Updated: May 2
One question I get asked by new authors is how do I get my story out of my head and onto paper? Even if you are a panster, like me, using a basic outline can help get your story organized and keep you on track. This is my basic story outline: Story Concept, Character Development, Basic Event Outline, Detailed Event Outline.
First Step: Story concept
Figure out your genre. Then write a few sentences conveying the idea. Here’s an example of a basic concept for a mystery/suspense:
EX. While looking through the kitchen window of his cabin, my MC thinks he witnesses a man murder his wife in the cabin next door. He sneaks over and sees what looks like blood. He then sees the man leaving with what looks like a body rolled-up in a tarp. After following the guy to a warehouse and involving the authorities, my MC realizes he made a huge and embarrassing mistake.
•At this point, decide on setting—city/state/country/season.
•Decide if this is a standalone or series.
Second Step: Creating the cast of characters
Usually, I focus on main and supporting characters. You can add more as needed to develop the story. Things to consider:
•Names - Research your names. Avoid glaring similarities to other well-known book characters or real persons.
•Physical traits - Hair color, hairstyle, eyes (color, shape) teeth (straight, white, crooked, missing, or rotten) height, weight, muscles, skinny, sexy, ordinary, odd.
•Mental traits - Cunning, genius, average intelligence, quick-thinking, slow-thinking, arrogant, rational, irrational, observant, inattentive, inquisitive, dense, selfish, caring.
•Quirks or habits or vices - Gum chewer, chain smoker, drinker, OCD, always twirls a ring or watch, runs hands through hair, pulls on hair, carries a cigarrette but never smokes it.
•Background - Atheist, Catholic, agnostic, vegan, married, divorced, single, gay, transgender, a former priest, cab driver, adopted, abused as a child, raped, former comedian.
Third Step: Create a simple event time line
Think about what needs to happen first and the series of events/plot-points needed to move the story forward. I use my basic story concept and break it down:
1. Geoffrey thinks there is a problem between a husband and wife while on vacation with his family.
2. Through the cabin window, he thinks he sees the man murder his wife.
3. He sneaks over and sees what looks like blood.
4. He sees the man carry out a rolled-up tarp, and he believes the body is in the tarp.
5. The man throws the tarp in his truck and speeds away.
6. Geoffrey doesn’t want him to dispose of the body before he can catch him, so he follows.
7. Geoffrey realizes he’s made a huge mistake.
Fourth Step: Expand this event time line
Add a little more detail to each point. (Do this step as many times as needed, adding more details.)
1. While on vacation, Geoffrey overhears a husband and wife arguing in the cabin next door to his. He follows them, trying to learn more about them. He asks workers at the lodge and eavesdrops on their conversations. Geoffrey’s family thinks he’s crazy. Geoffrey becomes obsessed. He thinks the husband is going to kill the wife because he has threatened her and they are always arguing.
2. One evening, Geoffrey returns to his cabin alone and hears an argument from next door. Through the window, he thinks he sees the man murder his wife.
3. Geoffrey sneaks over to the cabin and looks through the window. He sees the man rolling up the tarp and what looks like blood all over the floor and splattered on the walls.
4. From a hiding spot, he watches the man carry out a rolled-up tarp. Geoffrey believes the wife’s body is in the tarp. He calls security at the lodge and tells them what is happening.
5. The man loads the tarp into his truck and drives away. Geoffrey doesn’t want him to get away, so he follows. He calls security on his cell phone, relaying what is happening and where they are going.
6. On the other side of the property, the man pulls into a warehouse. Geoffrey can’t wait for the sheriff; he must stop the man before he gets away with murder. He grabs a weapon and is about to hit the killer when the authorities show up.
7. The man’s wife also shows up, and Geoffrey realizes he made a huge mistake.
If you do this several times, adding more detail, you will have a robust outline in which you can fill in the story details. Writing from this point is less overwhelming. As you write more, this process becomes easier. Remember, nothing is set in stone. This is a guide to help keep you on track while writing and keep your thoughts organized. It is a tool.