TAP034, From Idea to Outline: How to Outline a Novel (Part 1 of 3)
I hope you are all well and are staying safe.
Since 2014, I’ve written two novellas, one short story, and two full-length novels, three of which I have self-published. One novel is being rewritten because I wanted to change a story device and plot thread. For me, this second storyline was unrealistic and painted the character in an unprofessional light, thus creating a sense of trust with the reader. I needed the character to be seen as trustworthy for the reader. The second full-length novel is waiting for its turn to be published. After I wrote that novel, I realised the story occurred further on in the series. Between 2011 and 2014, I wrote screenplays, then changed to writing novels when I discovered self-publishing.
But enough about my writing journey.
About this Episode
In this episode, I will discuss how I go from a story idea to a fleshed-out outline. I know this is obvious, but this is my process instead of ‘the way to outline a novel.’ This process has evolved since my very first novel. As I wrote the next story, more steps were added to my intricate outlining process. After publishing my first novella, in 2020, I added another step to my outlining process, but I will share this in a separate episode because it’s a huge step and needs a detailed explanation.
This episode is the first in a three-part mini-series where I discuss how I outline a novel. Each episode in this series is not scripted because I want it to be a chat about how I outline a novel. In saying that, I have compiled a list of steps and broke down exactly how I outline a story. Each of these steps has a bullet point list of notes to help me stay on track. I’m sharing this with you so you know that I’ve thought about this episode in detail. And, I’m not just making it up as I go along.
What You Need to Know
Before I dive into my outlining process, here’s what you need to know:
- I write in scenes, not chapters; division into chapters happens after the outlining phase.
- I write murder mysteries with more than one point-of-view character.
- My process takes a lot of work and is an extensive outline or zero draft.
- You don’t have to follow my process strictly; feel free to pick out and choose aspects that may work for you.
- A lot of what I do is because I write in the mystery genre.
- This process has evolved over the course of writing five fiction works in the mystery genre.
- And it usually takes thirty-two hours over fifteen days to complete.
Without further ado, let’s get into the show.
#1 – Flesh Out the Story Idea
While looking back over the books I’ve written, I attempted to reverse engineer how I came up with the story ideas. As a result of this reflective moment, I discovered that I get ideas from a few different places. To help you understand how to flesh out a story idea, I will share the origins of my story ideas with you.
Rory’s Story Cubes
To write the Candidate, I used Rory’s Story Cubes. After rolling the die and receiving an intriguing combination probably set the wheels in motion for the scene idea that I discuss later in the episode. This minor plot element was a reference to how James and DS Anwar Khan first met. Initially, I wanted to use this as a technique to create a short story for my email list, and I made a series of writing vlogs over on my YouTube Channel where I talked about how I use Rory’s Story Cubes to write a short story. After careful reflection, I realised this was not the Lawn but the Candidate.
A Scene Playing Over in My Mind
There has been a couple of times where I’ve gotten an idea for a scene, and usually, that scene is what happens to the victim of the crime, and that crime is always a murder. I had this idea with the Candidate. My idea was the Candidate, a magistrate about to be sworn in as judge; his title isn’t official, so he’s still technically a candidate. I had this vivid image of the victim staggering through a pristine white hall and foyer, bleeding to death with an arrow in his chest. After that, I had to reverse-engineer what happened, the who, what, how. Technically, ‘the how’ is obvious, but I needed to go into greater detail about how the crime occurs because this is how the story starts. As I said earlier, this scene idea that I had playing over in my mind was triggered by Rory’s story cubes.
Another of my books, which is not yet published, was inspired by a TV show I loved in the ’90s. I was a massive fan of the show, and I loved the first two seasons; after that, it got bizarre and eventually cancelled. My love of the show also inspired the James Lalonde mystery series.
Now, this next story is technically an idea and not a story. I have this story on the back burner to write because it’s a freebie that goes with the TV show inspired book that I’ve already written and mentioned earlier. The reason I’m being so vague about this is that the books are not yet published, and I might change the titles before publication. It came out of curiosity about what happens in the behind-the-scenes of a theatre production, and spoiler alert, someone dies backstage.
You knew that was coming, did you?
However, I do have the ebook cover ready to go. This story features a new character that is introduced to the series, but not James.
A Few Examples
Here is an example of a raw idea I had for Missing. This idea is in its early stages and is a part of the outlining process where I’ve started to flesh out the story idea. It’s so raw that I haven’t named any of the characters. I’ve just given them generic names, except for James Lalonde, because he will be in every book in the series. So, here’s an idea for the opening scene of Missing when I wrote it way back in March 2017
- A Female Indiana Jones character wakes up to discover that an artefact is missing and her assistant has been murdered.
