how to use your outline header

How to Use Your Outline When Writing Your First Draft

HOW TO USE YOUR OUTLINEOutlining your novel is one thing. But then, whether you prefer to outline with minimalism, maximalism, or hindsight (aka, in revisions), a surprisingly easy stumbling block can be that of figuring out how to use your outline in the first draft.

Recently, I received an email from Matt Powers, which made me realize that, out of all the dozens of posts I’ve written about outlining, I’ve never actually talked about how to use your outline when writing the first draft. Matt wrote:

I’ve read several of your writing books, as well as too many blog posts to count, and I don’t think I’ve seen this addressed. Forgive me if I missed it.

I have an extensive outline that I’m quite pleased with, and I’m about 40,000+ words into my first draft, but here’s the thing: I’m struggling with the actual writing and I can’t seem to get into the flow because I keep going back and forth between the draft and the outline. I have so much in my outline that I want to be sure to include, that I find I can only get a few sentences in before I’m pulled back to referencing the outline.

It’s like I have one eye on each, and it equals a slog of an experience!

I see tons of advice on how to create an outline, but very little on the practicality of actually using it. So I guess my question is, how do you utilize your outline when writing that first draft? How often are you referencing your outline as you write?

The How and Why of Outlining a Novel

For a long time, the writing world differentiated between writers who were “plotters” (those who planned/plotted a story before writing it) and writers who were “pantsers” (those who “write by the seat of their pants” with no upfront planning). However, over my years of outlining many books, writing many words about outlines, and learning about how other writers work, I’ve come to believe these distinctions are far too narrow.

At some point in the process, almost all writers end up outlining/plotting/planning. And at other points, we all end up pantsing/winging it/being spontaneously creative. In a craft as complex as that of novel-writing, both are equally important. How much outlining an author does upfront versus how much revision that same author does on the back end will vary greatly depending on each author’s personal mental wiring and creative preferences.

That said, let me now express a little of my personal passion for maximalist outlining. I write extensive outlines, which start out with largely incoherent stream-of-conscious ramblings and questioning, before eventually solidifying into detailed scene outlines that contain just about everything a first draft should except for narrative prose.

For example, here’s a snippet of the scene outline from my gaslamp fantasy Wayfarer (from the scene in which he “contracts” his super-speed):

Will flees for home. The trip is a blur. He’s nauseated, vomiting, and horribly dizzy, heart beating out of control, short of breath. I think that the powers should manifest just a little bit: his hands moving quicker than he’s used to, so he has trouble with the door latch. But he chalks it up to his illness.

And here’s approximately the same snippet from the corresponding scene in the first draft:

Through the weed-eaten garden, Will ran. Up and over first one stile, across the road, then the other stile. The night air cut through the sweat on his face. Even as he ran, his teeth rattled cruelly.

For the first time since he was a lad running this field at night, he caught his toe and fell on his face. Before he hit the soft soil, his stomach erupted. He vomited, and then he vomited again. The stars in the sky spun and spun, in every direction, up and down, in front and behind.

On hands and knees, he dragged himself forward, barely gaining his feet.

This time, there was no running; indeed, he could scarcely walk. He splashed into the knee-high stream before its gentle splashing even registered in his ears. He crossed without looking for the bridge. He would have been unable to see it in any case.

He staggered up to the house. His vision had gone completely dark, so maybe there was no light in the window.

>>Click here to read the complete transcript of my outline for my dieselpunk adventure Storming.

My goal in writing any outline is to, first, pour out all of my “dreams” about a given story. I want to number all the shiny pieces my subconscious creativity has given me.

Then, by the time I’m done with the outline, I want to have moved as thoroughly as possible through the first analytical pass. I use my scene outlines to work through a story’s logical progression. I want to figure out as many of the details as possible, everything from what props are available in a particular scene’s setting, to the specific action/reaction sequence of each scene’s structure, to the motivations of all on-stage minor characters.

In other words, I try to use my outline to answer every single question I can think of before I start writing the first draft. I do this for two intertwined reasons.

1. I want to write a clean first draft (because revisions:blech).

2. When writing my first draft, I want to turn away from my logical brain and immerse myself utterly in the imaginative dreamzone space of my story.

I can’t do the latter if my logical brain is always turning into Hermione-raising-her-hand-every-five-minutes. And I certainly can’t do both simultaneously if I haven’t already checked off the bulk of any story’s necessary causal analysis and troubleshooting.

