12.24: Creating Great Outlines

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Mary Anne, and Wesley

How might you go about creating great outlines? There are many processes, and we cover several of them.


Credits: This episode was recorded by Andrew Twiss, and mastered by Alex Jackson


Take the list of events that you’re considering putting into your story. Create a list of scene types, and assign your events to these scenes.

12 thoughts on “12.24: Creating Great Outlines”

    1. @Jon Mayo: King states in his biography that he learns what the book is about by way of writing it. He starts out with a situation and then, along with the characters, figure out how to deal with it. Why bother with the plot, he says. On another occasion, he sort of contradicts his own statement by saying plot is king (no pun intended) – as a means of stating that you should never deviate too much from your story by getting hung up on beautiful prose and such.
      There are a few exceptions, though. He outlined Insomnia, and was not satisfied with it in the end. Same with Rose Madder, if i remember correctly.
      There is also a long section in the biography where he describes the difficulties he had with the last third of his book The Stand. He didn´t know the ending for that one at all.

  1. Loved this episode, guys! Using history as the framework in my space opera comes naturally to me, because it’s my day job, lol, but it also makes a great shorthand when planning. Rather than write out, OK, they’re fighting this dirty war and it’s X and X and X… , I just say Ok, this part is like Vietnam, and this guy is like Henry VIII, only meaner, and these guys act like British officers in India. It’s a shorthand that lets me capture a whole set of feelings I want to convey while concentrating on story stuff like theme, structure and motivation, and how that would work with plasma rifles. ;-) My version of “write what you know.”

    But I’ve been hung up plotting the WIP, so I’m going to sit down with my epic music playlist and try Brandon’s trick, what scene would play out to *this* score…

    Love these all, thank you!

  2. I loved Mary saying “the outline is the bits you don’t want to forget”. I’m a short-story discovery writer who finds it easy to have my creativity locked out by an outline. I thought, “hey, I can do that!” which is a huge help.

    I attempted a novel for the first time with last November’s NaNoWriMo. I slammed into a wall. I felt I needed some kind of outline structure that fit my writing style.

    I may also borrow Brandon’s methodology of benchmarking important plot points back from the ending. I always have a beginning or end in mind. (often both).

    I think there’s a trap one can fall into where you feel your prequel has to go out of its way to explain every character quirk or affection a character has in preceding (but chronologically later) works. The first Daniel Craig Bond movie was infamous (at least in my own mind) for explaining things that didn’t need explaining.

  3. I loved this podcast. It almost made me want to stop writing my first draft so I could outline something new haha. But I’ll just have to remember to listen to this again once I’m done instead.

    Side not: Are you guys going to record a new outro that includes all the new hosts names? Right now you’r still using “jointly hosted by Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Howard Taylor.”

  4. I love this exercise. Just yesterday I was working on a document for the seven-point story structure (which is the one framework that’s worked best for me, so far), using the YouTube lectures. I couldn’t force any one story of mine into all the seven points, but I did find at least one example for each one. It even helped me identify one of my problem areas. I always knew I tend to paint myself into a corner as it were, but I think I’m zeroing in on the exact problem.

    I was suspicious that the outline episodes might not be relevant to me, but they’re proving very useful.

  5. I’m of the structure school of outlining, with me using a Frankenstein of multiple methods. The main two I use I’d like to share is SMART and this other method I learned for getting to the core essence.

    With SMART, I start with a story kernel, which is either an intriguing situation, a character with protagonist potential, or a theme. I use the first two more. SMART itself involves the following with the goals: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-Bound. I usually start with a situation, think about who is doing it, why, and build from there. When I’ve a character first, I look at their profession then interests and build using that. I got all this from a book called Sizzling Story Outlines.

    The second thing is something I got from my favorite writing book of all, Wired for Story. It taught me that story focus is a synthesis of the protagonist’s issues, theme, and the plot. I use it with SMART involving the protagonist’s goal, and question what do they have to deal with internally to accomplish their goal. What about them is holding them back. Through their issues I can identify the theme of the story, since I know that’s what they’re dealing with. Those two combined tell me the type of plot structure I’ll use. I like looking at the 20 plots here to identify which one fits best as the core plotline. Then from there, I consider what the hero must do to complete the goal then I pick out points where others or themselves can hinder things. After that, I insert them all into points in 3 Act Structure and use that as a guideline for how I go about certain aspects and things.

