The Writing Process – Part Two – The Outline

Updated: June 28th, 2022

A few weeks ago, I touched on the very beginning of the writing process which is a whole lot of research and making some preliminary plans. This week, we are going to get into the very nitty gritty of what an outline is and how to make one… or… rather how I make one.

The series:

  1. Research & Preliminary Plotting
  2. Outlining
  3. First Draft
  4. Second Draft
  5. Third Draft
  6. Final Draft

What is an Outline?

I imagine you’re more looking at how it differs from a basic synopsis.

A synopsis is a one to two page document that gives a very basic outline of a book. Each “Act” is a paragraph.

Well, first, let’s take a look at that.

To sum up the previous post in this series, the first line is the one-liner that can serve as a book’s hook. You know what these are – you’ve seen, and heard them, at movies and sometimes you can even find them on the front (or back) cover of a book.

For example, the one-liner, or hook, of Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi is–

Luke Skywalker attempts to bring his father back to the light side of the Force. At the same time, the rebels hatch a plan to destroy the second Death Star.

Okay, it’s two sentences (and probably not even the actual hook), but you get the picture.

The second paragraph is a single paragraph where each sentence is the “one liner” for each act, including the ending.

Still not quite the synopsis.

A full synopsis goes into more depth. Each act is low laid out as a full paragraph, including the ending as its own paragraph and a paragraph for each main character (normally only two).

…But a Synopsis does not make an Outline

However, it is a great start on one. An outline builds on the synopsis – by quite a bit. The paragraphs in a synopsis are now likely taking up a page or two on their own as now we break down each scene into a single sentence in each act. If you’re coming to this from making movies, this part is actually probably very familiar but you would call it the scene by scene storyboard.

If you still have no idea what I’m talking about think of it this way:

Like an novel’s outline, a movie’s storyboard plans out each scene by answering the following:

  • Who
  • What
  • Where
  • When
  • Why
  • How

I’m pretty sure you are beginning to understand why an outline is far more detailed than a synopsis at this point.

The reason us outliners do this is to prevent something we not so affectionately call “plot holes”.

In fiction, a plot hole, plot hole or plot error is a gap or inconsistency in a story line that goes against the flow of logic established by the story’s plot. Such inconsistencies include things as illogical, unlikely or impossible events, and statements or events that contradict earlier events in the story line.


Have you encountered a plot hole in a movie or book and it make you go, “Wait, what?”

*Holds up her own hand*

Most of the time, if they aren’t too bad, we ignore them or we laugh behind our hands and wilfully ignore them because we just enjoyed what we watched or read too much to really care.

However, I can guarantee you there is a horrified author or screenwriter who reads those reviews and inwardly recoils because they remember the work they put into it only to have fans go, “Wait, what…?”

Seriously, we do. In my earlier writing (one of the reasons After Oil – now titled Ashes in Winter and A Season of Wolves – was pulled from shelves by me. I was horrified and decided the books, and my readers, deserved better) I didn’t go into this level of planning until much later and then went back and tried to make an outline and series bible after the fact.

As you can tell (*coughs* remake…) that didn’t go as well as planned.

I digress.

How I Make a Detailed Outline

Drafting the Outline

The first step always starts in the beginning – I start with my synopsis and I build from there.

I don’t go from synopsis straight into a detailed outline, though. That would be next to impossible. No, I slowly build out each section, like a snowflake (remember how I mentioned Randy Ingermanson and his Snowflake Method? I highly recommend reading that book!).

If each act is a paragraph at this point, I take each sentence in that paragraph and expand on those until they are their own sentences that sum up how I intend each of those acts to work. At this point, I probably have half a page to each act.

And then I keep going.

Without actually writing a scene, I figure out what will happen in that scene by answering the 5 W’s and 1 H above. If the scene needs another scene to expand on that, I keep adding paragraphs to expand on it. To keep track of these, I use Scrivener. Each time I have to add a scene, I add one and use the index tile for that text as the outline for that scene.

I keep doing this until I have a top level view of each chapter and scene in the book.

Now, here is where I can see many people going, “Dear lord, Kristan, you’re nuts!”

I compile all of these index cards and then go back to researching again.

Why do I research it all again at this point?

The point of doing another round of fact checking and research is to prevent moments where things aren’t… realistic… in situations where realism is absolutely required. I do it at this point because I haven’t written my draft yet. If what I plan to happen isn’t feasible and I’ve written it then there’s a scene going into the trash can.

All of the work and creativity in creating a trash scene is time wasted.

Now, if I research and either a) confirm it’s plausible or b) it isn’t I know I can move forward (if a) or rethink it and make it plausible… which could also greatly affect later scenes that could depend on it. Not to keep the whole snow theme going on (hey, I’m Canadian… everything up here is about the snow!) but making a mistake on an early scene will snowball down the line. No scene is an island – a later scene will depend on what happened in that earlier scene.

If it’s in the final scenes of a book, I will have readers telling me my ending was crap and ruined the book. If in the beginning, the suspension of disbelief is broken and they’re not picking up my next book later.

Either way, I lose readers, and that’s the last thing I want to happen.

So, I do the research and I confirm. I dot my i’s and cross my t’s.

The work at this stage means far less later.

Also, did I mention my memory is poop? One of the reasons I outline is because once I’ve created it, I can refer back to it when writing later scenes. I won’t go off into left or right field. It keeps the plot on track and me from rambling because I couldn’t remember where I left Derek last… and the Master Ranger of Walden does have a habit of disappearing on people, doesn’t he?

Okay, Now You’re Done Your Outline… Right, Kristan?

Uh, actually, no… no I’m not.

I go back to each scene that made the cut (I may even cut scenes at this point!) and I go over each one with a fine tooth comb to make sure they serve a purpose. I use the Snowflake Method here again, but this time I’m using Ingermanson’s “How to Write a Dynamite Scene”.

I won’t go into detail here because, well, if I did then you wouldn’t need to go to him to learn his method and that would likely cut into his book sales… and since he’s another author I really don’t want to cut into his sales.

I will add the very basic chart and refer you to his blog post on the method.

In his method (not the only method, but it works for me) there are two types of scenes:

  • Active
  • Reactive

Each of these scenes have three aspects to them that need to be answered. If I can’t answer them, either the scene is poop or I need to make it work… especially if that scene has to make another one not seem to pop out of thin air using handwavium.

handwavium (uncountable) (informal, fiction) Any hypothetical but unobtainable material with desirable engineering properties. – Wiktionary

Once I have done that, I have the below for each scene (conveniently with a scene already written for reference!).

Now imagine an entire Scrivener Project of these… enough for a 100k word novel.

We’ll get into the first draft in the next post.

2 responses to “The Writing Process – Part Two – The Outline”

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