This is why I outline. But how do I then take all these tens of thousands of words from my outline and seamlessly integrate them into the creative zone of my first draft?

5 Tips for How to Use Your Outline

How you choose to reference your outlining notes during the first draft will depend largely on the format of the notes themselves.

Writers who prefer the minimalist approach may create outlines that feature only a single phrase for each suggested scene, or even just a phrase for each important structural beat. In this case, referencing the outline is a comparatively simple and intuitive activity, since you’ll probably only need to check your notes at the beginning of each writing session. (In fact, some of these writers end up filling in their outlines simultaneously with their first drafts, as a way of keeping track of what they’re writing, for easy continuity checks.)

But what if, like me, you end up with enough outline notes to form a respectable pile of notebooks?

Completed Novel Outline Wayfarer K.M. Weiland

Completed outline for my gaslamp fantasy Wayfarer

In the case of maximalist outliners, it becomes essential to create a system for accessing all those juicy notes you’ve labored over, without constantly pulling yourself out of first-draft flow.

(Needless to say, writers who prefer to wait until after the first draft is altogether finished to do their logical thinking will have few, if any, notes to start with. Depending on the extent of required revisions, these authors may end up, to all essential purposes, following either the minimalist or maximalist crowd.)

Here are my top tips for organizing and using your outline notes, however few or many they may be.

1. Organize the Notes as You Go

Here’s the thing about piles upon pile of rambling notes that circle around randomly: they get to be a mess quick. This is especially true if you outline longhand like I do (if you’re interested in following my outlining process in a tidy digital approach, check out my Outlining Your Novel Workbook software).

The trick is to organize your outline notes as you’re writing them. Use color-coded highlighting systems to file your ideas for easy reference later. If you’re writing longhand, transcribe regularly (especially if, like moi, you can’t read your own writing after too much time passes). This will save you a ton of work in the interim between outline and first draft. You can thank me later.

Scene Outline Dreambreaker Highlights

2. Buy Scrivener

You can, of course, write and use even the most complex of outlines without Scrivener. But this powerhouse word processor for writers just makes everything so much easier. With its opportunities for folders and files and sub-files, among many other organizational gadgets, its a huge step up from juggling your story’s outline and first draft between separate Word files.

By the time I’m ready to write my first draft, I will have used Scrivener to organize my outline notes scene by scene, along with many sub-folders for reference material that includes everything from research notes to costume pictures to character interviews to the random bits of story info I call “orange notes” (because of the highlighter I use to color-code them).

Writing_Process_Scrivener_Character_Sketches_Interviews

This way, if I find myself needing to break concentration to check something, I don’t have to go far. With everything at my fingertips, I can quickly check myself, then jump back into writing.

3. Block Out a Beat-by-Beat “Storyboard” for Each Scene, But…

Now that we have our outline notes set up and optimally organized within Scrivener, what’s the best approach to referencing the notes without bumping out of the writing zone every five minutes?

Each time I begin writing a new scene, I review my notes and create a sequential list of everything that needs to happen in the scene. The list I used for the scene from Wayfarer, in the original section of this post, started out something like this:

  • Will is dizzy as he runs home across the field.
  • He trips and vomits.
  • He tries to get into the house, but his reflexes are too fast.

In essence, I’m creating a non-visual storyboard, with each beat blocked out.

4. …Don’t Do It Until the Last Minute

You’ll note I do this storyboarding whenever I’m ready to start writing a new scene. Feasibly, you could go ahead and write up the complete beat list for every scene before you start the first draft. This is an approach I consider with every book I write—and one I always reject.

Why?

Because my memory is faulty. I write best when I know what I’m writing. If I have to take a little time at the beginning of every scene to think my way through my scene outline, then I know my head will be in the right place. If I merely scanned a beat list I might have written months ago, I would inevitably miss some important moment on the list and end up constructing the scene inappropriately.

Writing up each scene’s beat-by-beat sequence refreshes my memory and lets me take full advantage of all the notes and ideas I labored over when in the outlining phase.

5. Paste Your Beat List Directly Into Your Scene Doc

Once I’ve knocked out my beat list, I put it in the main body of my scene’s Scrivener file. I position it on the screen so the first item of the list is just above the bottom of the screen, directly in my line of sight. This way, I can easily glance down and reference the beat I’m working on.