    With that, then I flesh out the chapters and admittedly I’ll adapt in a little pantsing as I go deeper and more specific if something new comes to mind that supports the outline. That and I do some reverse engineering for world building as well, looking at what I want to have then using sociology and history to figure out how this came to be.

    There are some things I do as well sometimes to help, such as I’ll identify the genre and consider what the promise dictates I focus on. That combined with the above helps me with the tone, which I think about graphicness, humor, violence, verisimilitude, and darkness. So on and so forth. I try to start from a little starting point and let it grow in a circle, with more info I gain informing me more on how I must execute this particular story. And I’ll do things like using mbti and enneagram on characters, borrow from the archetypes, and so on.

    …And this sounds really long! XD I’ve found I’ve gotten it down to more a science now and so I can bounce between resources swiftly. I’ve found common patterns amongst all these which help in using them as one unified method.

  6. Endings are usually the hardest thing for me to write. I’ve found that the perfect ending doesn’t come to me until I’m on draft 3, 4, sometimes 10 before I have an epiphany. This is usually due to the depth of the story I’m adding with each revision. I always have a place-holder that I know will be hacked to pieces and glued back together with other plot resolutions.

    As for my outline, I often begin by discovery-writing a short story or flash fiction involving the story elements that I’ve imagined. I make no attempt of an outline until I have a solid 1st or 2nd draft. I create a notebook with scribbles on characters, setting, and basic conflicts to keep track of everything. Then I make an outline on note cards that I can shuffle around or add new scenes as needed.

    Of course, Brandon is completely correct about using music to evoke scenes. I find it easier to write my fight scenes while writing rock and roll, while I prefer some more mellow love songs for inspiration on romance chapters.

    Thanks so much for passing on these great tips to writers. You are all wonderful and I very much enjoy your work. Keep pod-casting :D

  7. How do you make a great outline? Hey, the Chicago four-some, Brandon, Mary, Mary Anne, and Wesley, have got a lineup for you. You could use the Kevin J. Anderson, expanding all the time. Or the Wesley Chu, outlining and writing in waves. What about the structuralist? Pick a structure, any structure, and beat it out. Or the George R. R. Martin, with a historical event as framework. Last, you might try the Sanderson, building your outline backwards, start with the ending, and then figure out the promises that justify it! And, right now, in the archives and over here


    You can read the transcript. An outline of an outline? Well, sort of…

  8. I’ve been trying to outline the second draft of my novel (the first draft had an outline, but it wasn’t very detailed), paying attention to the recursive structure of the plot. (The main character wants Thing One, but in order to get it, she needs to get Things One-A, One-B, and One-C; in the course of trying to get Thing One-A, she has to solve Problems One-A-(i), One-A-(ii), and One-A-(iii); and so on.)

    Then I tried to bind the various parts of the story together using Mary’s “yes, but / no, and” technique. It’s easy(ish) for me to figure out how to apply that technique to the innermost levels of the outline, the ones that refer to the individual scenes (yes, MC solves problem One-A-(i), but that solution creates problem One-A-(ii)), but when I try to recast the other levels of the outline in “yes, but / no, and” terms, it often feels either forced or redundant.

    I’m not sure if this is a sign that I’m being too anal-retentive about my outline structure, or if it’s a sign that there’s something in my plot that I haven’t thought through clearly enough.

  9. Great episode !
    It’s one of the theme from WX I most benefit from.
    Being a discovery writer, I used to be an eternal first chapter writer. Not as you often mention a perfectionist who always rewrite the same 1rst chapter but because I used to be stuck in this strange zone where I’m quite happy about the chapter I wrote but the story thus discovered calls for an outline and the moment I outline, I find myself both afraid of the scope the outline gives to the story and bored in advance because every thing is laid out….

    Thx to your outstanding podcast, I’ve been able to understand the reasons of this mental block and also the remedy: always try to find something more, and even some things more to spice up a chapter and manage to get all excited again about what I’m writing.
    A long process but I really owe my success in curing this blockage to all your advices! Thanks a lot.
    Now, I find myself with the same king of difficulties in the editing process… how not to get bored in this quite fastidious task ?
    You have done several episodes on editing, on the technical aspects of it but as far as I recall, not really on the way to manage the task mentally.
    Do you have advices on how, maybe not enjoying editing, but at least getting some satisfaction out of it ?

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