Outlining and Story Ideas

First of all, the disclaimer: I have no footing as an authority on any writing thing. Sure, I write stuff, but plenty of starving musicians write plenty of songs that go nowhere, too. Plus, everybody is different. What works for me will quite possibly work for nobody else. Find your own footing and try a little bit of everything until something sticks. Don’t take any one writer’s word for gospel. Process-wise, there is no right, there is no wrong. As the great prophet Chuck Wendig is fond of preaching, just sit your ass in that chair and write.

That said, this is going to be a hopefully short post on how I come up with my ideas, and how I proceed with my outline. I’m doing it at the behest of a friend, and putting it here since the internet connection won’t let me video chat with him. Keep in mind all of this is an evolving process. I’m learning from every project and book where my outlines and ideas were weak and trying to continuously improve. I’ll take it mostly book by book, then wrap up with a couple of shorts I’ve done.

Also? I’m writing this with a migraine so BEST OF LUCK MAKING SENSE OUT OF EVERYTHING SUCKERS AHAHAHAHA owwww

So my first real attempt at writing was NaNoWriMo 2011. That book, Halcyon Falls, came about from a (don’t laugh) tabletop RPG world and characters a group of friends and I had made. I catch a lot of flak when I mention that. “Oh, stories based on games aren’t really that interesting” and “So it’s like one long AP report?” To which I normally imply that the SHITTY McSHITTINGTON person can go take a flying fuck off a cliff. Of course it wasn’t a giant AP. I just took the feel from the town we’d made, used the characters we’d had as starting templates, and put them into a story.

Given that a lot of Halcyon Falls was front loaded, I just jumped into the writing November first with a hope and a prayer. I had nothing planned, I just started writing. I didn’t even have a decent handle on the plot or any characters beyond the main three, but it pulled itself together nicely. For some reason, I thought outlines were for the weak but about halfway through I realized I had the makings of a strong story, but I needed to figure out how to steer it towards a conclusion. For Halcyon, I outlined as I went. When I reached a good stopping point, I’d scribble a bunch of ” THEN THIS HAPPENS WITH THESE PEOPLE, THEN THIS HAPPENS” on a piece of binder paper. Using those, I’d write until I had a better idea or ran out of outline, rinse, repeat.

For the record, that book isn’t finished. I have faith in it, but I hit 80-90 thousand words, then had to get back to real life. Someday, my love…someday.

After 2011, I didn’t really write again until Nano 2012. The idea for the book was inspired by a lyric in an MC Frontalot song:

After all I’ve done for the council, they’d so soon be rid of me.

It got me to thinking-what situation could warrant this? What would a person have to do be so hated by a council that despite all personal sacrifice, the council still searched for ways to be rid of them? Why would that person keep fighting?

Once I had that basic idea a little cemented, I signed up for NaNo. I remember Halloween last year, 2012, heading out to a job site, and having a moment of “OH FUCK NANO STARTS AT MIDNIGHT AND I HAVE NOTHING!” So I pulled out my black and red notebook and, on the console of my truck, started to outline. I began with small character details-name, major relationships, motivations. Once I had the three main characters (at the time), I jotted down the basic, slim-line version of the plot. That was about the time I shot past my job exit entirely and wound up in the next town.

I spent most of that night and the first day of NaNoWriMo outlining more extensively. I finally opened up Scrivener and filled out notecards. They were pretty basic, like “Main character tries to do X and get person Y to help, but can’t because reasons and person Z”. I love Scrivener for that, by the way. I do well with that visual representation of my story, point by point. Plus, I can shuffle cards around, add cards, and delete them as I need to.  When I didn’t know where to go next, I just popped over to Scrivener and found my next card.

Eventually, too, I had a section dedicated purely to character names, and another to possible things that could happen. I also started to track character details with names as I have all the memory of a goldfish.