Wayfarer Chapter Five Outline in Process

As soon as I finish the beat, I’ll delete it, which raises the subsequent beat into view. Sometimes, of course, I won’t need to reference every beat. I may write several beats before needing to look down and check my progress.

This approach allows me to focus on bringing to life the first draft’s causes and effects without having to constantly click out of full-screen mode to make sure I’m adhering to the logical progression I already worked out.

***

Is this the most elegant approach to dealing with maximalist outline notes? Maybe not. It does require a little extra work before each scene. But over my years of outlining and writing almost a dozen novels, this is the method I’ve found most useful. It helps me make full use of my outlines and, as a result, allows me to write relatively clean first drafts from a place of uninterrupted creativity. As far as I’m concerned, that’s win-win!

How you outline, how much you outline, and how you use your outline when writing your first draft are all deeply personal parts of the writing process. Only you can figure out the nuances that will position you to write your best novel. But these tips may help you decide your own personalized tricks.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you outline upfront? Has it been a challenge for you to figure out how to use your outline when writing the first draft? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Again, this is so timely! I started my first draft a couple of weeks ago, and this is really helpful/

    I organised my notes in OneNote, because I already had it on my computer and phone. I use a scene outline and an extended summary of my story to write my first draft.

    I am a recovering perfectionist who never before finished a first draft because it was never good enough. This time, my goal is to finish that first draft, no matter what. So I decided to write it with a nice fountain pen in a notebook. So far, it works. I keep writing, and I make notes in a seperate notebook. like ‘page x: more foreshadowing’ or ‘page y needs more description’.

    In the beginning, I literally told my inner critic: yes, you are totally right, this is far from perfect. I hear you, but right now I have to finish this thing and once I finished it, it is your turn. In the meantime, I make notes of what you say.’.

    Writing is hard sometimes (because of said perfectionism), but it is also a lot of fun right now. Thanks to your books and this website 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “In the beginning, I literally told my inner critic: yes, you are totally right, this is far from perfect. I hear you, but right now I have to finish this thing and once I finished it, it is your turn. In the meantime, I make notes of what you say.’”

      I totally believe in this. The inner critic isn’t necessarily an enemy. Often, as long as its not coming from a place of shame, it’s very helpful in its ability to spot problems.

  2. Katie, you may have just changed my life. (Again)

    I love love love the writing-with-the-beats-on-the-page trick. Easy way to keep headed in the right direction while not getting bogged down with too many notes. Reminds me of using daily affirmations and goals, but just, you know, for writing instead of life.

    As always, thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Plus, it’s very satisfying to watch the beat list slowly diminish as you delete the ones you’ve finished!

  3. Very helpful post, K.M.!
    A couple questions for you: first, why don’t you just transcribe all of your notes digitally from the get-go… Is it because you’ve trained your brain creatively over time to “spew” it all down on paper first? Second, in Scrivener, do you create a master scene doc that acts as your whole story, or do you create individual scene docs and then combine them at the end into one whole piece which eventually becomes your novel?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There’s just something about writing longhand that I really enjoy for the raw creative stages of outlining. I think it’s partly that my writing is so sloppy–in comparison to the cleanness of typed text–that it gives me more freedom from perfectionism at this stage.

      I create individual files for each scene, both because this makes it easy to access everything when writing and also because I would have to do that eventually anyway when formatting the e-book.

      • Sure, I can dig that. The process is so interesting to hear since we all arrive at it differently. I think my own anal retentiveness prevents me from writing on paper (scribbles out misspelled word then rips up paper because it’s too “messy” ;-D)
        Ah, okay makes sense. How do you manage labeling the scenes though, and what if you add a scene to the mix that wasn’t originally in the plan as you go along?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          By the time I get to the first draft, I rarely add new scenes. I did add one to my last WIP though. I did a little sketching to figure out what needed to happen, then just stuck in a new Scrivener file. When adding or rearranging scenes in my notebook, I use 3×5 cards in a WriteMind Planner to indicate new scenes. The pages pop in and out, so are easy to rearrange.

  4. Gary Myers says:

    Another great post!

    I stumbled around, and arrived at the same basic process, especially in regards to the beat sheet for each scene. I don’t do detailed MRU, but do note each actor’s emotional responses. In addition, I record three things before starting to actually write the scene. First, I make myself explain how the scene moves the plot forward. Second, I note how the theme will be evident. Finally, I list any foreshadowing that needs to be included to set up future scenes.

