Outlining the easy way

16 Mar

This post assumes that you’ve read the post I made a few days ago about world building in 5 easy steps. You can read that here. If you’ve followed those steps then you should have a good idea of the story that you are building. You’ll know the “rules” of your new world and the kind of character that would be the most interesting in it. You should also have a handful of scenes to start you on your way to a completed outline.

***As a disclaimer, I will say that it’s a really long post and has quite a bit of math, which I’m not great at. I did my best to explain what I did, but you might find that you need to do some trial and error to figure out what I’m talking about because it’s possible I messed something up. If so, feel free to leave a comment to help out everyone else. I’ll obviously change my post to reflect any corrections that need to be made.***

I’ve been working on the outline for Moonbound, which was formerly known as Soulbound until I realized that my friend Courtney Cole already had dibs on it for her upcoming book. She only wrote it like a billion times in emails and I still managed to completely space on the fact. Luckily, I found out before I published so I just went with a different choice. So I’ll continue to use it for the examples here.

The updated cover (which I like even more than when it was Soulbound):


After working through the steps in the last post I had about 10 scenes. Some were really vague “sexual tension between MC and love interest”, but I knew the important stuff like what the overall story was about and how it needed to end.

The stuff I’m going to talk about pulls really heavily on what I read in “Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need” (Blake Snyder) and “Save the Cat!® Strikes Back: More Trouble for Screenwriters to Get into … and Out of” (Blake Snyder). I believe he says he draws heavily on Syd Field. “Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting” (Syd Field)

Anyway, the point is that I didn’t make the beats up so I’d highly recommend getting your hands on those books and reading up. They are written for screenwriting in specific, but I think they can help anyone’s writing.

I’m going to ask you to do some math now. None of this is exact, but it’s going to give you an idea of how many scenes you’ll need for everything.

Try to estimate what your average words per scene are. I hit 1500 pretty consistently so that’s the number I am using for this formula.

How many words are you shooting for total? I chose 80k. It’s an arbitrary number, for sure, but that’s what I picked. It seemed like a good length.

Ok, now we’re going to figure out how many scenes you’ll need for each part of your outline. I’m not going to define these areas because I feel like I’d be treading a little too close to copyright infringement if I do, but you might be able to pick up some of the information with some googling. I’d just recommend the books. They are really good.

Set-up- 0-8%
(you can include scenes that happen at home, work, and play for the MC that show what her life is like before they get flipped turned upside down)

Catalyst- 10%

Debate- 10-20%

Break into 2- 20%

Fun and Games- 25-45%

Midpoint- 45%

Bad Guys Close In- 45-62%

All is Lost- 62%

Dark Night of the Soul- 62-70%

Break into 3- 70%

Finale- 70-100%
(He suggests adding gathering the team, executing the plan, high tower surprise, dig down deep, and executing the new plan as milestones in the finale)

So you wonder what this means, right? Well, his suggested lengths dealt with a screenplay so I did my best to try to translate that into percentages so I could apply it to my much longer books.

There are two formulas that you’ll want to keep in mind.

The first is how to figure out what word count you’ll be at at a given percentage. You can figure that by using your word count goal (WCG) for the project times the percentage.


In my case it was 80k*.35= 28k… so I know that if something hits the 35% mark, it’s 28k words in.

The second formula is to figure out how many scenes you’ll end up for each range. You take the number you just figured out and divide it by the average words per scene (WPS).

X/WPS=# of scenes

So for me, say that I start with that 28k we discussed. 28k/1500=18.7… so I’d need about 19 scenes to cover 35% of the book.

So this is how it looks for my 80k word book. I figured some scenes as being one scene long, but this isn’t an exact science so do with it what you want.

