Anatomy of an Outline

In a way, getting characters to cooperate with an outline is like herding cats. Characters are independent minded people who have their own agendas that might not match up with the plot you have in mind. The trick is convincing them to do what you need them to do without making it looked forced. Just like cats are gorgeous creatures until you try to make them do something they don’t want to do – they they are all claws and teeth. I’ll tell you right now, you don’t want to be on the business end of a cat stare (they really can kill). Fighting with your characters has the same effect on your book.

What I’ve figured out (for myself – try at your own risk) is that outlines should be as loose as possible. A good outline has the beginning, the goal and what the antagonists are up to. To some this might seem a bit sparse to be an outline, but never fear… it actually works in conjunction with the character interviews and maps that complete my getting ready phase. Right now I want to focus on that outline.


The beginning: This is the first thing that I need to know. Even before I start the character interviews, I need to know where the story starts. Everything comes from there. I start my character interviews 30 days prior to the start of the story. This allows me to flow smoothly from learning about where my characters were to seeing how they are going to deal with the giant monkey wrench I’m about to throw into their plans.

A good story always starts with a good monkey wrench – if it didn’t why would you start there? Now there are a wide variety of monkey wrenches to choose from. There are the obvious ones like falling down a rabbit hole or having a brick thrown through your window. Those are obvious monkey wrenches where it takes no imagination at all to see how this is going to change the lives of the characters (not to worry, even with this kind of monkey wrench there is still plenty of room for imagination – there’s still a whole book to write after all). Then there are the subtle ones like a birthday party, a chance meeting in a coffee shop, a friend gets a date, etc. These are normally ordinary events except for the part about them triggering the plot. Finally there are the twisted ones – monkey wrenches that look like ordinary life transitions but lead to something far more novel worthy such as moving to a new town, getting a new job, getting fired, getting married or divorced, having a child or even just getting pregnant, you get the idea.

It’s that monkey wrench that I need to know before I develop anything else. I need to know what is going to change in the lives of my characters that is going to make them do plot worthy things. From this all things flow, including who the characters will be, what their goals will be, who the antagonists are, even where and when this story happens.


The Goal: Note that I do not say “the end”. It’s not the end that I need to know (though frequently the goal and the end happen so close together it’s hard to tell the difference). There are times when my characters fail to reach their goal, but I need to know what they are trying to do through out the book. Like the monkey wrenches of the beginning, the goals come in a wide variety of flavors. In some cases the goal might be as simple as getting life back to normal. It could be to finish the quest and thwart the prophesy. It might be to discover who their parents are or just find a nice, safe place to settle down.

In some of my stories there is actually more than one goal, specifically one for each MC. All this does is provide a road map to the sub plots and can even have the fun side effect of having the MCs be the Antagonists at the same time. That makes the next section a bit more difficult and the writing a bit more exciting (the editing however can be a bit tedious trying to keep things consistent).


The Antagonists: These are the people, places and things that are going to get in the way of the MCs reaching their goals. If they weren’t there it wouldn’t be much of a story. Antagonists can be anything really – they don’t have to be the bad guy all the time (though that is the easiest way). A mountain can be an antagonist simply because the goal is on the other side. This is where maps come in really handy.

I spend a lot of time before I start writing figuring out what the antagonists are doing. For one thing, their actions are going to have a major impact on the MCs and their attempts to reach the goal. At the same time, most of what they do is going to be off stage, so it won’t matter so much if they complain about their role. They also aren’t the ones that I’m interested in so knowing what they are going to be doing won’t kill the excitement of writing they way that it would if I did that to the MCs. Especially when the antagonist is a bad guy, there is room for flexibility. Just because Marvin has his plan to blow up the Earth, Bugs forces him to alter his plans. However, I need to know what the bad guy’s options are and what he is likely to do when the MCs don’t cooperate with his plan to destroy the universe.


There you have it: my formula for outlining. I expect that this won’t work for most of you, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying each piece and stealing the ones that work for you. Alter them as needed. The most important thing is to get out there and get writing – whatever it takes for you.

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