NaNoWriMo – Outlining

Someone posted a question about Outlining on Facebook. I answered them, and then realized that other people may want to know how to do it too, so….

How do you Outline?

Very carefully.

All joking aside, it isn’t that hard, if you take it in steps. The first thing to know about outlining is that it is not a straight jacket, it’s a guide. What you outline now, may not make sense part way though your work.

If that happens, sit back, relax, and re-write the outline. Most of the time you won’t need to re-write the parts of the outline you’ve already written, only the stuff happening in the future. If you need to go back and re-write part of the earlier stuff as well, it isn’t a big deal. You are learning about your characters, setting, and plot as you write. Making adjustments based on what you’ve learned is something everyone does.

Let’s say you are working on a Fantasy. You probably have an idea of what your setting is like, i.e. basic technologies, basic government type, resources available. You also probably have an idea what your main character is like.

Knowing the above is essential to writing an outline.

How complex should an Outline be?

That’s going to depend upon you. One writer that I know of writes a forty page outline for a two hundred page novel. He’s an outlier. Most writers use a far shorter outline.

If you’ve never outlined before, don’t worry about how many pages of outline you should have. Just sit down, and work up some basics. If you decide you need more, you can always add it later.

Some of you will decide to write long, involved outlines. Others will write skeletons only. I prefer skeletons myself, but it is all very individual. You get to decide what sort of outline you write, no one else.

Starting an Outline

Let’s use Lord of the Rings for an example. Tolkien had several characters he was carrying over from his earlier book, The Hobbit, along with setting.

So, his original outline may have looked like this:

  1. Frodo inherits the Ring
  2. Frodo destroys the Ring

That’s basically the entire story!

But it is more complex than that. So he may have added to his outline:

  1. Frodo is given the Ring by Bilbo
  2. The original owner sends bad guys to the Shire to retrieve the Ring
  3. Frodo escapes
  4. Frodo travels with the Ring and some friends
  5. Frodo destroys the Ring

OK, that helps. But maybe he needed more.

  1. Frodo is given the Ring by Bilbo
  2. Gandalf tells Frodo what the Ring is
  3. The original owner sends bad guys to the Shire to retrieve the Ring
  4. Frodo escapes
  5. Frodo gets to Rivendell injured
  6. Frodo travels with some friends towards where he can destroy the Ring
  7. The party gets separated
  8. Frodo and Sam travel on alone
  9. Frodo and Sam meet Gollum
  10. The younger Hobbits are kidnapped by Orcs
  11. The younger Hobbits escape the Orcs and meet Treebeard
  12. The remainder of the party goes to Rohan
  13. Frodo and Sam enter Mordor
  14. The Ents assault Saruman’s tower
  15. The remainder of the party and other forces fight off an attack by Sauron’s forces on Minas Tirith
  16. Frodo destroys the Ring


Note that I haven’t even named most of the characters. Some of them are carryovers from The Hobbit, some of them new characters. At this point Tolkien may not even have known who they were!

As you feel the need for more detail, you can easily add it. For example I’ve skipped The Conspiracy completely. But that’s an interesting detail which can be added. So are lots of other events.

But that is the basics.

Adding to the Outline

Exactly how much detail you put into an outline is up to you. Some people will have nothing other than ‘Frodo travels to Mount Doom and tosses the Ring into the volcano’ while others may have pages of minor details, like about Bill Ferny’s orcish friend.

You can add however much you want (or need), whenever you want. For example you might decide that you need to put in details about the raid on the Prancing Pony, but to do that you have to know about the Ring Wraiths.

Your characters are going to have a huge impact on your outline. Take the Ring Wraiths as an example. They impact so many points in the plot.

Wormtongue is another prime mover. He controls Theoden, then tosses the Palantir out of a window, then murders Saruman.

Legolas and Gimli do their Mutt and Jeff act, while herding the plot in their own way. Aragorn of course is central – but so is Boromir. Without Boromir the party would not have separated, and Minas Tirith might have fallen.

Then there’s the map of Middle Earth. There are places the characters cannot go easily (Mordor for one), and places where they are welcome (Lorien). All of those facts are going to impact the outline.

But you don’t need to know them

Not to get started. The first part of your outline should simply be:

  1. Frodo destroys the Ring

Everything else that happens is secondary to that single event. Everything. Nothing that doesn’t drive the story towards that point matters.

Writing your way through the book

Once you have decided what your prime event is, filling in further details is usually easy. The characters of your protagonist and your antagonist are going to drive events. The setting is also going to drive events. Thinking upon your outline, characters, and setting may cause you to make changes. That’s fine – that’s what is supposed to happen.

Say Tolkien originally had Aragorn an arrogant knight. Working with the outline he might have realized that an arrogant knight would be a problem for the Hobbits. Or maybe he had planned for one of the younger Hobbits to be a traitor, and realized that it just didn’t fit the story he wanted to tell, and so removed that from the outline and the character.

As I said – the outline is not a straight jacket. It is just a tool to help you write, just like a character sketch.

Think about the story you want to tell, the characters, and the setting, then sit down and write a couple of what you think the important points in the story will be. Don’t worry about getting it dead right, you can always change it later.


Wayne Borean

Friday October 31, 2014



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