From Idea to Outline: My Three Steps to Story Planning

The internet is packed full of methods guaranteed to get you an outline of your exciting new story idea, and I reckon I must have tried almost all of them in trying to get my current story up and running. On the spectrum of plotter to pantser I am firmly on the plotting end; before I set off on a journey, I want to know not only where I’m ending up but also directions for every step of the way. If anything, I can get too wrapped up in the planning. Am I the only one who’s spent weeks painstakingly planning out every step of a story, only to get to the end and find I’ve lost all the initial motivation I had to write it? I suspect not.

So: the trick is to do enough outlining that you feel ready to tackle the drafting process, but not so much that you’re sick to death of your story before you even begin. Obviously exactly what point that happens will depend on your preferences, and if you hate the very idea of outlining and would rather just dive in then don’t let me stop you! This is just a few steps I’ve found that have helped me get from the tiny seed of an idea to my first (almost) finished second draft of a story.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Where do I start?

Story ideas can come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes you catch a flash of a scenario that would be interesting to explore, sometimes a character you’ve never thought of before wanders into your mind and starts demanding attention, sometimes it’s a scene that doesn’t work with anything you’re writing at the moment but just won’t leave you alone.

Whatever your initial idea is, some fleshing out is almost certainly needed if you’re going to turn it into a full story. So how do you get from the flash of inspiration to a useful story outline?

I recommend identifying a few key elements up front:

  • Who is the main character?
  • What are they aiming for?
  • What’s getting in the way of their aim – what’s the conflict?

The answers to these questions are going to be the backbone of your story, so if you do nothing else in preparation for writing I’d recommend at least checking in with yourself to make sure you have answers that you’re happy with. I think it goes without saying that unless you’re writing something truly experimental, you need some form of main character, otherwise you don’t really have a story so much as a landscape. If you want some tips on getting to know your main character, you could check out my previous blog post on the topic. The thing your character wants to do or get doesn’t have to be external, neither does the conflict, but a story where the main character isn’t trying to do anything, or a story where they set out to achieve an aim only to immediately succeed, is unlikely to make for compelling reading!

Identify your arc, or arcs

There’s the obvious story arc of your overall plot, or the journey your main character goes on, and it’s probably a good move to work out the key features of that arc. Where does it start and, at least roughly, end? Does it have a climax, a point where everything seems to be going wrong and all is lost, or a point at which the tension reaches its maximum?

Then you might want to think about other arcs in your story. Do other characters learn important lessons along the way? Are there sub-plots you want to weave into the broader narrative?

This is where I like to draw out a rough timeline for my story, partly for an excuse to break out differently coloured pens and partly so that I can think about how my different plot threads work together. If I plot the high and low points of the different storylines, I can start to work out how events from one sub-plot can influence or set up key moments in others.

What are the key scenes?

With the bones of the story taking shape, I think this is a good moment to identify some pivotal moments in the narrative and think about how they might play out. This doesn’t have to mean you’re tied in to writing these scenes exactly how you imagine them now, I have a whole bunch of scenes in my current draft that have changed dramatically since I first thought about them at the planning stage, but I personally find it really useful to start thinking about the most important moments in the story – who might be involved, and roughly when do I want them to occur?

This is also where I find the previous step particularly useful, since for me the most important moments in the story tend to involve a number of different plot or character arcs coming together. Roughly outlining a few important moments ahead of time helps me to make sure all my important storylines are getting their fair share of screen time (page time?) and also ensures I’ve woven them together so that they feel like parts of a whole, rather than a bunch of random unrelated stories told in a single book.

Ready, set, write…

I love to plan, mostly I think because, while planning, I can imagine that the written story will be as interesting and exciting as the story in my head. Of course, that’s never quite how it works out! At some point we have to start putting words down on the page and accepting that the reality doesn’t quite live up to imagination. I assume that’s not just my experience anyway!

What I like about this planning method, and the reason I think it’s proven the most effective for me, is that I don’t end up getting bogged down in detail. I just come away with a sense of the high and low points I’m aiming for in the story, and then it’s time to get started. It helps me avoid the temptation to keep tweaking my plan until it’s “perfect”, and it’s a relatively quick process.

But that’s just my method! How do you like to plan? Or do you find that planning is actually counterproductive for you? Let me know!

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