and their reality will lead us naturally into the next step.
Turning Point 1: Opportunity
This outline is based around the concept of turning points, which is an important event in the story where the circumstances drastically change. Often, this includes a shift in the protagonist’s goals.
The first turning point is what is often referred to as the ‘Call to Action’. Something happens that gives the protagonist a chance to step out of their normal life and have an adventure. In classical stories, the hero often refuses at first. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo tries to put away the One Ring, to give it to Gandalf, to do anything but take the enormous responsibility laid before him.
Refusing the Call is an optional step. The most important thing is giving your protagonist an opportunity to make a change in their life. Frodo takes possession of the One Ring, intending to bring it to Rivendell. Percy Jackson has a bit more complicated of a set-up, involving a math teacher turning into a Fury and trying to kill him, but when Grover reveals himself to be a satyr tasked with protecting him, Percy is the one who has to make the decision to believe him and flee to Camp Half-Blood.
It’s at this point where we should get a sense of how the protagonist’s goals may be changing. Previously, they may have wanted nothing more than to survive, or have a peaceful life, but now they have a mission.
So, how do you turn this structure into an outline? Let’s look at an old story of mine, Blood Price.
To start off with, I wanted a coming of age story set in a magical world. I decided to focus on a young member of the fae who has been raised to hate mortals, but an accident in the human world shakes up her worldview. I start with Stage 1.
Stage One: The Setup: Branwyn t’Ysbryd awaits the start of the Wild Hunt with her twin sister, Blodwyn. It is the first time they’ve been allowed to participate, though their father Ciardha, is the Huntmaster of the u’Dziki. They enter the portal to the mortal world.
We learn about the protagonist, her world and relationships. She’s eager to please her father, yet also aware that this is somewhat futile. Then comes the first turning point.
Turning Point One: Opportunity: Branwyn’s horse Arianmwyg spooks and leaps a fence, throwing Branwyn and injuring her leg. She manages to hide in a barn and falls into a fitful sleep. The next day, the human farmers care for her and set her leg. She’s surprised because she’s only heard horrible things about humans.
The next night, her sister comes to rescue her. It turns out Ciardha had forbidden anyone to go after Branwyn. They teleport back to their mother Anand, who announces that she is done with Ciardha for good.
In this case, the turning point is a two stage operation. Branwyn learns her enemies aren’t as fearsome as she imagined and that her father is more callous than she expected. Everything she knows is changing.
In Stage 2, the protagonist will get a taste of a new reality and will have to decide how to act on their shifting goals. But that’s a whole other blog post.
Until then, happy writing – Kit