Progress update: outlining finished

Progress update: outlining finished

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As I’m nearing that point in time where I put metaphorical pen to paper, I figured it’d be helpful to take stock of everything that I’ve learned and completed over the past seven months. Below you’ll find a detailed step by step process of my journey from knowing nothing to completing my outlining. I’m not comfortable revealing details of the story yet, so where I’ve included images of my documents, I’ve edited out text or left it absent altogether.


My story stemmed from a simple question of what would happen if you took X and applied it to Y? All my ideas and thoughts flowed from that single question.

If you applied X to Y, then A would happen. That’d be cool because then A would mean B, and B means an epic conflict. So on and so forth until I was trying to extrapolate that initial idea out to a proper story. The initial concept of X being applied to Y is based on technology that exists today, but applying it in an unusual fashion. What would be the result of that? How would that make an interesting novel?

At this point, all this was just jumbling around in my head.

Plotting or pantsing?

Writing a novel – quickly and with quality – demands every skill a writer can bring to bear. It starts, not with actually writing, but with project planning – and moves from there. – Matthew Wright

One of the first things I struggled with was the concept of starting to write without having any direction. The thought of getting to the end of a novel and then having to go back and fix issues seemed like it would result in endless revisions. Fortunately after a bit of googling I stumbled upon a few sites which talked about the two. And as I like structure and order, I therefore gravitated towards plotting. I didn’t know how to structure it yet, so I started committing all my ideas to get a sense of the story, and what I was going to do with it.

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Capturing ideas

Cycling to and from work gives me a good chunk of the day where I can just let my mind wander, and at the start, this was invaluable in thinking everything through. I’d get to work and scribble it all down on a memo on my phone. Then do the same when I got back in the evening.  This was handy for making quick notes and posing questions to myself at the start. I got to about 4 little pages of memos before this got too fiddly.

The memos only contained very high level story ideas. When applying X to Y, scenario 1, 2 or 3 could happen. With notes and ideas around each of those.


Don’t be prescriptive about what goes in your notebook. Some people find it best to work in a deliberately “scrappy” book, so that they don’t feel constrained to only write down gems of wisdom – yes, moleskin notebooks may be hugely popular, but a 99 cent pad will be just as good a repository for your ideas. – Ali Hale

I went and bought myself a spiral notebook, and transferred everything from the memos into that. It was a handy size, so I would just take it wherever I was going. I’d make notes whenever I could, and if I had any ideas that couldn’t be written down straight away, I’d ping messages between phone and email, and transcribe them later.

This is where I really started getting into the detail, but the notes weren’t organised into any particular order, it was just a big brain splurge as things occurred to me. Looking back, I’ve got bits on world design, plot ideas, potential plot holes and questions, rough timelines to forecast current technology to where I needed the story to be, areas of research for current and existing technology, themes, a very basic list of main characters, the hero’s perspective, how the hero changes, how the world changes and finally, a very rough story arc.

Quite soon after starting my notebook, I realised I had absolutely no idea how to construct a story and create a novel. Which lead me to recognise that I needed to read a book about writing a book, in order to write a book, and do it properly.

Notebook - Small

Writing a Novel (Teach Yourself) by Nigel Watts

The protagonist should pass greater and greater points of no return, facing greater dangers and having greater pressure put on his resources – Nigel Watts

There’s no way a simple little book like this can tell me how to write a book. A ‘teach yourself’ book? Really? Yes, really.

This was a bit of a revelation for me, as everything that I had been thinking about, had committed to those memos, and into the notebook, suddenly started to coalesce into a proper story. Everything in the book is helpful, and it is written and structured in a beautifully simple way. But it was chapter 3 in particular that locked everything into place, ‘the eight-point arc’. That’s one of the last things that I outlined in the notebook, whilst on holiday, late at night when everyone else had gone to bed. The culmination of 30 pages of notes was my story arc of stasis, trigger, quest, surprise, critical choice, climax, reversal and resolution. With that simple system expanded out to a series of minor, major and grand arcs. I had version 0.1 of my story.

