The Six Elemental by Ali House

How I “Outline”

(Spoiler Alert: not very well)

A writer I know recently shared the outline for her last book and I was amazed at how elegant and organized it was.  The whole format was really simple and clear – Chapter 1: this happens, Chapter 2: this happens, etc.  I wondered if this was something that could work for me.

Then I realized that I don’t actually do outlines.  When I’m writing a story, I generally have a bunch of vague ideas and scenes floating around in my head.  They usually don’t get put on paper until I’m actually writing the scene, or if I’m “thinking with my pen”*.  There are no charts, no graphs, not even a list**.  It’s kind-of a mess.

Case in Point: let’s look at the outline for the book I’m currently working on.

It started out as a one-line idea and started growing from there.  I thought of scenes I wanted to see, moments I wanted to have, and then I created a rough through-line (very rough).  As I started writing and the story began to grow, I had more ideas for scenes and moments, and then the plots developed further and become more detailed.

If I was to actually try to do an example of an outline for my thought process, it would look like this:


Version 1:

  • This story is about X, following in the footsteps of Y


Version 2:

  • X follows in the footsteps of Y
  • Eventually X faces T


Version 3:

  • Opening scene
  • Introduce X
  • Do the “big reveal”
  • Come up with “the plan”
  • X faces T
  • A faces X


Then we eventually come to…

Current Version:


  • Opening scene
  • Introduce X
  • Do the “big reveal”
  • Put “the plan” into motion
  • Year 2 – the important bits
  • Year 4 – the important bits
  • After Year 4 (speed it up a little)
  • Finish with the “dun, dun, dun” part


  • Scene with T
  • Daily life stuff/catching up
  • The letter
  • More letter stuff
  • The accident (or should that come later?)
  • The downfall (how far & how fast?)
  • (find a good end part)


  • Eventually X faces T (or do they ever actually meet?)
  • Something to do with A – someone other than T goes to A
  • Another “big reveal”?
  • Does A go to X?
  • Does T leave?


As you can see, it all kind-of goes to pot at the end (there are so many things that could happen and so much could change!).  This is mainly because I haven’t written that far yet (the only reason Part 1 is so cohesive is because the first draft of that is done).

While I wish I was organized enough to have the whole story planned out, I’ve decided to lean heavily into the make-it-up-as-I-go-along process.  I’m considering all possibilities, no matter how strange.  If I want to add in a new scene or chapter, I just do it.  If I want to change a character’s motivations, I go for it.

But that doesn’t stop the dread when I realize I have no idea how I’m going to end this – or if I even can…

But who knows? By the time I finish the rough draft of Part 2, I might know exactly what needs to happen in Part 3.

Or I might be just as clueless as I am right now.

It could go either way.



*”Thinking with my pen” is what I call it when I start writing anything related to the story in an attempt to come up with ideas.  I free-form write what I want to achieve and think about ‘What-if’s and write down everything that comes to mind.  It’s probably the closest thing to outlining that I actually do.  (I also do this with a computer, but ‘Thinking with my keyboard’ doesn’t sound as cool.)

**I love charts and graphs, so this is really a missed opportunity.

***I’m DEFINITELY going to create at least a rough outline for my next project.  While I like the flexibility to add and remove whatever I want, I really should know where I’m going.  It should also cut back on how many times I have to go back and add stuff in, which I’ve been doing quite a lot lately.


One thought on “How I “Outline””

  1. I’m very much a “Thinking with my pen” person, though usually I have the ending all planned out and I have to “what if” a bunch to get to my ending.

    Thank you for sharing your process.


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