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Applying Knowledge: Outlining

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I’m in the middle of working on my first novel. So I’m pulling together everything I’ve learned from writing short stories and the lectures I’ve listened to and putting them to use. I had wanted to put together a post going through my process in case in may help others. But in recent days that process has changed. To understand that change I first need to talk about the original.

Dan Harmon’s Circle Structure

I have mentioned this before in a past post, but I will give it a quick synopsis again. Dan Harmon is the creator/head writer for the T.V. show “Community.” He, like many writers, subscribes to the Monomyth. Lucky for us, he has also taken the time to spell out how he uses the information and applies it to his stories.

This is his breakdown of the Monomyth:

Dan Harmon's Circle Structure

Using this, I am able to write my story into a very high-level concept. I can figure out a head of time the arc that my character must go through in order to have a compelling and interesting tale. I won’t go through each element here. But feel free to follow the other links and get lost in the mind of Dan Harmon.

After that I break up these steps and shove them into The Frame.

The Frame

Again, I have another step where I flesh out these eight steps by using Anne Greenwood’s “Frame” method. The Frame is a six part structure that consists of an Introduction, Rising Action, Progress, Final Push, and Denouement. Anne first picks the general word count of the novel–in this case we will call it fifty thousand words–and divides that number in half. Each of the sections are then given a percentage of that word count (example: Introduction is 10% of the 25k).

Now, your job is to just write what should happen. No dialogue. Just very quick and simple prose. It doesn’t have to be pretty. In fact, it can be downright informal. You just want to be able to get your ideas down and see how it is all flowing. This is your chance to see what is working and what may need some fleshing out.

For dialogue, you just do some bullet points and get out what needs to be said to move the story forward. Remember, a large part of writing is rewriting. So this is your time to make serious mistakes and play.

How Things Have Changed

I had been using this way for a while now and was really getting the hang of it. I was able to plot out an eight part series (just a coincidence to the circle structure) in a month. I have a very solid idea of where the series needs to go. I then started breaking down one book at a time.

Recently, however, I started listening to Brandon Sanderson lectures. He was asked how he outlines. To simplify, Brandon is a goal based writer. He lists three things–character, plot, and setting–and begins to write down his goals for each of those parts as bullet points. What are his characters’ goals? What are the plot goals? What setting pieces does he want to include? He may even adds goals within goals.

What he is trying to do is get a very quick idea of what actually must happen. So that when he’s writing, all he has to do is grab a few goals per chapter and make sure that they are addressed. He mentions that, as the author, you’re always attempting to get all three done during a chapter.

One thing to bear in mind, is that a goal may actually be the character trying and failing at something. You may have a plot goal for the chapter being something like: The outcast Prince brings proof to the court that the Queen is a Doppleganger. Only to have it come to light that it IS the Queen. He is then thrown into the dungeon. The character goal for this scene is that the Prince learns not to trust everyone he meets. Plot goal is that we learn the Queen is still alive. And finally the setting goal is to show the dungeon everyone has been talking about since chapter 1.

Taking the idea of Goal Writing, I have pretty much walked away from the idea of writing with a Frame. I wanted to bring it up, just in case it may help others. Goal Writing has really struck a chord with me and given me the power to really hammer out the chapters and focus myself on what each one is about.

If anyone tries this stuff out, I’d be interested in hearing how it works for you. Do you have a different method you enjoy? Tell me about it. I’m always interested in hearing how people approach writing.

It is always good to learn, right? Write.



  1. beatbox32 says:

    I’m not really qualified to say much on the subject, seeing as all I’ve written in my short writing career are short stories, but it may give you a different perspective.

    I initially began with the idea that I’m a pure structure guy, probably because my day job is in IT and that requires a lot of strict logic. I need to plot and outline and only when that is complete will I write. I’d just be wandering aimlessly otherwise, no?

    Well, I’ve found that when I actually write, I’ve served myself better by mixing that process with more of the Stephen King method – the plot sort of writes itself based around scenes in my head. It’s scenes already in my head that really push me to write. I found that I just have a hard time taking my outlines and explicitly creating situations from them. If I begin with my scenes and build an outline and structure around them, not tightly but allowing it to flow a bit more freely, I’m more successful in completing my stories.

    I think much depends on what you’re writing as well. I approach fiction and non-fiction a bit more differently, and even subsets of those have their own special tweaks.

    It’s my opinion that writing methods are a lot like shoes – no one size fits all.

    Good article. I do love learning about different approaches.

    • It’s my opinion that writing methods are a lot like shoes – no one size fits all.

      Really, that is the long and short of it. Which is why I imagine I keep researching different methods and creating a hodgepodge from it. Finding what best works for the writer is key.

      As I write more and more and find that I need to hit deadlines, I’ve found that I needed some type of system that helps me write quickly and efficiently. I would discovery write in school, with just a vague idea of what I wanted to accomplish. But now that I’m under tighter deadlines to get chapters out, I’ve found that I needed something to facilitate that need.

      From what you’ve said about your method, I think the Goal Writing would be right up your alley. It’s something that allows for you to be as in depth as you want. You can bullet point the scenes you know you want, then be loose about how you may think you could get there and then fill in the details as your discovery write.

      Thanks for taking the time to read it.

  2. Kaa says:

    I haven’t yet found a tried-and-true method that works for me. The one novel I have ever finished started life as a novella, and I decided there was more story there. But it’s a time travel novel, so it was really easy to just decide, “Hmm. Today, I think I’ll write about Gerald when he was 7,” come up with a spot of trouble for him to get into, and ba-da-bing, I was off to the races.

    The current novel I’m working on…has confounded me. I’ve tried outlines, mind maps, Dan Wells’ Plot thing, Mike Stackpole’s 21 Days to a Novel, some advice from Ann Crispin, a bunch of stuff from Writing Excuses, a smattering of stuff from Mur Lafferty…and still what “works” is that, just as I’m falling asleep—or while I’m in the shower, or driving, or listening to a podcast on a topic that has nothing to do with urban fantasy or magic—I’ll get An Idea™. And I record it on whatever’s handy: AquaNotes, digital voice recorder, EverNote, DropBox, Scrivener…and the story in my head changes a little. 🙂

    I hope to find something that will work consistently for me.

  3. […] it is funny. This method goes back to “The Frame” method I had talked about in another post long ago. I had thought I’d discarded it in […]

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