Camp NaNo Prep: The Outline

Camp NaNoWriMo Prep Series:

Part 1: The Idea

Part 2: The Characters

Part 3: The World


Before we start, here’s a disclaimer: I’m not an outliner. Well, not a hardcore outliner, at least. I do find that I do better when I have some sort of a framework to go off of, though, so in this post I’m going to just share with you a couple of methods I’ve used that have worked for me.

The Chapter-By-Chapter Outline

This is the method I used with The Heart of the Baenor, and it’s pretty simple. For each chapter I’d just make a heading and then under that I’d write brief summaries of what needed to happen in that scene. So the original first chapter, for instance, looked like this:

Chapter 1 – Cordain

Cordain returns from fishing with his father and brother.

Cordain and his family go to the bakery.

Cordain and his family return home.

Cordain’s older brother Torstyn takes him to the tavern for his seventeenth birthday.

A traveler enters the tavern and asks for volunteers on a quest.

The traveler refuses all of the volunteers and looks around for the person he needs. He chooses Cordain.

Cordain refuses to go and returns home. Torstyn stays to spend time with his secret fiancé Adilee?

Cordain ends up staying up late thinking about the quest and falls asleep secretly decided.

Now that I’m editing none of that chapter exists anymore and he ends up on the quest a totally different way, but that’s what my outline looks like. Some of the summaries are more detailed and I made notes on some of them that remind me of names or smaller details I need to be aware of or whatever, and obviously you can adapt it to look however you need it to if you decide to go with this method.

This is the most detailed outline I’ve ever made, and you can see it’s not especially detailed. For the most part the details were either securely inside my head or worked themselves out as I wrote. The benefit of this method for me was that I had a framework that told me everything that needed to happen but it wasn’t so detailed as to be constraining and I had some wiggle-room within the scenes, which I’ve found is a pretty good balance for me.

The Really Bare-Bones Outline

With the Dark War Trilogy I had an even less detailed outline than with The Heart of the Baenor, and I’m not sure that was the best choice. With the Dark War Trilogy I had several plot points that I knew I wanted and then I left the rest to adapt as it would. That worked okay with The Last Assassin and the characters did a good job of directing the plot in the spots I hadn’t plotted. With The Shadow Raven it’s been more difficult as I’m finding I don’t know what the characters do for the majority of the time. This is mostly a worldbuilding issue (not knowing the culture of the palace), but if I’d outlined it more in-depth I probably would have identified the mistake sooner.

I left the trilogy’s outline as loose as I did because they overlap so heavily and I wanted to make sure that if something in one veered away from the outline it wouldn’t screw stuff up in the other two. If I’d outlined deeper I would have felt tied to the outline so as to not mess things up and it would likely have inhibited my writing. So there were obviously pros and cons to both choices for me.

How do I keep track of things with overlapping plot lines like this? My Excel spreadsheet (spoilers redacted):

This is a picture from fairly early on in my planning, so you can see how empty the outline was even at this point. I did have more near the beginning than anywhere else, since I knew how I wanted it so start, but if you look at the timeline on the side you’ll see that there’s a significant gap between the first two dates and the third.

I’ve kept track of every scene I write on this spreadsheet so that I can make sure there aren’t any contradictions or people in two places at once or something like that, and I love that in Excel I can just insert a new row to include a new time. I really like this method for multiple points-of-view and I’ll likely use it a lot in the future with other multi-POV stories.

Want me to make a template of my timeline spreadsheet for the resource library? Leave me a comment and let me know!

Other Methods

I’ve also used the Hero’s Journey to outline stories in the past, but I was inexperienced enough in my writing back then that those stories were terrible, so I don’t feel like I’ll be able to speak accurately about the outlining method at this point.

Hopefully this post has been helpful, and if you’re a pantser wanting to take up plotting (or just experiment with it) these methods might work well for you. If you’re a more hardcore planner and need something more structured, you can adapt these to be more specific or you can find some more structured outlining methods. (You can check out my Pinterest board of outlining tips for starters.)

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