Wednesday, February 28, 2018

How to Plot Your Story and Create a Loose Outline

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She has a podcast/vlog at You can also find Jill on InstagramFacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website. Tagboth (Tag for short) is a goldhorn dragon from Belfaylinn, a hidden fantasy realm on the western end of the Sargasso Sea. Jill is working on the first book of this tale for this year's Grow an Author series.

At this point, now that I feel confident about my characters, storyworld, and the backstories of each, I'm ready to plot out my story. I've shared before that I'm a hybrid author. In all honesty, I write my books mostly by the seat of my pants, but I'm also a planner, so I like to make lots of plans as to how that seat-of-the-pantsing will go. I make a list of scenes. Then I'll write those scenes. Unexpected things will happen as I'm seat-of-the-pantsing, and I'll have to tweak my list of scenes. Then I'll go through my manuscript, write out each scene on a 3 x 5 card, then storyboard it to fix the problem places.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Right now I need to create a loose plot outline. I need to have a plan for the end of this book. A plan that's going to work. Over the years, I've done this in many ways. Here is the process I'm using for Onyx Eyes.

I had wanted Onyx Eyes and it's sequels to be 20-chapter books. But as I studied the chapters I'd already written, I noticed that my second turning pointalso known as the "Break into act two" part of the story or the "Set off on a Noble Quest"had happened at the end of chapter six. So if I was going to follow a mathematically perfect three-at structure, I would need to have 24 chapters in this book.

Hmm . . .

Honestly, that's realistic for me. I write long. Better to give myself room in case I need it. ;-)

So I opened Microsoft Excel and created this little worksheet. It's really no different from my other plotting charts I've used before, but this time I put in 24 chapters, a prologue, and an epilogue. (Don't know if I'm going to want an epilogue or not...)

I also added some of the three-act structure elements to help me as I plot. Here's what mine looks like. If you've like to print out your own copy, click here.

Then I fill it in.

This process takes me quite a while. Usually I can do it in a day, but it sometimes takes longer. If I get stuck, I tend to think through the problem spots while driving or doing chores, or (the magical "good idea" place for all writers) while in the shower. ;-)

Honestly, I might not be able to fill in an idea for every chapter at this point, especially those chapters in parts three and four. But I'll try. If things change later, that's okay. The point is to give myself a map to follow.

If you're trying to sell your book to a traditional publisher, you'll need to write a synopsis and perhaps create a book proposal. If that's my plan, this outline would help me with all that. I'm going to talk about writing a synopsis and creating a book proposal in a couple weeks.

Using the chapters I've written so far, below you will see what I wrote on my form. I like writing in pencil in case I need to erase. And I can always copy my Excel file into a new spreadsheet and type in my plot information as well. It's actually easier to edit that way, but I'm often old school about using pencils and papers and such. Do what works best for you.

Warning: there WILL be spoilers here. :-)

Prologue - (KAITLYN POINT OF VIEW) - Sixteen-year-old Kaitlyn's best friend recently disappeared. Now her brother, Quinn, is acting CRAZY. She wants to figure out what is going on.

PART ONE: Glasderry
1 - Setup (Hero in his ordinary world, not yet living his dream) - (DRAKE POV) - Drake, a Grounder knight, has been engaged to Princess AyannaRynn for years, but when a royal contingent from the enemy Aerial kingdom comes to court, the Grounder king annouces that his daughter will marry the pompous Aerial prince SuelAlefric. Drake is furious. Later he visits Ayanna, but neither of them know what to do.

2 - Turning Point #1: Opportunity - (DRAKE POV) - That night, Princess Ayanna goes missing. Drake is accused, and the Grounder king gives him five days to find her or take the blame. Drake confronts the king about his promise to allow Drake and Ayanna to marry. The king says that peace is more important than promises made years ago. Drake starts his investigation. Clues lead to the Aerials, but Drake cannot go undercover in Aerial territory without wings, and he is not a strong enough stonecaster to know such magic.

3 - Stage II: New Situation - (DRAKE POV) - Drake goes to visit Tulak, the Old One who took him in after his mother abandoned him as a child. Drake asks what spell might give him wings. Tulak says that only using onyx to bond with a winged creature could accomplish such a thing, but that is the darkest of magic and forbidden. Drake considers Tulak's warning, but his mind is made up. He would do anything to find the princess.

4 - (DRAKE POV) - Drake climbs a mountain and enters the cave of a dragon named Tagboth. He performs a spell that enables him to bond with the dragon. The spell is quite painful and requires the use of his True Name.

5 - (DRAKE POV) - Drake learns to fly with his new wings. He takes the mask of Prince Suel's Aerial servant. Whenever Tagboth speaks to Drake, he uses his True Name. Drake tells him to stop. It can be dangerous if anyone should overhear it. The dragon is unsympathetic. Drake stole his wings, after all.

6 - Turning Point #2: Change of Plans - (DRAKE POV) - Travels with Prince Suel back to the Aerial kingdom. He leans that the Aerials put her in a human home as a changeling and brought the human here as a slave.

7 - Stage III: Progress - (DRAKE POV) - Drake finds a male changeling in a human home, masked as a teenage boy named Quinn. Drake arrests the fairy, creates a mask of Quinn, then takes the teenage boy's place. He learns that the neighbor girl went missing a few weeks ago. He asks questions of any human he can find, trying to discover information about the missing girl, who he believes is Princess Ayanna. Quinn's sister Kaitlyn doesn't seem to like her brother at all.