- She has no memory of what happened the night before
With this particular opening scene, I’ve got no idea how I came up with this; it was just something that was floating around in my brain. Fun fact. As I wrote this book, it wasn’t until I got to the 75th percent mark of the story that I realised that I wanted the artefact to be Excalibur. I knew the artefact was a sword, and the sword was in pieces, but I had no idea what kind of sword it could be. On my to-do list was to research swords from this time period. Once I realised that I wanted the artefact to be Excalibur, I had to go back and tweak all of the scenes that referenced the sword. And, I had to add a few more exciting scenes to the story.
Missing was supposed to be a story that bridged the gap between two story-worlds that I wanted to create. Initially, I wanted to create an archaeological thriller story world featuring one of the characters. Missing was supposed to bring James Lalonde and those characters together, which is why there’s an artefact in this book. So when I decided that the artefact in this book was going to be Excalibur, it made the first story in that archaeological thriller series a little bit clearer for me. But, again, I haven’t the archaeological thriller yet.
Fleshing Out Your Idea
But once you have that initial spark of an idea, you have to flesh this out. In order to flesh out an idea, you ask yourself a few questions.
- What happens next?
- What happens before that?
Keep asking yourself these questions until you get to a stage where you feel like you need to start looking at this as a set of scenes or chapters. Intuitively speaking, you will get a feel as to when it’s the right time to make this transition.
My Transition from Brainstorming to Outline
Quite often, in Evernote, I’ll set a word count, then create a working title and define the location. Next, I will brainstorm the elements in the story. For instance, I will note the story’s genre and tropes and then define where the story takes place within the timeline of the series. I define the timeline because I tend to write out of order. Yes, I write books out of order.
Once I had that story idea with Missing, originally titled “No Loose Ends”, I created a bullet point list of ideas.
Below are the first items on the list:
- Archaeologist returns home from a successful dig
- Artefact stolen.
- Assistant found dead
After that, I defined how James comes into this story. And, at this stage in the process, this list of ideas is not in any particular order; it’s just a chaotic brain dump. The list of ideas doesn’t have to make any sense at this stage because I need to come up with enough ideas so I can transition to outlining.
If you have an idea for a scene and are unsure where to go from here, think of fleshing out a story idea as a “what happens next” scenario. Keep asking yourself this question until you get to a stage where you don’t have any more ideas, or you need to move on to a different tool in order to flesh out the story idea even further. Then, as the idea develops further, you get a general gist of the story length and whether you have enough content for a novel or a novella.
Upon reaching this stage, you need to move on to the next step in the process.
A screenshot of my notes for Missing in Evernote. Please note: some content has been hidden to avoid spoiling the story for readers.
#2 – Create a List of Scenes
To be honest, I do some of these outlining steps simultaneously, but for the sake of bringing clarity to my process, I’ve listed them in a step-by-step order.
After I flesh out the story idea, the next thing I do is create a bullet point list of events in the story. At this stage, I don’t give any of the scenes plot-point or story-structure labels, it’s just ideas. It really is a brain dump, but usually, this list becomes the skeleton of the story. So these really are the plot points, I just haven’t set them in stone yet.
A Fan of Evernote
This list of events is created in Evernote. Evernote is a programme that I use every day. I use it as a word processor, but better because all the documents are kept in a container, and can be grouped together within the container as notebooks. In my Evernote account, I have notebooks for every part of my business, and I can search within the larger container and notebooks to find things, and I add labels and tags to pages, to improve search-ability. Whereas when you use a word processor, everything is separate and I find that annoying, but I really love Evernote and that’s what I use for this.
From Evernote to Excel
In Evernote, I’ll create the list, and I’ll keep adding ideas to this list until I feel like I need more space to flesh out my ideas. This is where I turn to Scrivener and Excel, which I will update simultaneously. I know this sounds crazy, but if I don’t do this, the Scrivener file will become inaccurate, and this can sometimes come back to bite me during the writing phase. At this stage, I’ll create the outline spreadsheet. Then I transfer the list of events from Evernote to Excel. Over in Excel, I treat each row as a scene by adding one bullet note to a cell within a row.
Please see the images for greater clarity.
My Excel outline spreadsheet for Missing. Sorry, I didn’t keep the original skeleton outline.
