How I Write: Step 2 – The Outline

I don’t always do an outline, but lately I’ve found that having one makes for a faster writing process and shorter overall books. Shorter books, naturally, aren’t always my aim, but if I’m in a time crunch or if I want to write more than a book or two a year, keeping a book from wandering off and inflating to 200,000+ words is useful. Outlines also help to get the timeline of the book settled, and can identify plot holes and pacing problems early on. What I’m going to describe here is sort of the best case scenario of my version of outlining. I don’t always distill things down as well as I describe here. Once you’ve been writing for a while, you’ll start to know what the trouble areas will be and what will be easy to deal with as you go, so you’ll self-calibrate your outlining method. Also, if you’re a pantser, picture taking the individual elements of this step and the next one, throwing them in a blender, and using them to fill in the cracks in step 4 (which will be the actual writing) as you go along.

The Hardware

You can write out your outline on paper—I’ve done so plenty of times—but typically this is the point at which I like to move over to the computer. As such, this seems like a good time to give you a rundown of my writing rig. This is the monster at which I spend 8-10 hours a day, at least. Ostensibly that time would be entirely spent writing, but a disproportionate amount of time is spent watching YouTube, browsing social media, and becoming increasingly despondent over current events. None of the following is necessary, my first five books were written with run of the mill stuff. But since this is the “How I write” series, why not tell you exactly how I write?

For a keyboard, any old keyboard will do, but like with the fancy pens I bought, once I started writing seriously, I splurged on a high-end piece of equipment. I like the DasKeyboard 4 with the Clicky keys. This is not a paid endorsement, I just like the keyboard. The keys have a nice, heavy feel and a rewarding snap with I press them. It sounds silly, but the machinegun rattle of the keyboard when I’m in the groove, and the fact I can feel the key actuation even when I have headphones on, is super satisfying. I got mine on sale.

I have a 24” Asus monitor. Again, not a paid endorsement, just letting you know what I have. This is less critical to me, but a nice big monitor with high brightness is good to have.

Possibly the most important part of the whole setup is the chair. No fooling, consider getting yourself an office chair with a mesh seat and back. I don’t know which model mine is, as it was a gift, but trust me, it was worth it whatever the price. The moment someone plops down in this thing to use my computer for even a few minutes, they’re struck by how comfortable it is. And it breathes, so no sweatiness in the summer. Mesh, it’s the best.


That noble beast has supported my ponderous keister for many a year

The Software

As above, any word processor will do, once you get started. I wrote about half of my books on OpenOffice/LibreOffice and it was perfectly fine. But recently, I moved over to what seems as though it’s becoming an industry standard, Scrivener. At first glance it seems a bit unwieldy and excessive for something as simple as writing, but if you’re settling in for a long project, it can be very useful. We’ll go into the various features as we use them. For the outline, at least this stage of it, we’ll be using it just like any other word processor. A single file with bullet points. If your processor has that, you’re good to go.

The Content

The first thing I like to write down is a list of “things that must happen.” This is particularly useful if this is part of a series arc that will last more than one book. Once I’ve got those points down, I like to start with a big, meaty synopsis. Lots of it. Just keep writing. At least a page, but as long as you care to make it. It doesn’t have to be in order, and don’t bother wasting your time going back to find a good place to wedge in a new idea, just write it when you think of it. Rearranging comes later. If you’ve finished the synopsis and you haven’t hit all of the bullet points in your “things that must happen” list, either decide if they REALLY must happen, or synopsize some more.

Once I’ve got that written down, I pick through it and decide what new characters I need to make that story happen. If this is your first story, then you’ll need all new characters. Do yourself a favor, flush them out at least to a basic degree now. Far too many times I’ve created a character on the fly and then had trouble remembering basic details later on and had to sift through what I’d already written to see if they’d been established. So here are a few points you’ll want to hit:

  • Full name
  • Basic appearance
    • Height
    • Build
    • Age
    • Hair color
    • Eye color
    • Standard attire
  • Background
    • Birthplace
    • Occupation
    • Significant family members

If you’re using scrivener, you can throw this all into the “Character” section over on the left. They even give you a nice little template to follow. (Just click on Character, then press Ctrl+T,Ctrl+N. I’m a windows user. If you’re not, I’m sure the non-Ctrl-based shortcuts are similar.)

To the same degree, you’ll want to hammer down things like new locations. (A map isn’t a bad idea.) Any organizations, languages, technologies, foods, anything plot critical should be jotted down for future reference and consistency. At this level you might not need to know all of this, but if it comes up in the synopsis, jot it down with enough detail to jog your memory.

Once you’ve got that figured out, all of the characters, the synopsis, the locations, etc., it’s time to start the outline. I’ve done it two ways, and I’m not sure which is my favorite. One way, which is only necessary with multiple viewpoints, is to plot the different threads as essentially their own stories. The other is to just do it beat for beat and keep track of which beat is in which thread. Because plotting the threads separately can make it hard to align their timing for when they cross, this time around I’m going to do it beat for beat as one plot.

What I do here is start at a high level and subdivide.  I’ll throw down an entry for every major event, which could honestly be as basic as “Act 1,” “Act 2,” and “Act 3.”

  • Act 1 – The cat gets chased up the three.
  • Act 2 – The people throw rocks at the cat.
  • Act 3 – The cat gets out of the tree.

Then, I slice them up into key things I think will be necessary to set those events up and connect them to the next event.

  • Act 1 – The cat gets chased up the three.
    • The cat was sniffing around the milk on the table.
      • John placed it there, but had to leave suddenly because the baby was crying.
    • It knocks it down, angering Mean Aunt Maggie.
      • Mean Aunt Maggie has a drinking problem and has been spoiling for a fight since she was twelve.
    • Maggie chases the cat up a tree.
      • The tree is in front of the house and is notoriously difficult for people to climb.
  • Act 2 – The people throw rocks at the cat.
    • Maggie rounds up an anti-cat posse.
      • She’s got a group of friends who are pretty much all sociopaths, and she’s the alpha.
    • They get some rocks.
      • The landscaping uses rocks.
    • They try to knock the cat down.
      • They miss a lot, breaking the windows of Maggie’s own house and those of the neighbors.
  • Act 3 – The cat gets out of the tree.
    • The cat escapes via a roof nearby roof.
      • The thrown rocks chase it to the end of a branch overhanging the house.
    • The police come and arrest Maggie.
      • Property damage.
    • The cat drinks the milk.
      • John, while talking to the cops, didn’t have time to clean the milk up.


Then I slice those up into smaller pieces, if necessary, and keep going until you reach the point of simplicity. Read it through from beginning to end as you go. Does everything have a cause and effect? Those causes and effects don’t need to be explicitly written down, but they should be obvious to you. And not just obvious NOW, by the way, but still obvious in two weeks or two months. If it all links together nicely, then congratulations, you’re done. If there are gaps or points of confusion, either start slicing it up finer to add inciting incidents and connective tissue, or revisit the synopsis to see if the problem is with the main idea. The goal is to eventually have “everything that happens” figured out. This doesn’t mean more stuff won’t happen, or there won’t be gaps you missed at this point, but at the very least you won’t be at a loss as to what happens next. And don’t worry about being too exhaustive. You don’t have to get it down to the point that someone ELSE could write the book. (Though if you did, good job!) Mostly you just want to get it so that that the book you had in mind has a shot of hitting the page intact.