Book - Small

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The eight-point story arc

When beginning to write creatively, a new writer needs somewhere to start and some way to think of a story in an almost mathematic sense. Knowing the 8-point arc can lead to properly structured stories that seem to rise in height to the best place that the reader follows the journey to. – JR Scarbrough

This was the first artifact that I transferred to the computer, and being a Business Analyst, there was only one place to start, trusty Visio.

I mashed up the concept of a swim lane diagram with the eight-point story to come up with something like this:

For my three main characters: Hero, Opposing Character, Antagonist, and Secondary Character, I planned out the story arc. It starts with stasis for the hero, and then travels repeatedly through the story arc, gaining intensity each time until it reaches the final climax, reversal and resolution.

Each of the boxes represents the detail of what is happening at each point from that characters perspective. Although, without the text, it’s possibly not very illuminating.
Story arc

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Research document

The main idea for my story hangs off specific combinations of technology, all extrapolated from their current day incarnations into the future. Because of this, the next artifact that I started working on was a research document that I used to collate as much information as possible about how it behaves and works now. I read through tons of sites, articles and research papers to make sure that my thoughts and ideas had real world substance.

As well as technology, I also researched governmental structures and how that could potentially change over the years too.

By the time I had filled this document with enough information, I knew all of the key pieces of technology that I needed to include in my story, and I knew what sort of political structure I needed, to support the way in which the world has changed.

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Pre-book timeline

Off the back of feeling confident enough about having all the core components that I needed for effective world building, I then created a pre-book timeline. This started at present day, and forecasted through different innovations and advances to get to the technology and political structures that were featured in the book.

This helped me to derive a starting point for the year in which the book was set and to also consistently refer back to previous events when i feel it was needed.


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Is my idea original?

There is one thing that you must keep in mind to retain your sanity here, and that is that including a trope in a particular work does not make it “ruined.” Not even those tropes.If your favorite shows have long lists of tropes associated with them, well, so does everybody’s. A show featuring an Action Girl or showing a character kicking the dog is not a bad thing; the former is merely a reasonable type of character (badass character who is female) and the latter is a character action that happens plenty in Real Life. –

Roughly around this point of the process I started to have real doubts about whether or not my story was original. I hadn’t intentionally copied any other work, but from plucking idea and concepts out of your subconscious, who knows where they truly come from. Am I having an original idea, or am I just rehashing every single film or book I’ve ever seen or read?

Trawling a lot of the writing sub reddits yielded people with the same worries. A lot of the advice on reddit was very reassuring, and boiled down to, ‘nearly every story can be distilled down to core components, and therefore every truly original story has already been done. Don’t worry about it, just write it.’

In the end I was content with pushing all doubts away, knowing that I was at least putting some original ideas forward, as long as I could present them so that they weren’t clichéd, full of stereotypes or bowing down to overused tropes. But accepting that tropes are not always bad also helped too.

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How to write strong characters

…it’s important to remember, too, that ‘strength’ isn’t the only way to bring female characters into your story. Women and men both can be weak and vulnerable without either falling into the trope of the Damsel In Distress. And in many cases, weakness, not strength, is what makes a character sympathetic and powerful. – Amira K Makansi

Thinking about story tropes led me quite nicely to my next little stumbling block, avoiding character tropes and clichés. I didn’t even have to contemplate gender for my lead when I was putting all the bits and pieces together. I had a female lead from day one. It just seemed to fit. Possibly because having a strong male lead seemed clichéd in itself to me. Once I started researching character tropes I realized I’d have to work extra hard to also make sure that I wrote a strong female character, and didn’t fall into the trap of writing a man as the lead, from a male perspective, and just slap a female gender label onto it.

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Character development

In all honesty, character arcs are so easy to explain because we’ve all experienced them. None of us is still the person we were with three years of age, or thirteen, or thirty. We all change, some for the better, some for the worse, and some change sideways. Hey, it’s alright, as long as we move on. It’s the same with characters, they move on as the story progresses, but the WAY in which they move on usually falls into one of three major categories. – Veronica Sicoe

Even though I knew how many characters I needed, and roughly what each of them would be doing to propel the story forwards, or erect its barriers, I didn’t feel like I totally had a handle on character development. Up to this point I had essentially taken an idea and generated a plot with it. I had a plot driven story. More research ensued and made me realize that being totally plot driven is OK, but for a story with real weight, it needs character development too.