#3 – Write a List of Suspects and Character Motivations
This is a step that I’ve added to my outlining process recently. However, technically I did this with Missing, but I didn’t do it as extensively and I didn’t investigate the psychology of why people commit murders until the Duplicity rewrite. While I was rewriting Duplicity, I was writing The Candidate. With both of these stories, I started creating better character profiles that explored motives in depth. And, with the Candidate, I added truth and lies the characters told the sleuth.
Multiple Books at Once
The reason I chose to write these books simultaneously is that I was struggling to rewrite Duplicity. Deep down, I wasn’t happy with the story, but I had no follow-through, so I wrote something new at the same time. Looking back, I’m glad I did that because I needed to do it. But, it’s not something I recommend, but I needed to do this. I needed to do something that was new and creative while rewriting the second book in the James Lalonde series.
Relationships First, Motive Second
As I create a list of suspects, I give them generic names like suspect one and suspect two, and there is no identifying detail in terms of the character’s appearance. But, I do have some sense of the character’s background, like the relationship between the suspect and the victim. They’re not completely unknown characters to me. In terms of their relationship to the victim, I don’t necessarily mean by blood, but what an actual relationship–how they know each other.
After getting clear on the interpersonal relationships, I consider their motive for committing the crime. Why would this person choose to kill the victim? Next, I investigate the psychology of murder. This is probably going to come across as sexist, but I have read a number of psychology articles that discuss the likelihood of certain sexes committing murder for different reasons. I consider this when I flesh out the character’s motive, usually, the character’s sex, gender and alike are often made obvious through the type of relationship they have with the victim, sometimes I don’t realise these things until I start writing the first draft, and the metaphorical smoke clears.
Below is a list of articles that I’ve found that discusses the psychology of murder.
- Psychology of why people commit murder | ABC News Australia
- Reasons people commit murder | Mysterious Matters Blog
- The Making of a Murderer | Psychology Today
Truths and Lies
After I get clear on what their motive is and the reason behind that, I then consider how they react when questioned by the amateur sleuth. I consider the information they share with James and what truths and lies the characters reveal in the interviews. During a murder investigation, people don’t just come out with the truth, that’s the premise I work within all my stories. Honesty at your own expense is not human nature; on the other hand, self-preservation is natural. Because we are social creatures, we have this innate need to be accepted, and we are more likely to lie if we feel like it’s going to make us look bad, or if we think it’s going to make us appear like a suspect in a crime we have not committed. So, that’s why some people lie–that’s my working theory.
Next, I consider why these characters are choosing to withhold the truth. What is it about this truth that they can’t seem to be able to admit to at this stage? Then I need to figure out how James catches them out in the lie. Just because one person is lying about something, doesn’t mean everyone else is going to lie about it, someone will be honest about and maybe lie about another thing. I got this from Elizabeth Spann Craig’s blog where she talks about writing cozy mysteries and the truths and the lies characters tell because it’s more convenient for the story if characters are lying about things, but you need to make it realistic.
#4 – Figure Out How The Crime Takes Place
I realise that this sounds super dubious, but my next step is to figure out exactly how the crime occurs. So, if the motive for the crime is just rage and someone murders somebody out of a fight of rage, then the timeline for the crime will be quick. Regardless of the motive, I have to consider the events that led to the crime occurring and how the crime took place.
To avoid spoilers, the events that led to the crime are not featured in the story in real-time but are discovered through the collection of clues by the amateur sleuth and reader. This is what James has got to figure out, what led to the murder, why they were murdered and how. Sometimes “the how” is obvious, but there is also an autopsy that elaborates on the manner of death, which the reader experiences, but the amateur sleuth doesn’t see this.
Then I create a timeline for the crime. In this timeline, I include events that led up to the crime where it takes place, who is present, the murder weapon, and the aftermath of the crime. I also include what evidence is splattered where, especially if the murder is of a gruesome nature. This is important to know when I write the scene where James discovers the crime scene.
It’s All About the Victim
In my novels, I like to open the story with the victim in their final moments. There are a few things that happen in my murder mysteries. You see the victim die, and this scene is always from the victim’s point of view. Because it’s a murder mystery, I can’t give away the end at the beginning; that’s silly. The victim has the most to lose in that scene and you have to make it realistic. In those final moments, you’re never going to see the victim reference who murdered them because no one thinks that.
Imagine how you would feel if you were dying and what would be going through your mind? Fight or flight would kick in and you wouldn’t necessarily be wanting to accuse someone. At that moment your focus would be on trying to survive the event so that you can make sure that the person would get what was coming to them. That’s what goes on in this scene, you see the victim survive and ultimately fail because if they don’t fail, there’s no story. All of this goes into the timeline of the crime.
