Saw some threads on outlining. They were tagged with #WritingTips #WritingTip #WritingCommunity. A lot of interesting advice. And some non-advice.

The question of outline vs. seat-of-the-pants came up. Also the notion of outline vs. serial beginning-to-ending came up.

Lots of folks suggest they can begin at the beginning and write a bunch of stuff, and arrive at an ending. I’m in awe. I think they do more planning than they admit to. But the advice isn’t something useful to anyone who isn’t already a genius.

As a former software developer, outlining takes on a significant role for me. The process is fractal — it unfolds in nested layers of complexity.

Flowers Opening
Flowers Opening
  1. Sketch the Opening and Closing. These are general notions. More statements of scene and character than anything else.

  2. Sketch the 3-act outline: Departure, Initiation, Return. And yes, this is right out of Joseph Campbell.

  3. Dig into the stages of each act. Campbell provides five to six common story stages for each act. Not all are present. Some don’t fit, or don’t seem to have the right level of drama. This is done more-or-less in order from front-to-back. Except for where things need to change to add some drama.

  4. Dig into the conflict and resolution at each stage. This means expanding each of the (maybe five-ish) stages into two (or three) chapters. Net is about a dozen chapters per act. This, also, is done more-or-less in order, beginning to ending. Except where I need to skip around to make sure the setups and payoffs are there. And sometimes some exposition and progressive reveals. So this isn’t strictly linear. It’s sort-of, approximately linear.

  5. Dig into each chapter. A chapter will have about four scenes. Each scene takes place in specific location and time, and has specific characters doing something that moves us forward toward the next chapter. Still done in approximate time-line order. The scenes are about 800 words long.

At this point, I’ve got a paragraph or two for each scene of each chapter of each stage of each act. We’re at something like 120 paragraphs or close to 6,000 words of idea following some kind of arc from the start of the hero’s journey to a dark place and then a return.

The actual writing is — as with the outlining — approximately sequential. Begin at the beginning and follow the outline to the ending. The goal is a minimum of 125,000 words divided up into 800-word scenes.

Of course, stuff happens along the way. So. There’s rework. Sometimes a lot of rework.

I can’t emphasize this enough.

The Outline Is Disposable

The outline regularly gets trashed up by new ideas which arise during the writing process. Characters come and go. Scenes get cut. And split. Chapters have to go.

Some folks can write sections and then rearrange them to create a cool narrative arc. This is — also — an interesting approach. I don’t think it can work for the non-genius writers. I salute the writers who can rearrange and intercut the narratives.

I try to execute on the advice from the screen writers and comic book writers. Start the scene as late as possible and emphasize the consequences of the actions. A good page in a comic book shows a response. The dialog may proceed through the major action, or a big, splashy star may show where the action recently occurred. But the image is the bad guy flying backwards after being socked by the hero.

Yes, my process can seem formulaic. The structure is there to make sure I’ve got the essential elements of departure, darkness, and delivery in the hero’s journey. It’s almost a checklist. Details come and go until I’m happy with what I’ve got.


I read the entire thing aloud to my partner. (They’re patient. I read while they’re cooking. It works out well.) This leads to discovery of character voice and verbal tic issues. And the “and then the murders began” issue of the action not being carried forward with enough active voice motion.

Once the read-aloud is finished, I start the rewriting to address the problems, questions, continuity issues, errors, omissions, contradictions and general badness that crept in.

The process really has four simple parts.

  1. Outline.

  2. Write.

  3. Read Aloud.

  4. Rewrite.

That’s all(?) there is to it.