Looking back through my history, this is clearly the area that I struggled with the most, as it’s the one with the most visited URL’s. I believed in my plot, so I didn’t want to sacrifice that. But I didn’t want it to be meaningless. The one aspect in particular was how to make the main characters journey mean something.

In the end I stuck with my plot, but worked a lot of work to understand and appreciate character driven stories, to incorporate character development and blend them together. I think the end result is much stronger now.

Useful links

Character profiles

When writers are tasked with creating characters, we are told to try these character exercises that entreat us to answer rather mad questions about them: hair color, eye color, toe length, nipple hue, former job, phone number of former job supervisor, what she had for lunch, if she were a piece of Ikea furniture what piece would she be (“Billy bookcase! NO WAIT, A SKJARNNGFLONG LINGONBERRY-FLAVORED COCKTAIL TRAY”). And so on and so forth.

Most of these are, of course, abject badger-shite. – Chuck Wendig

To start committing all the character development that I’d learned, I wanted to create character profiles so I could make sure they worked. When I looked into it though, I found a lot gargantuan templates that seemed to miss the point. They drilled down to an excruciating level of detail without seemingly making any difference to advancing the plot, or driving their development. If my hero loves chocolate ice cream and so does my villain, what does that mean? I don’t think it actually means anything. Instead I found a very useful template from Chuck Wendig, which concentrated on answering questions connected to the character, story and world.

I used everything that Chuck proposed and added in a couple of extra bits of detail to help support the differences in each character. I also laid them out side by side in a table to make it easier to check that there were core differences between each character.

Character profiles

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It is important that each of your major characters plays fulfills an important dramatic function — a function that is common and vital to most stories. – Glen C. Strathy

From researching character even further, I stumbled up a site which talked about dramatic function of archetypal characters.

I thought that this sounded like a worthwhile exercise. I took my existing characters and mapped them all out to the archetypal characters, which dramatic functions they satisfied and described the scenes in which this happened.

Which ended up looking something like this:


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Opposing character

You might consider giving two characters a common interest or goal, so that, although they may argue about how to obtain it, they are forced to work together (perhaps because each has a skill the other lacks). – Glen C. Strathy

The secondary character features heavily in my story, and this is actually an opposing character. Defining this character as opposing arose from following on the research from the archetypal characters.

Because I had two characters who come together and worked together to achieve a similar resolution, I wanted to make sure they were distinctly different and worked towards making sure that was evident. This would help to generate conflict between them, drive interesting dialogue and ultimately make the story more satisfying.

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Scene breakdown/list

A novel outline is a plan for a novel. If you are doing this for yourself and not for an editor, then the good news is there are no rights or wrongs. You can type up your outline with Roman numerals, or you can paint it on the carpet in lipstick if that works for you. Every author has his or her own system. – CWN

By this point it felt like I had all the necessary components to start going into more detail. From researching the subject, I found the concept of the scene list, and investigated how it could help get the detail I wanted.

After checking out a few templates and doing the research I settled on the following structure for each scene:

  • Who is the viewpoint character?.
  • Bulleted list of key events in the scene.
  • Which characters are in the scene?
  • Where the scene takes place.
  • What the scene accomplishes, from any of a set of four possibilities: Deepens the understanding of the world. Deepens the understanding of the character. Moves the character towards/away from own goals. Moves the character towards/away from the story goals.
  • What kind of world building I will be including in each scene.
  • And finally, from my previous breakdown of the archetypes and opposing pairs, which ones feature in that scene.

By the time I got to my last scene, I had 8,675 words covering all the details and intricacies of my story, and I have enough confidence to finally start writing.

Scene breakdown

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Character weapons, abilities, strengths and weaknesses

The final artifact that I created was a document to help structure action scenes, ensure consistency and create interesting situations playing off each characters strengths and weaknesses. This one contains who each character is, what weapons they use, their abilities and their strengths & weaknesses.


