After a long break I’m finally back to writing somewhat consistently, getting at least one day per week where I get stuff done. Right now I’m about 75% through the high-level outline for my next book The Gray Shift. I thought it would be fun to share how I’m trying to outline this book.
When I first outlined Full Coverage I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was worried that I would hit writer’s block so I outlined every little detail of every scene and wound up with a 29,658 word long outline for a book that wound up becoming 47,720 words long when it was finished. Needless to say, I tossed about 2/3rd of what was in the first outline because it didn’t fit the needs of the book.
For The Gray Shift, I’m trying to do all the scene sorting and trimming before I actually start writing. That way I hopefully don’t wind up having to delete a book’s worth of text during the editing process. While that may result in fewer deleted scenes for this website, it should get me to the final product faster and more efficiently.
To do this, I am combining a couple different outlining techniques that I’ve found. For the character arcs I’m using the technique outlined in Take Off Your Pants! by Libbie Hawker. This was the first outlining book a friend recommended to me and it helped me rewrite the outline for Full Coverage and make it a much better book. If you are trying to figure out how to filter out good scenes from bad, I definitely recommend this book.
My main reference for the 3 act structure is this page from Janice Hardy’s Fiction University blog. It gives a good overview of what should happen every 25% of your novel. When you take the “midpoint reversal” into consideration, it really feels like outlines should be structured around 4 acts instead of 3, but that’s just my opinion.
The third and newest ingredient for this outline is the Save The Cat beat sheet I found on Jami Gold’s website. The beat sheet breaks down the word count where every major beat of a story should occur. It is a little constraining and can feel very paint-by-numbers, so I’m planning on just using it as a check after I finish the outline and first draft to see if events happen in the right order. What I am using from this to start with is the idea of planning out how many chapters I need and what needs to happen in them before I write anything.
If you simplify the Save the Cat beat sheet and combine it with the three act structure and an Excel sheet you get a very high level outline that shows how many chapters you need based on your expected word count. For this book, I’m aiming for 80,000 words, which means I will need about 7 chapters per act (assuming 3,000 words per chapter). This is my top level outline:
Now, for the slightly more detailed high level outline. I’m using OneNote and making an outline with the following columns:
- The Main Act is Act 1-3.
- The 3 Act Portion is for things like the Opening Scene, Act One Problem, Midpoint Reversal, etc.
- The Chapter # is the chapter number off that previous Excel sheet.
- The Plot Event is one of the character arc events from Libbie Hawker’s book. (I should really rename that column to character arc event)
- The Chapter Headline is the “cymbal crash” ending of the chapter, also from Libbie Hawker’s book.
- The Chapter Summary/Key Points is my bulleted list of the key things that happen in that chapter.
Put this into OneNote and you get the start of an outline that looks like this:
Right now I’ve got summaries for 21 out of 28 chapters and 4,873 words of outline. It looks like I will probably wind up having to add a few more chapters to fill in some gaps in the story. Once I get the top level stuff done, I’ll start writing about 1 page per chapter for a more detailed outline. Then after editing that a couple of times to get the pacing and logic right I’ll start writing the first draft!