Writing Corner | Some tips on the outlining process

Today, we have a bit of a feature from a recent request I got: to share a bit on my outlining process. Below is the original recording of the snippet I sent to my friend Morgan Wylie, who runs the Lotus Bloom podcast.


Below is a transcription with mild editing to make it a bit cleaner. (It was very strange to read a document that showed me how differently I speak from the way I write…)

Hey, Boyce here.

Morgan Wylie asked me to sit down and talk to you a bit about outlines.

Now, outlining is something that I am neurotically passionate about and I could probably talk to you about it for an hour or three. But I’m really going to try to condense my insights, my thoughts, my advice on outlines into a couple minutes.

So, here we go. Hang in there with me. Let’s make this work.

Architects vs. Gardeners

My style is to outline in-depth. The running joke with my friends and family is that my outlines are novellas and you can read my outline and know the entirety of the book from start to finish. And while some people may think of that as neurotic or controlling or whatever, it’s actually very common for authors who are deep into the development of their stories, who are architects when it comes to their story design rather than gardeners.

And both ways are completely valid.

An architect really builds the world, the plot, everything very strategically. A gardener plants ideas, plant seeds that bloom over time.

Both methods are completely fine. Both methods work really well. It’s all about finding your style.

Now I’m an architect, and my detailed outlines help me write ridiculously quickly. I can do 10,000 plus words in a day and it’s just natural for me and that’s because I put so much work into these outlines. So, I might spend a couple weeks on an outline — I think my most in-depth outline was a month — but that was when I was first getting started and didn’t really know what I was doing. So, I was kind of learning as I went. But now I can in a couple weeks have a really thorough outline, not just for one book but for the series, and that really helps me to write so quickly.

So, this may not work for you. I’m just going to share kind of the highlights of what I do.

Boyce’s Style

Now, I write a chapter by chapter outline.

I do not go in and write a page per chapter. I think that’s a little much and that kind of zaps the fun out of creating it in your first draft.

However, I do like to have bullet points for the movement that’s going to happen in terms of what people are actually doing, characters featured, who the point of view is if I have a third-person, scene breaks, any important dialogue that I know off the top of my head I want to include, growth in terms of character or relationship development, friendships not just like romance and stuff and relationships with the antagonists too. Just any kind of growth that happens is really important to take note of.

And the beauty of an outline is it only has to make sense to you.

So, you can write a ton of notes to yourself that if someone else reads it, they’re like what the hell is this. It’s all about what makes sense to you because you’re the one writing it. You’re the one it has to really click for.

Keep in mind that as I go forward and I develop chapter-by-chapter outlines, you can pick from this whatever works for you.

4-Part Story Structure

What I use is four-part story structure.

Now there are a lot of different styles of story structure. You have three-part, the three act structure you typically see in movies. You have four-part structure which is actually very, very common in books. There’s seven-part structure.

There’s a lot of different structures you can use to build your story. Pick the one you like.

As I said, I like four-part structure, so that’s the one I’m going to talk about.

Four-part story structure has four boxes (which is why it’s called a four-part story structure).

In each of these boxes, your main character, your hero, shows up in a different way. They evolve and grow through each box, becoming a better human and a more heroic hero.

I won’t go too deep into the weeds here because this is where we could talk for days about the details, but I will say that in between each of these boxes, there is a plot point which is a moment where something happens basically is what a plot point is.

A plot point that pivots the entire story and that is the whole essence of a shift from one box to another is that plot point.

Now in four-part story structure, obviously you have three plot points because you have plot point one between boxes one and two, you have the midpoint between boxes two and three, and you have plot point two between boxes three and four.

(To be honest, I’m not sure why they’re named that way. That’s just what I learned so I’m going with it.)

So, when you have those four boxes and those three plot points, that creates the essential structure to building a really in-depth story.

The beautiful part of this is you can apply this to pretty much any genre.

Keep in mind that I do qualify that with pretty much. Obviously there’s nuance, but you can probably use this to your advantage.

I want to talk to you just briefly about what each plot point is because the plot points are probably one of the most important parts of your story.

So, plot point one is the quest. This is where the official I guess drive of the main character. What they’re trying to accomplish within this book happens at plot point one. That’s where the quest is established.

In the midpoint, there’s a realization where everything changes and that’s the whole point with every plot point. Everything changes. In the midpoint, there’s a realization typically. They learn information that continues on the quest, evolves it and gives them one more major thing to do.

And then plot point two is where they actually do that final thing, all of the information comes together, and now they understand what they need to do to go into box four, reach the climax, and build to resolution. So, basically, there’s that one final obstacle before the final resolution there.

That is like four-part story structure on fast-forward. So, if you need to listen to that a couple times, that’s totally okay and I highly, highly, highly recommend you study four-part story structure in depth. It will revolutionize your stories, I promise. Or three-part story structure if that’s your thing or whatever but study story structure and understand it intrinsically because when you do, the design of your stories will forever alter.