Next, I split the timeline in two because there’s obviously another timeline essential to the story, which leads us to the next step in my outlining process.
#5 – Get Clear on the Villain’s Timeline
With this second timeline, I focus on, the events that led up to the crime from the point of view of the villain. Sometimes the timelines overlap because at some stage the villain and the victim are in the same room. But I write up that list of events leading up to the crime, the crime from the villain’s point of view and then what the villain does immediately after the crime takes place. I’m not talking about events that occur days after the crime, but immediately after unless the crime isn’t discovered for some time and they manage to hide the body.
Here are a few questions to consider:
- After the person has been murdered, what do they do?
- Do they try and clean up?
- Do they move the body?
Keep asking questions until you get a clear picture of what they do because this is not shown in a story in real-time. I don’t stay in the villain’s headspace for too long, but it’s important, to get clarity around these events.
#6 – Define the Three-Act Structure Plot Points
After creating these timelines in Scrivener, I return to Excel and start labelling cells in Excel as plot points. In Excel, I have two columns, one for the Act number and the other for the plot point label. I usually break the second act into two parts, so technically, I have a four-act structure. Each act is twenty-five percent of the story, and I label all the plot element scenes. Below is a list of the plot point labels I use in Excel.
- The Hook (usually the prologue scene)
- Ordinary world scene
- Inciting incident
- Turning point
- Point of no return or the first plot point, and there’s also a reaction to that as well. I put all of those elements in one scene.
- Realisation, which happens at the 37% to 50% mark of the story
Act Three (Second half of Act Two in Three-Act-Structure):
- Second pinch point
- Renewed push
Act Four (Aristotle’s Third Act):
- Dark Night of the Soul
- The Climactic Moment
- Denouement or the return to the real world
- Epilogue which should point to the next book in the series
Second Act Tips
Those are the plot points that I try and define at this stage. Usually, when I discover the character motivations in step three, I add scenes to the outline because I realise that the protagonist needs to interview a suspect, and that leads the amateur sleuth to interview this person and then this person. Sometimes there’s a bit of back and forth between suspects as lies are discovered. So I add these interview scenes at the start of the second act and after the midpoint scene.
Final Act Tips
By the end of the two parts of the second act, the amateur sleuth needs to have done all of the interviews because the final act is all about the climactic moment of the story. The events in the final act need to be ramped up to a peak and then wrapped up in a short space. These investigations need to happen before that, so no new information comes to light. At this stage of the story, it’s only confirmation of what the reader and protagonist already know, which means they finally get the evidence to bring the villain to justice.
In the Right Place?
The reason I label these plot points is I want to make sure that the midpoint is at the fifty percent mark of the story. If the midpoint occurs too soon, it means the second half of the story will lag, and it’s going to suck for the reader. To be honest, this is the only part of the story that I fixate on getting in the right spot in the story arc. Whereas all the other plot points in the story are negotiable, as long as the story is interesting. And, that’s the key, the novel needs to be entertaining, and that comes above story structure.
Back in the day, I used to obsess over the inciting incident occurring at the ten percent mark in a novel. Since then, I’ve come to realise that doesn’t matter as much, especially if the story is exciting and the reader keeps flipping the pages. As long as the book isn’t dragging, remember that’s the main thing.
By now, you’re thinking, “she’s finally finished explaining her outlining technique.” Sorry folks, I haven’t. Yes, there’s more. And you’ll find these steps in next weeks episode of the Authorpreneur Podcast.
I hope this episode gives you a few things to consider as you outline your first or next book. As always, I have a few important questions to ask. How do you outline your novels? Or, how are you outlining your first story? I want to hear from you. Share your process or struggles with outlining in the comments section below or over in the Am Writing Fiction Facebook Group.
Thank you for listening, and happy reading and writing, everybody.
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I’m Amelia. When I’m not hosting the Authorpreneur Podcast™️ and the Book Nerd Podcasts, I write Mystery Novels under the pen name A. D. Hay. And, I’m the author of Suspicion, the Lawn, and the Candidate.
On this blog, I help new writers to finish their first draft, prepare their manuscripts for professional editing, and when they get stuck in the first draft phase or are confused about the revision process.
Right now, I’m editing and preparing my soon to be published mystery novels, Suspicion, Duplicity, 24 Hours, and Immunity for publication.