Point of view is probably the largest single area of novel writing that aspiring writers have problems with. More specifically, they can’t decide whether to write in the first person or the third person… Both viewpoints seem so tempting in their different ways… and choosing one over the other can feel like closing the door on a whole world of exciting possibilities – Harvey Chapman

I thought I had this nailed, because even from the beginning I knew it was going to be 3rd person with two points of view. However when I started getting further and further into the main characters head, and saw the world through her eyes, I considered switching to 1st person single point of view. From constructing the eight-point story arc, and subsequently, the scene breakdown, I have key scenes from the opposing characters point of view. So I have constructed it as a multi-POV novel. But I could just cut all that out, and maintain the single first person point of view for the main character. It would still work out. To complicate matters, I have typically only read 3rd person books until recently. It was only after picking up Altered Carbon that I could see how first person could work for my lead, and how that could lend a particular edge of mystery. Likewise, multi-pov 3rd person would also work, and would offer a different take on the mystery and build up. For my particular story, I can see positives and negatives for both. When I have been trying out writing exercises, 3rd person feels more natural. I haven’t made a final decision on this, so I’m going to try writing the first few chapters as originally intended, and see how it pans out.

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How to (not) start your novel

A reader walks into a bookstore. Spies an interesting book. What does she do? Picks it up. Flips to the first chapter before anything else. At least, that’s what I do. (Then I smell the book and rub it on my bare stomach in a circular motion and make mmmmmm noises.) Or, if I can find the first chapter online somewhere — Amazon, the author’s or publisher’s site, your Mom’s Myspace page — I’ll read it there. One way or another, I want to see that first chapter. Because that’s where you grab me by the balls or where you push me out the door. The first chapter is where you use me or lose me. – Chuck Wendig

My scene breakdown nicely lays out the start of the novel, leading into the action, but doing so relatively gently with a bit of build up. This build up would allow me to do some key world building, with two key elements of the world design being laid bare at the very start. At that point I was happy with the way it started. After a bit of research on the topic however I was conflicted on the best approach. Following the research, I started to think about how I could have a killer opening, where the first line would hook the reader and compel them to find out what is happening. I think I can do that, but it would come at the expense of the world building and scene setting, and could potentially go too far into the action. At this point there would be no context, and I could have a hard time getting readers to empathise with the situation that the main character is in. And because there are some far future concepts at play, starting too caught up in the action could be confusing. I am very tempted to start with a killer blow though. I’m going to try out both ways, see what works and what doesn’t, and then try and find a good balance.

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Prologue or no prologue?

Prologues, when done properly can be amazing literary devices. Yet, with a clear reader propensity to skip them, then that might at least make us pause before we decide our novel must have one. Make sure you ask yourself honest questions about what purpose these pages are really serving. Are they an essential component of a larger whole? Or are you using Bondo to patch together a weak plot or lazy writing? – Kristen Lamb

Which leads quite nicely into prologues. Nearly all of the advice on how to start your novel effectively comes down to getting right into the action, being careful to tread the line between nothing happening and going too far. So if you need to start with action, where does that leave the prologue? I personally don’t feel like I need one, as I’m going to try and weave my world building into my story as it unfolds. But I do see the value in it for that particular purpose. I guess it just depends on the story. Pandora’s Star by Peter F. Hamilton is a perfect example of how an amazing prologue can set up characters and world design. It encapsulates perfectly the effect that wormhole technology has had on his universe, and sets up key conflicts between major characters that permeate the 2-book work. It’s set a couple of hundred years before chapter 1.

At this point, I definitely don’t feel that I need one, and I think that’s the key.

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Final overview

That’s what I’ve learned and completed so far, and I’m really happy with it. Hopefully it’s a good balance of outlining, and will allow me to discover everything else organically through the process of writing.

Here’s a final Visio diagram roughly describing the journey…

Summary process

2 Responses to Progress update: outlining finished

  1. Thanks Stoney, glad you found it interesting.
    Hopefully some updates on progress coming in the next week or so. Once I’ve finished the first scene I’ll try and use that to forecast the total word count.

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