A Very Small Matter of Outlining

Now, I already know what you’re saying, Alica McKenna-Johnson. “I already told you, I’m a total pantser.” Yeah, yeah. Oh great, now the rest of you are nodding. (sigh)

So there you are, happily kicking the story along by the seat of its … pants. You don’t want to stop and outline, because the words are flowing, your Right Brain is engaged, rolling through your minds’ lilied fields, and if you stop to get all organized, your stupid Left Brain will build cubicles around your characters, and they will get bored, and leave.

I get that, actually.

Although I test as being very organized, I’m secretly not. In fact, I’m right-brained by nature. Don’t know which one you are? Look at the spinning lady. (From The Herald Sun.) Mostly right-brained thinkers see her spin clockwise, left brained folks, counter-clockwise. Although I see the dancer moving in the right-brained direction, if I close my eyes, and think about things I need to do, I open my eyes and voila’, she’s spinning in the left-brain direction. We can train our minds to include structure without losing the basic benefits of being creative.

So, is there a compromise in writing outlines? I think there is. For short stories, I never bother to outline. If there are plot holes, it’s fairly simple to fix them in a short work. For books, where I want the action to be spontaneous, I use a limited outlining technique. Essentially, it consists of defining the word count, characters, location, story background, simple plot (the 1-2 sentence pitch), and a very rudimentary outline.

For characters, I only deal with the principals: Main Character, Main Supporting Character and/or Love Interest, Opposition, and any other major characters that will drive the plot. I don’t worry about incidentals or minor characters. Those will show up when they need to. For even long works, in my simple outline, I only have 3-6 characters defined when I start. Now, for me, novels are character-driven. If I don’t care about them, I don’t care about the book. As a result, I tend to decide the critical things before I start: their basic personality type, the key elements of their back story, key physical features, etc.

But here’s the fun, right-brained part. This needn’t be structured. In fact, I achieve better results when I just let it flow all right-brained, disorganized style. (Chuck would be pissed. If you don’t know who Chuck is, shame on you.) There is plenty of time to get organized during those start-up periods of your daily writing wherein you’re trying to get back in the flow of the book. This is where I tidy things up. But doing this before I start writing usually means there is no cleanup needed.

The background information is pretty much what you would expect. It varies depending on the story. Again, I find I get better productivity when I allow this to flow naturally. No editing, no thinking too hard. I can do that before I start to write.

So now I have my elevator pitch – the big “What If” (also sometimes called “The Suppose”); I have my characters, and the very basics of the backstory and the plot. I’m anxious to get started, and don’t want to spend years weeks days trying to get the structure set up.

I use a short form of Evan Marshall’s method to set up an outline as follows (remember, we’ve already decided how long the book is – let’s say, 80,000 words):

  • First chapter – introduce main character, jump into story as deeply as possible to engage the reader, try to limit characters introduced to no more than a few.
  • 25% of the way into the book (20,000 words) – The 1st Major Failure – This is where the first major failing and/or obstacle is introduced. By now, the reader should know the problem, and have a pretty good idea of what the story is about.
  • 25% – 75% – Story progresses – more failures, growth, etc.
  • 75% into the book (60,000 words) – The final Big Fail – I’m using the term “fail” loosely. It’s the big problem, conflict, or whatever structure your story needs to overcome. Don’t believe me? Look at a 60-minute TV drama, and see if the big drama doesn’t happen with 15 minutes to go.
  • By 90% (72,000 words), you should be at, or pretty close to your Big Climax. If not, you may need to do a little re-structuring during your edits. But having this as a milestone will at least get you to think about it.

That wasn’t so bad, was it? What’s cool is that you can fill this in more up front, or even as you go. If you are writing scenes in the classic Action – Reaction – Sequel flow (stuff happens, people respond, follow-up happens) you can map out your chapters between your key milestones.

Again, only use as much of your left brain as you want to. Oddly, I’ve found that having this structure actually lets me write more seat of the pants than I would without it. Since I kind of know what will happen in Chapter 11, for example, I can just sit down and write out notes, which turns into actions, and then dialogue. I can let the story flow without worrying about having to fix what goes where later.

Anyway, what the hell do I know? Try your own method. Just don’t let yourself be certain you can only write one way. You might surprise yourself. I was a total plotter until I tried this. Now, I’m a hybrid, and proud of it.

Very funny. That is NOT what I meant.


  1. LOL- I didn’t mean to cause any trouble. While I don;t do well with outlining I have done it- just on little sticky notes to keep things straight. I do however enjoy making character profiles. I love figuring out their favorite- color, TV show, food, sexual position ….. and so forth.
    When I get half way through my book then I sit down and outline I always know the general idea for an ending and then I just have to figure out how to get from ch 10 to ch 23!

    1. Well, if it’s only 13 chapters, you can always fill them with sexual positions. 🙂

      1. I don’t know if I can make that work in my YA- maybe I should start another book??

  2. OK – I have stared at the girl for ten minutes and cannot even convieve her turning counter-clockwise…off to stare some more.

    1. *grrr* Conceive….

    2. I couldn’t either at first. What I did was close my eyes, and in my head, start making a list of things I needed to do the next day. It only took 10 seconds. Then, I opened my eyes, and she was turning in the opposite direction.

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