Let’s talk outlines. Some people love them, others hate them.
To be totally transparent, I am not allowed to start a draft WITHOUT a full outline, start to end.
Why? Because my ADHD loves to latch onto fun concepts and just go with it, resulting in many, many unfinished manuscripts.
There was a recent trend on Instagram for writers to list out the manuscripts that we didn’t sell or didn’t finish to show how much writing we do that isn’t seen by others. My list would be toooo long for one Instagram post honestly. (I think in 2020, I wrote over 300k words and did not have a finished story to show for it! 😅😭)
So, for my new YA horror idea, I told myself I wasn’t allowed to draft without an outline. Especially since this story had multiple POVs that I would have to juggle and keep track of. And I loved the idea too much to let it fizzle out (which happens when I don't outline!)
For me, outlines have become a multi-step process. The first step was breaking down each act and creating beats based on all the horror movies and gothic books I was reading. (I still used my basic beat sheet for this btw!) Once I found those common beats, I started mapping out my story to fit them. Here’s a quick example of my first pass at baseline beat notes for act 1:
- Hook: Prologue (hint of what’s to come) First chapters, intro the characters and their basic need states and relationships
- Set Up: Slow sink into weirdness; establish gothic house / psuedo-academic facility setting tropes
- Rising Action: the representatives of the antagonist forces slowly gets close to the teens, both being supportive and equally weird all at once. The teens want to trust them, but their histories don't allow them to really trust any adult.
- Act 1 Climax: first death / brush with death + first twist - they're not in a normal situation / facility (This is a given, how can we up this to the next level?)
Once I had those beats, I began building the plot / character development with my story, starting with ideas and general thoughts for each beat.
For example, these were my first notes for the Set Up beat:
- Set up - an outsider is brought into the world of the killings and is introduced to the characters. Some ground rules and history is established/hinted at but not explained. In fact, the new character doesn't fully grasp what they've gotten into.
Pretty vague, right? It’s okay because its only the first layer, the first pass. I go all the way through the act, then start on the next act. Once I have a slim outline for each act, I go through it again, this time adding more detail, more character development. As I build on the ideas, I slowly begin to see which beats should be in which character’s POVs. I do this a few times, adding more each time, fixing things that don’t work, etc. The end goal is to have an outline that I can easily break into scenes or chapters, and then have a decent summary (at least a couple of paragraphs) of what happens in each scene.
It’s a lot of work, but it was worth it in the end because once I had this outline, drafting was so much easier and quicker for me. Now, do things change during drafting? Absolutely! My original act 1 outline ended with another character being unalived. 👻
But when I got to that scene in the draft, an actual death didn’t make sense. So, instead it became one of the POV character’s first brush with death when someone attacks them. Love them or hate them, outlines can be a great tool for authors (and a necessary tool for me! 😅)
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