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  • Writer's pictureT. A. Hernandez

How I Outline and Structure Stories

This is a continuation of a series of blog posts I'm doing to explore different parts of my writing process and show how I put a story together from start to finish. If you want to see earlier topics, you can find them in the writing section of my blog.

Today we'll take a look at how I outline and structure my stories. Keep in mind that this is just one writer's way of doing things. There are a million different ways you can go about this, and everyone's process looks a little different. But if you're struggling with this part of writing, hopefully there will be some good ideas in here to get you started.

1. Plotting vs. Pantsing

Some people write better when they have a clear road map to follow, and some write better when they just wing it the whole way through. I fall decidedly in the plotter camp, and my outlines tend to be pretty long and detailed. First drafts are kind of a struggle for me, so it's really valuable to me to be able to just pull up a thorough outline and figure out what I need to write next. That way I don't stall while I try to figure out what's supposed to happen in my story.

Even though my outlines are very thorough and structured, I still like to leave some wiggle room for pantsing as the need arises. Maybe I get halfway into a story and realize a character's arc isn't actually what it should be, or I don't like the way a certain subplot is tying into the main plot. That's the beauty of drafts - you can always change things. Structured outlines are great and I love them, but it's good to allow for some flexibility, too.

2. Story Structure

Story structure honestly isn't something that I gave much conscious thought to up until recently, and honestly, I feel like that went fine. When you consume a lot of stories, you kind of just subconsciously pick up on what a basic story structure looks like, and sometimes that's enough. But if you want to be a little more deliberate in your story structure and make sure you're including the important plot points you need to, using a more definitive story structure can be really helpful.

There are a lot of different story structures out there and you'll probably find one that resonates with you and your storytelling style better than others. I personally like the Save the Cat method, which is basically a 3-act structure broken into 15 beats. I used it when I was turning Calico Thunder Rides Again from a novella into a novel, and it really helped me identify some of the problem areas in the novella version and why it wasn't coming together the way I wanted it to. I've since used it to outline both books in my upcoming YA fantasy duology, and it made the process a lot easier for me then, too.

3. Choosing Point of View

If you're writing the story from a single point of view, you'll probably know exactly who that character is before you even start outlining. But if you're writing a multi-POV story, you'll have to figure out who's POV each scene should be told from, and that can get a little tricky when you have more than one POV character in that scene at the same time. As much as possible, I like to choose my point-of-view character(s) in the outlining stage.

Most of the time, I can choose a POV character for a scene based on a single question: Who has the most at stake in this scene? When a character has a lot at stake - physically or emotionally - that can bring a lot of tension, conflict, emotional impact, and more. All of these things can increase reader engagement and pull them deeper into a story, which is exactly what you want to do. If you can't figure out who has the most at stake in a scene, you can also consider other important factors to determine POV. For example, who would have the most interesting perspective on the events in this scene? Whose perspective would be most relatable to readers? Whose POV do you not want to show this scene from, whether because it would be boring or reveal too much or for some other reason? If you're still having trouble deciding, you can always write the scene from whatever perspectives you're considering so you can actually see what works best.

4. Start Wide and Zoom In

When I first get an idea for a story and/or characters, it's generally just that: an idea. It's big and kind of vague and not at all fleshed out. I might be able to see some of the bigger events that are going to need to happen, but I don't know all the in-between stuff yet.

At this stage, I tend to jump around a lot because I'm starting with a wide-angle, big picture view of the story. I know where my characters start out in a very general sense. I know more or less where I want them to end up by the end. I know some of the big obstacles they're going to face. If you're following the Save the Cat beats, at this point I'm identifying the story's theme, catalyst, midpoint, all is lost moment, and finale as those tend to be the bigger, more significant moments in a story. I'll write all of that stuff down and plug it into my outline, and then I'll start zooming in.

By zooming in, I mean I start looking at all the smaller details - all of those scenes that show a character's development and growth, add layers of complexity to the plot, and that get characters from point A to B to C and so on. A lot of this is the in-between stuff, and sometimes I don't even know what order it needs to go in, so I jot some ideas down and then work on organizing it as I go. Is it messy? Sure, but that's half the fun - sorting through the mess to find the pieces that work and putting them all together in a nice, neat little pile. Or, at least, a neater pile than they were in before I started.

5. Outlining Tools

I used to do all of my outlining in notebooks and Word documents, and that was fine...but it was also a giant mess. Over the last couple of years I've discovered some more efficient tools for outlining that I want to share. The first one is more of a worldbuilding tool, and it was designed for RPG players as much as for writers, but I like it. It's called World Anvil, and it's basically a site where you can create your own database about your world, characters, societies, and so on. It's HUGE and the possibilities are endless, and it's especially good for writers of speculative fiction. I've got a page set up for my current YA fantasy WIP that you can explore if you want to see how it works.

My favorite new tool for outlining, though, is Trello. I think it was actually made to help businesses organize projects, but it's super great for planning a novel, too. The visual organization is fantastic. You can color code, add images, drag and drop things in different places, and more. I've used it to outline (or start outlining) three different books now and it's awesome. Plus, it's free. You can't beat that! You can see a couple examples below of how I've used it to outline some of my upcoming projects.

If you guys haven't heard of or tried these tools yet, I definitely recommend giving them a look. They're pretty easy to use and they've really helped me be more organized in my writing and outlining. I hope this article was helpful and got you thinking about your own outlining process.

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