Set up- 5 scenes

Catalyst- 1

Debate- 5

Break into 2- 1

Fun & Games- 15

Midpoint- 1

Bad Guys- 9

All is Lost- 1

Dark Night- 4

Break into 3- 1

Finale- 10

photo copy 2.JPG

This is what it looks like on my story board (as mentioned, it’s a tri fold poster board with sticky notes). I use the blocks of color to keep track of what act I’m working on and the contrasting colors represent the key scenes (catalyst, break into 2, midpoint, all is lost, and break into 3).

Of course, as I work on it I change my mind and things get moved around until it’s not strictly color blocked anymore. I’m ok with that, but if it bothers you, you can just rewrite it on the right color sticky note.

Ok, so at this point if I didn’t totally muddle up the math for you, you should have a pretty good idea of how many scenes you need. I need around 54, I think.

I find it so helpful to know how many scenes I need. Of course some will run long or short, but you will be in the ballpark of what your goal is and that helps tremendously. Trust me on that. I guessed that my average scene length was 2k words when I was writing I Wish and my 80k goal turned into a 47k reality after the first draft. No good.

The next thing you’ll want to do is going to help you fill in some of these blanks. If you’re like me, you’ve got a handful of scenes, but no real sense of where they need to go and all those empty squares are daunting. The good news is that we’re going to eliminate some of those empty squares.

Figure out the plot and the subplots. In Moonbound the main plot is Trevyn’s efforts to track down a Were serial killer, who also happens to be responsible for ruining her life and killing her husband. Since it’s the main plot, it’s going to have to hit those 5 main scenes. I like to plan for those first. It helps a lot in figuring out where everything else goes in relation.

For subplots I chose things like her strained relationships with her parents and her sister, her romantic life, and learning to accept her status as something other than human. I forget off hand how many I came up with, but I think I had around 5 or 6.

Each subplot has to have a beginning, a middle, and some sort of resolution. For subplots that involve other people, you need a scene that introduces the other person. There will sometimes be some overlap where a scene will serve more than one function, but if you plan on having at least 3 scenes for each one (beginning, middle, and end), then 5 subplots will net you 15 scenes.

My romance subplots (love those love triangles) actually gave me a lot of scenes. I had a scene for each of these points:

-Introduce the love interest
-Show why they should be together
-Show why they shouldn’t be together
-At least one scene of sexual tension

My story isn’t an erotica or romance so there’s far less focus on the relationships than there might have been otherwise, but as you can see, even in a straight UF, there’s plenty of room to add some romantic complications.

The last thing I do is figure out what each subplot’s resolution teaches the MC. In Nightmare on Elm Street 4, all the kids were being killed off and the MC was absorbing their powers until she was finally strong enough to face Freddy and win.

You are doing the same thing for your MC. Each conflict exists to teach her a valuable lesson that helps her evolve until she’s ready to meet the challenge of defeating the main plot line’s antagonist.

Keeping that in mind has helped me out a lot as I plot. It gives me focus as I work out each subplot arc. I actually sat down and wrote down all my subplots on a piece of paper and then wrote out what each lesson she should be learning from each.

Now I’m not saying that these scenes should read like an after school special. Good lord, don’t have your character say something like, “well, I hoped you learned from this”. Seriously, no.

You’re going for subtext. You show how each lesson effected her by having her actions change as the story progresses.

To recap:

*Do your math and figure out how many scenes you are working with.

*Define your plot and write in the 5 key scenes.

*Define your subplots and figure out at least a beginning, middle, and end for each arc.

*List the lessons the MC will learn from the resolution of each subplot and make sure that those lessons color her future actions.

Doing these things has cut my outlining time to about a quarter of what it was before. It’s given my outlining process a laser focus that it never had before. I know exactly how many scenes I need for each part of the story which helps me place my planned scenes in a more cohesive order from the start. Defining the lessons she learns from subplots helps me plan the ending of the story by giving me a set of “tools” she can draw on as the story progresses.

Hopefully you find this method helpful for your own plotting. :)

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One Response to “Outlining the easy way”

  1. Crack You Whip March 18, 2012 at 12:26 pm #

    This was some VERY helpful information. Thank you!

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