August 27th, 2012 by Carrie Vaughn
From Idea to Outline

This question came from my Facebook feed awhile back, from Tracy:  “I’m curious about your process of going from initial ideas to outline (or if you outline).”

It’s a good question, because it’s one of the more arcane bits of the writing process.  We end up talking more about the mechanics of writing after we actually get the ideas into prose.  But how do we prepare ideas before we actually start writing?  What turns an idea into a story?

There’s a new-writer mistake, especially in short story writing, one I committed quite often myself early on:  You’ve got this fantastic idea, you want to tell it to the world, so you write a story about it.  Bam!  But no, because if the story doesn’t deal with the implications, the consequences, the effect that idea has on the character, the world, and so on, then it actually isn’t a story.  What this new-writer story looks like:  “Hey, everyone, what if there was a secret race of intelligent, space faring duckbilled platypuses?  Ta da!”  (I don’t know what the plural of platypus is, I’m sorry.)  It might be a good description of space-faring duckbilled platypuses, and an interesting idea, but unless something actually happens, or the story has something interesting to say about the existence of space-faring duckbilled platypuses, it isn’t going to go anywhere.  (Lest this idea seem too crazy, a while back Charles Stross wrote an award-nominated story about space-faring lobsters.  But that idea is, as you might expect, a small part of a much larger story.)

“Idea, ta-da!” is really only the beginning of the process.  This is what writers mean when they say ideas are the easy part.

A few months ago I wrote a post where I pretty much brainstormed a story real-time.    The idea was:  What if all children in the world under the age of ten vanished?  A newer writer might depict the event itself, what it would be like to watch the children vanish, and end the story there.  But the really interesting stuff happens after, doesn’t it?  It’s harder, digging into the implications of that event, seeing what the world would look like ten years later, and so on.  It takes time, it takes thought, it takes thinking about some traumatic and uncomfortable ideas and scenes, but you have to go there and include that emotion if you want the story to affect people.  (Children of Men is one of the best science fiction movies of the last ten years.  It’s about a world where no children have been born in 18 years, and does a great job depicting the cultural implications.  One of my favorite scenes shows an elementary school that has been abandoned and is going derelict, overgrown with weeds and falling apart.  It’s a gorgeous, true detail that really added punch to the story.)

So, idea isn’t story.  What do I do to turn an idea into a story?  I brainstorm.  I think about it, I write stuff down, think some more, write more stuff down.  I try to figure out who my main character is early on — who will be most affected by the idea.  I follow that person around for awhile.

Eventually, a scene will emerge from this muddle of ideas and scrawled notes.  It’s not always an important or climactic scene, it may just be an image, and it may not even make it into the final story, but it will be important for the brainstorming/outlining process because it finally takes the idea and puts it in a context, puts it in a world.  Once I have a scene, I can start imagining what came before that, and what came after.  If I’m doing this right, by this time the initial idea is part of the background noise, because the real story involves the characters, settings, events, and scenes that have emerged from all that woolgathering.

For example:   The idea behind my Kitty werewolf series is that a world with vampires and werewolves would need its own talk radio advice show because Dr. Laura wouldn’t be able to help these beings with their problems.  By the time I got to the first story — about a werewolf radio DJ being stalked by a bounty hunter while she’s on the air — the initial idea had moved firmly to the background.  Exactly where it needed to be.  It’s a wonderful background, but I needed a character like Kitty to tell stories about for the idea to really go anywhere.  The novel didn’t happen until I imagined a very specific scene:  Kitty at a nightclub, dancing in celebration of her first little victory.  That scene appeared early on in Kitty and The Midnight Hour, which is a book about a young woman learning to stand up for herself.

And that’s how I go from idea to story outline — “werewolf radio DJ” might be a fun idea, but it took writing several short stories and doing a lot of thinking to get the novel-length idea of “young woman learns to stand up for herself.”  That last theme gave the structure to the outline I subsequently wrote.

I’d be interested to hear about other people’s processes.  Like I said, it’s a stage people don’t often talk about, and I’m curious to hear how similar or different my process is from others.

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6 comments to “From Idea to Outline”

  1. A. McKay
     · August 27th, 2012 at 9:41 am · Link

    I thought about this question hard and sort of long. I just started to write my next manuscript for a “hell on earth,” kind of story. So I thought about how do I start stories, even some that don’t start.

    Well first I make a folder with a fake name, or if I am lucky a title. (lets stick to the one I just finished a month ago called Gone Rogue,) Cough…available on the kindle and at…cough. So I made a folder on my computer called The Rogue Agent, which was going to be title.