An important note for pantsers…

And here’s the beautiful thing, if you’re a gardener, if you are a pantser, and you think outlines are stupid—which whatever, totally your right to not like it—but if you have plot points even as a pantser, then you are giving yourself even a little bit of limited structure that can make your story so much easier to write. You will spend less time staring at a blank screen. You will spend less time deleting stuff you wrote because it ends up not working. And even just having those plot points in place will guide your movement so much easier. If you give it a try for one book, I think you’re going to love it.

Arcs within your story

When you look at your story structure, that’s all built around a primary arc through the story: your quest, your hero achieving their quest.

What I recommend you do is weave the actual action of the plot in with the main character’s growth so that at every plot point, your main character is growing emotionally, fighting their demons, learning new skills and evolving. And if you tie those together and have a thematic arc through the story that mirrors both the plot itself and your main character’s evolution, it’s going to feel so much more emotionally rewarding at the end of it because you can see the hero using their skills, using their new emotional growth, using all of that to achieve the final climax and it all feels very fluid. It all feels very natural and it will be more emotionally rewarding in the end.

(Sorry, I got distracted because the phrase achieve climax really made my brain go into the gutter and it was very hard for me to stay focused on that sentence. I’m a child. Okay. Moving on….)

The Notecard Method

The last piece of advice I’d like to give you is the Notecard Method.

I learned this from a friend of mine, Patty Larsen, and I’ve evolved it a little bit over time but the essence of it is still very true to what she taught me all those years ago.

The notecard method is this:

  1. You buy a bunch of notecards and you get a sharpie.
  2. You get in a comfortable spot and you just start writing down every conflict you can think of in this world that you’re designing and every conflict is its own note card and you just write them on. Just brain dump. Get them all out.
  3. When you’re done, you’ll have this large, large stack of conflicts. Now that may sound chaotic but that brain dump is crucial for the next step.
  4. Once you have all those cards, on four new cards write: box one, box two, box three, box four.
  5. Look at your pile, set them out, and then just start divvying up the cards. Say okay, well, based on where the hero is at the start of the book, this could only happen in box two. This is probably box three. This is probably box four. These four, five, six, okay, seven cards are probably all box one. And as you go through and you organize them, suddenly the chaos doesn’t feel so chaotic. As you go through, you suddenly start to have oh, this is looking like a semblance of a story now. Okay.
  6. Done? Good. Now start with box one and you just start putting them in order.
  7. And then you do the same for box two. Just put them in order.
  8. Same for box three.
  9. Same for box four.
  10. And then you can go through and be like okay, these three cards, that’s chapter one. These two cards, chapter two. These three, chapter three. These two, chapter four. And by doing that, you can actually start to see the story coming together.

It is a fascinating really exciting experience to do this because in a couple of hours, you can go from no clue of what your story is going to be to cohesive chapter-by-chapter breakdown of your story.

For me, it was revolutionary. You may not like it but I have not stopped using that since it happened or since I was first taught that method. I have used it for every book I’ve done since.

One caveat that I would recommend is that you actually devise your plot points before you sit down and do this.

So, if you have your plot points already thought out, you already know what the central movement of your story is going to be, you can write those plot points on individual cards and set them like in between the box one, box two, box three, box four cards. And so, that kind of helps you frame all the movement a bit easier and that was something that I was tweaking with and played with and added to Patty’s method. And by doing that, at the end of that couple hour session if it even takes you that long, you will have a cohesive at least a bullet point by bullet point look at what your outline’s going to be, what your book’s going to be about and what’s going to happen.

The last step that I take from there is actually I open a Word document and I go okay, chapter 1 and I look at my notes, I look at my cards for that chapter. I write them down and then I just elaborate. I’m like okay, well, I want to add this movement, I want to add this, I want to add this and this and this, evolve this, elaborate on this little bit. This is what I want the fight scene to kind of feel like.

And by doing that, each chapter will take me about 10 to 20 minutes to elaborate upon. Within a day or two, I have a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline and the rest of it is going through, making sure there’s no plot holes, elaborating the world, building my world book if I need to do that.

Of course, sometimes there will be cards in your stack that you end up not using and you can set those aside for future books. So, I have a drawer right now with index cards for the next five books in the series that I’m currently working on. And I’m just setting those aside so that when I’m ready, I can dive in and elaborate upon what I have there but at the same time, foreshadow in a book one things that won’t happen until books three or four or five.

And so, doing this allows you to build more fluid foreshadowing, it allows you to build really in-depth stories with complex plots and an evolved experience. So, I hope that helps and I’m always down to answer questions. So, if you want to pop any questions over to me, I’m happy to oblige.

Have a great day.