8 - (DRAKE POV) - Drake goes to school as Quinn and continues his investigation of the missing girl, questioning anyone he can. Kaitlyn confronts him, angry that he is "harassing her friends." Drake begins to experience pain from the magical bond he shares with the dragon.

9 - (KAITLYN POV) - Kaitlyn sets up some old video baby monitors, putting one in her room and the other in Quinn's. If he's doing drugs, she's going to catch him in the act. That night she hears him talking to the lizard. Then the lizard talks back! The lizard can talk? It calls Quinn a different name. Quinn takes off his shirt, and Kaitlyn sees him stretch out . . . his wings.

10 - (DRAKE POV) - Drake learns to use a computer and seeks information about the missing girl. He follows a lead across town, but just as he finds a clue, he is attacked by Aerials and wounded.

11 - (KAITLYN POV) - Kaitlyn researches fairiesbecause that's what has taken her brother, right? When he finally comes home, she goes into his room to confront him. But he is bleeding badly. She helps him. Then she tells him she knows he has wings and that he's a fairy. She also knows his fairy name, and that means he has to do what she wants. And she wants him to help her find her brother.

12 - Turning Point #3: Point of No Return - (DRAKE POV) - The human girl knows his name! This is all Tagboth's fault. Drake has no choice to obey her. He tells her about Princess Ayanna and the fairy changelings and pleads his case. His mission is important. In the end, she wins. Back to Belfaylinn they go to find the real Quinn.

That's all I have so far. I'll keep working on it. :-)

Do you plot out your stories? If so, is it similar to this or different? Share in the comments.


  1. This is pretty much EXACTLY what I do except I don't worry TOO much about the mathematical structure. Instead, I focus on the heart of the story, write out my key scenes, and then figure out how they'll all fit into my usual 30ish chapters.

    Great post as always. Thanks, Jill!

    1. Nice, Taylor. Thanks for sharing your process. :-)

  2. I don't really plot, but when I did NaNo year before last I did this a little with my book Fur Slipper. I knew I wanted 50k words and that I wanted each chapter to be uniform with so many words. So I divided that number, came up with like 20 come chapters, then wrote down three things that needed to happen in each chapter. Sometimes I only had two things to write for a chapter, other times I had like five things :D

    1. I think it's a great way to organize the ideas you have and see where there are holes that need some attention. Thanks, Keturah!

  3. I'm trying to learn how to plot better, so thank you for this helpful post!

    Also, I use to have a dragon just like the one in the picture, so that graphic always makes me so happy!! ^_^

    -Gray Marie |

    1. You're welcome, Gray Marie. And, yes! I really like that stuffed dragon. He makes me smile too! :-)

  4. I used to have most of the plotting in my head, or frantically scribble it down on a piece of paper. I tried chapter-by-chapter plotting once, but the whole thing started coming out forced and I moved on to my next story idea. I guess my current process is to sort of create an outline, but I don't have to stick with it if I find a better way. I think I just needed the experience of actually finishing something I started though.

    This past week I've been working on the chapter-by-chapter outline to help me go back and edit my sci-fi series. (I should have done more plotting, now I've got a ton of work ahead of me in order to fix this mess, haha!)

    1. Thanks for sharing, Gwen! The more you finish, the better you'll get at finding your own method. I've found that creating an outline of a troublesome rough draft really helps.

  5. Yes, I usually plot out my stories, but not until I'm finished with the first draft. I just LOVE reading about how other authors have found their personal writing process! No two writers write exactly the same way. (Confession: I skipped the spoiler part of your post, because all that you've said about the story so far has me intrigued, and I wanted to keep that intrigue until I can actually read your book. ;))

    For me, I am definitely a seat-of-the-pants person. I like to write the first drafts as fast as I possibly can, fast enough so that I have no time to second-guess myself. Like, I know NOTHING about the story when I first begin writing, except maybe the MC's name and the basic premise of the story. After the first draft, I spend some time making charts and outlines based on what I've already written, and then I sit down for the rewrite. Beyond that, I'm not sure, because I've never actually gotten farther than the beta-readers-are-still-reading-the-second-draft stage.

    Thanks for the post!! :)

    1. That's fascinating, Talia. Thanks so much for sharing your process. :-)

  6. I don't do a lot of planning during the first draft stage, but as I go through edits I make a list of key scenes for reference later. Other than that I don't do a lot of planning (and I don't really know how to plan much more than that).

    1. If it's working for you, Maggie, keep at it! And it sounds like it's working. :-)

  7. Ah, everytime you write something about Onyx Eyes, I know I want to read the book. I am sure it will be a wonderful story!

    I am a bit confused by '20-page books'. Do you mean 20-chapter books?

    And I love to read about your proces, and the processes of everyone here. Mine is really different though! I tried for years to be a seat of the pants writer, because I thought that was the way to write books, but last year I realised it just doesn't work for me. Instead, I embraced the hardcore plotter in me. I now use the methods of K. M. Weiland. Writing is fun again, and now I have a story for my characters, instead of pages and pages of characters who are thinking or talking or drinking tea or thinking blablabla.

    Everytime again I am surprised about all the different ways to write a book. Seems there is no wrong or right method, everyone had to find his or her right method.

    1. Oops... Yes, I meant 20-chapter books. I will edit that. Thanks for pointing out my error!

      You are absolutely right, Marja. There is no right way. Every author needs to try different things until they figure out what process works best for them. Thanks for sharing yours!

  8. The one time I really plotted out chapters, I wrote a list of events in chronological order, then divided them into chapters. Most of the time I have a vague list of scenes, and often my first draft doesn't include chapters. In second-drafting (if I ever get that far) I'll separate them out.

  9. Thank you for the structure chart - very helpful!