    Then for me I need the characters, this is the longest and hardest part for me, what do I want the characters to look like. For me this come from the internet, I thought to myself well I want (thats when I go oh…cr** I need a name). So I said okay Rob Wesley, which later was changed to Slade. I won’t go through the mind process of why the name was changed, but it is told in the story. I thought to myself what would make him different. What if he had a body mass size of linebacker. I looked up linebackers, then movie stars. and so on. After I have all the charactics I then put them together in photoshop. My orginal making of Slade had about 20 different parts to put together before I was satisfied.

    Then I do the same is the other main characters, like Zach Preston, and Phoenix. (Its get alot more complicated when they can transform from a dragon too a human.)

    Then I talk to my characters (you can call me crazy now!) I try and find their voice. It is hard sometimes to hear them over my own but I can’t start writing without theres. For me Slade was very loud, Phoenix was even louder, while Zach Preston just keeps telling my to shut up. (the new story I am working on now, my main female is like a mouse and is very hard to key on over the other minor characters which will be later on in the series main characters.)

    Then I hear about my character backgrounds, I know some writers can jot these things down, but if I try to do it my characters get pissed and shut down. For example I was shown the bond between Zach and Slade, the connection they have to another. I could see how if he returned one would think the other was crazy or himself crazy but yet not ignore him.

    Then I start writing, and the more I write the more my characters speak to me. The more a story they share with me. I write it all done, I don’t stop, I don’t care if my 90k turns to 200 k or if the 90k turns to 75k instead, I write until they tell me to stop. I figure I can cut scenes and things out that don’t move the story later. For instance Gone Rogue used to have a very sexual scene between them and the nymphs. (What nymphs you say…bahhahah read my story to find out.)

    So I don’t outline and I do think pictures help me get the story started. Each story though is different. Everytime I get a new story Idea though I don’t make a folder with notes about it so I can come back to it and learn more about the story. like again in Gone Rogue, I wanted to write a story of where he left then returned to destroy them by himself. Then I learned of his family, his lover, a fricken hidden kingdom that supported him and had to write the story including them and being in that place.

    The trick for me now that I’ve had learn is to not rush myself, take a breathe and let them tell me the story. In my current manuscript called so far “The Mountain’s Cove,” I have women and half demons that have completely different lifes and different difficulties that I need to blend together. I can see the story, I see the problem that it would cause the world well if demons escaped from hell. I see how this tought tall warrior of man, with scars intrigues my female. I see how he wants to tell her things but with suffering wounds that took his voice how he gets angered. His flashbacks where he saw comrades die just because they were mixed blood anger him. How will he survive by himself if he can’t stop the flashbacks.

    As you can see I ask myself all these questions, questions that will make the story. I look at my characters from all the angles and I write until the story is told.

    I hope this explains my writing techinque more than just my rambling thoughts.

  2. Renee-Ann
     · August 27th, 2012 at 6:19 pm · Link

    Great blog… and gotta love them duck-billed platypuses, which by the way, is right, or you can say platypi. You piqued my curiosity and I had to look it up. :smile:

    Now, I’d like to ask: What about discovery writers who write stories without an outline? Those who just let their fingers do the walking while their minds dictates what to write? I’m not saying it’s perfect once the ‘idea’ is out there, it needs editing, revising and so on but there are writers out there who do that, right?

    I’d love to get your feedback on this, or anyone else’s who’s a discovery writer.


  3. Carrie V.
     · August 27th, 2012 at 6:56 pm · Link

    Thanks for sharing all this. There’s no wrong answer, every writer is different.

  4. Carrie V.
     · August 27th, 2012 at 6:57 pm · Link

    I’m a half discovery, half plotting writer. I would love to hear from someone who’s all discovery. I’ve learned through experience I need some kind of roadmap or I’ll just stall out. I may not know how I’m going to get there, but I need to know where I’m going.

  5. Renee-Ann
     · August 27th, 2012 at 7:20 pm · Link

    Actually, I’m ALL discovery, that’s why I asked.

    I’ve never encountered anyone who said they don’t plot and it makes me feel like the ‘odd ball’ sometimes, like I’m not doing it right.

    I wrote my first novel for NaNoWriMo, and had over 50K words in 30 days. It wasn’t fit to publish but it was all written. It’s in revisions stages now and can’t wait to have it published. But to be honest, I wouldn’t know what to do if I were to sit down and write an outline.

    Thanks Carrie. I don’t feel so bad all of a sudden! :)

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