The third book started the same as all the others-a question and fascinating idea. For you Dresden fans, I’ll sum up: What if Gentleman Johnny Marcone hired somebody to plan a heist for him. They get excited in the aftermath, have sex, go their separate ways. Long story short, Marcone finds out that she had his son, his first-born, only son, and wants the kid. What does that story look like-Gangster, Mastermind and infant heir?

This book, not being up against a NaNo start and definitely having infinite time before it, allowed me to outline like never before. And I did it initially the way I enjoy writing the most-by hand. I took physical note cards and a sharpie and wrote out kind of scene by scene what I thought should happen. At the end, I had an index card on which I recorded everything I needed to research. This is my first full-length non-fantasy novel which means I had real-life details to figure out. I need locations in Ireland, Vegas, New York and England for starters, as well as heist info, and I have somebody on the hook to tell me about alarm systems and defeating them at a later date.

All of this got dropped into the cork board and note cards Scrivener has available. From there, I also included links to all my research, profiles on locations I want to use, real estate listings, pictures, and ideas. In another section I did fairly in-depth character portraits including details on their behavior, their looks and clothing, and how they view and interact with all other main characters.

And, last, I went back over all of my plot note cards and additional information. I looked for loopholes and issues, as well as things that just didn’t make sense. I had a character who’d been tied in to the others and I just had to figure out where the best places to drop in shots of his story would be. Although I still have the hand written cards, Scrivener’s kind of my master file now. The physical cards were a good tool to get the idea out of my head, but having everything lined up on once screen on my computer is a lot more useful than shuffling index cards and trying to find floor space to lay them all out.

My short stories, however, really don’t get outlined. They start as things that make me laugh, idiotic notions and fun ways to (fictionally) kill people, and I just go. My very favorite, an unpublished story called “Round-Up Weekend”, I started with no idea what was going to happen. When I realized what I wanted to write, I just sat in my office and laughed for probably ten straight minutes. A few I’ve contemplated plots, but most hit me with a question or an intense emotion. And I find the things that capture my attention, the question of “what would X look like?” and song lyrics that punch me in the gut, are what I want to write about.

A lot of it, too, is just writing. The more often I write and the more I think about writing, the more ideas I get, the more ah-ha! moments happen. Plus, gaming is a HUGE influence. Cool characters and NPCs frolic in my mind all day, putting them into interesting situations and making me wonder how that story would be told.

And at the end of the day, use the movie route. Imagine your story as a really compelling movie. Outline shot-by-shot if you need to, and tell the story in those terms. I do that both for outlining, as well as writing game scenarios.

Outline major points the way you’d study for a test.

Loosely outline. Tightly outline.

But at the end of the day, if you can’t get your head into the outline…just write. There is no right or wrong and if the outline is holding you back, write without it. You’ll figure it out. And if you fuck it up now, you can fix it later.

So, Matt-G Cat and others, I don’t know if that helps. I said in 1500 words what I probably should have in 500 but hopefully there’s something that will help you. If there’s more specific questions and details my migraine-addled brain missed, let me know! I’d love to help out in any way I can.


2 thoughts on “Outlining and Story Ideas

  1. I have Scrivener downloaded and I’m outlining in Excel. What do you find useful for character motivations? I pool have Drive, Fear and I think I need one more detail per character to flush them out. Care to comment?

    1. Honestly, I don’t really quantify them like that. I try to thrust them into situations where they hard decisions and hope that I make them respond like humans. I can write down that my protagonist is motivated by fear of losing her son, anxiety of the odds against her, and anger at the situation, but to me, that’s obvious.

      Me, personally, I’d be more focused on the plot and how they’re going to use those emotions and motivations to make the story happen.

      And don’t forget-not having a great outline won’t kill your story. It’s not a make-or-break item. It can’t hurt, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. It can’t be perfect, because that measure doesn’t exist. It’s just a guideline for how your story’s going to go. Just having any outline is ahead of the curve.

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