Outlining Strategy

June 21, 2012 in General Topics

Lately I’ve spent a lot of time mapping out the currently-unnamed sequel to The Tyrant Strategy: Revenant Man. It’s reminded me that outlines can be very vital, but aren’t without their own challenges. So, here’s some thoughts on the good and bad aspects of this always-underappreciated component of fiction writing.

I’ll also share some strategies that really helped.

Some background: I’d written all three outlines up for parts 1, 2, and 3 of The Tyrant Strategy some time ago, because all three books are so interwoven. There’s a lot that goes on in the narrative that might go completely unexplained in one book, and then become illuminated in another.

Cracking open the old outline for Part 2 revealed a lot of work to do. The outline just wasn’t going to satisfy my requirements for the series.

First, I had to modify the defining arcs in the plot; the thematic and narrative components that had the two central characters developing and departing from who they were at the end of Revenant Man. I knew both would become more antagonistic, but also more self-reflective, so I quickly figured out what I wanted my main characters doing.

With that broad goal in mind, I entered the normal outlining phase.

Writing From Point A, with an eye on Z

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard is to define Z first. Define the endgame for your story first, and then you can more easily write to it. So I made sure I knew the resolution of the book before I specified the launch point.

Once A and Z – the alpha and omega of the book – were defined, I then had to add the B, C, etc of the plot. A writer might start with “Luke leaves Tatooine (A) and becomes a rebel hero (Z)”, and then inserts everything that happened on that journey in broad brushstrokes: “befriends an old knight”, “loses his family”, “vows to learn about the Force”, “embarks on rescue attempt”, etc.

As I was mapping out my road, I made note of the characters on it.

The Character Guide

I added any new characters to my character guide. This is a document that provides an overview of every player, down to any bit of prose I wrote describing them. Having to double-check someone’s eye color a hundred pages back can tear you right out of prose-flow.

(Clive Cussler once remarked he does this with post-it notes on his monitor. That must be one crazy-looking desk.)

With the framework done, I entered the whittling and refining phase. I modified any weak individual supporting characters arcs, and also their influence with the main narrative.

And it’s here, in the details, as always, that doubt reared its ugly head.

A Reminder About Doubt

Yes, doubt. We all get it; we just call it “writer’s block”. I started doing this to myself:

Is this plot element plausible?

Am I ignoring this character for too long a time?

Will the reader balk at this premise?

While much of this was valid, and was addressed, there were some areas that never felt 100% complete. Ruminating on those reached the point where it became counter-productive.

I had to remind myself of two key points: 1) an outline never feels done; if it does, you’ve usually expanded it out into a novella. 2) The outline and the Pirate’s Code are both more like guidelines; in both cases characters are going to end up doing what they want, constrained only somewhat by framework.

On the up side, I discovered a simple method when I was checking my pacing.

Color-Coding Chapters

I color-coded each chapter outlined on the basis of the character or characters present. This made it real easy to go back and shuffle around chapters, without having to reread bits of the chapter frame each time.


Well, yellow is a main character, but he has three chapters in a row. That’s a bit too much. Since we haven’t seen blue in eight chapters, and his actions aren’t sensitive about reshuffling, I’ll pop his latest exploit between yellow’s series of chapters.


Three chapters about a log cabin and an old man? That’s gone.

Something about the color-coding helped me identify fat that could be killed now, before I’d burned writing time on that kind of flotsam.

Mapping Time Progression

Finally, each chapter got a day marker on it. Not the exact date (though I could see that being useful, depending on the subject matter), but a rough “DAY X – (Time)” note near it. This helped me identify when I had a scene of characters standing around a campfire in between two other chapters taking place in broad daylight, or other such scenarios.

Since there was a journey in the second book, it also helped me determine if the people had traveled a reasonable amount of time, accounting for meals and sleep, in order to reach their objective.

Final Thoughts

I hope these outlining strategies can help you with your own story development. Though this stuff is rather dry, there’s nothing more disappointing than taking on extra work in your draft editing that could have been easily caught and avoided up front in the outlining phase.

Authors have different opinions about outlines, and of course what works for me might not work well for you. You might even eschew outlines completely (you brave soul). I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below, particularly if you have any helpful strategies of your own.

Stay tuned.