    I feel it works well, though it’s surprising how often I deviate from the plan. When the first draft of the scene is done, I go back to a copy of the original beat sheet and resolve any deviations.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      All of this is great–and very important. I tend to do most of this “checklist” stuff earlier in the outlining process, so it isn’t as obvious by the time I get to the beat list–but hopefully it’s all still there!

  5. Nancy S. Thompson says:

    I’m definitely a plotter and usually write extensive outlines. I’d go as far as to say the outline was really a first, handwritten draft, sans setting and dialog. It worked well on my first 2 novels (romantic thrillers). The outline for my 3rd book wasn’t as complete, but it didn’t seem to hurt my process, so, for my 4th manuscript, I chose to outline only minimally, and it’s pretty much stopped me in my tracks.

    There’s enough to follow along, but not enough just to sit there and expand as I type my real first draft. Strangely enough, I find it harder to write now that I’ve read countless books on craft, predominantly yours and James Scott Bell’s. Sometimes I think my gut works far better than my brain. Book #5 will definitely be well and fully plotted. That’s if I ever finish #4.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There are fleeting moments when I think, “Ah, I’ve totally got this writing thing down now. I don’t need to outline anymore.” Fortunately, my good sense takes over before I get too far. :p

  6. To me, an outline is like a sketch, and the first draft is the first layer of paint over the sketch. My outlines are left “sketchy” so I put them directly into the draft and build upwards.

    I know a lot of writers write lots of material then cut back, but my revisions tend to be a building process, adding rather then subtracting.

    I hate the idea of bringing darlings into the world only to kill them. It happens, sometimes, when I give too much character backstory.

    It is interesting to think of getting lost in an outline because I write outlines to compartmentalize and avoid getting lost in the draft. I like the idea of a beat list, if the outline is too complex, but I think my outlines are not much more elaborate than a beat list. If my outline were going to be so complex as to require breaking into a beat list, though, I would likely need a beat list to create the outline.

    I’m a special case, with a very limited memory. I have to break things into small parts to handle them. Unlike an actual canvas and painting, in writing, it’s harder to look back at what is done without having a big brain to store all the information in memory.

    I need the sketch of the whole thing laid out, and the piece of the sketch I’m working on right in front of my face to keep on track. It’s interesting to see how others approach the problem, though.

  7. JOHN CRYAR says:

    Love your ideas and your blog. However, being old school, I like to stay in close touch with my work. I use Word. That’s all. I’m sure many other tools mentioned are useful. It was no problem for me to use your advice in this post with my 3″ x 5″ cards, color markers, and Word.

  8. Thanks another helpful post from you. Can you clarify exactly what you mean by a beat. Apologies if it has been covered in a previous post

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      A beat is a moment in a story. It’s something that happens on a small level. For instance, each of the following are micro-beats:

      *A cowboy walks into a saloon.
      *Orders a beer.
      *Notices a stranger watching him.
      *Tells stranger to mind his own business.

  9. Thank you Matt Powers for asking this questions! And, thank you K.M. Weiland for addressing it! This post came at a great time for me as well.

    After working through the process-outlining, structuring, and character arcs (even using your Scrivener Tutorial which is great)-I still struggled with what to write. I craved more. I think the beats idea will help.

    The issue I’m also having is I seem to be writing what I’ve heard called “White room syndrome.” I don’t seem to be able to write very much emotion either. I’m telling myself it’s okay. Maybe it’s just the way my brain is wired (as an INFJ maybe). I can go back and add description and emotion, like in layers, during the second draft. If I do it now, I spend the good part of a week on one chapter and still come up short with word count and emotion.

    So, for now, I feel I just need to get the story down. Plus, I’m new to writing and maybe I’ll get better with experience. Thanks again.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Both avoiding white-room syndrome and adding emotional details were things I had to learn consciously as well.

  10. I think about my stories for so long before I start my first draft (months) that I would just jump right in. I’d have a pile of handwritten notes on scrap paper where I’d jot down ideas, good plot points I thought up while doing something unrelated to writing, or books I found and wanted to read for research. They were disorganized and I’d just read through them before I started writing or pick them apart when I wasn’t sure where to go next.

    I wrote down the major structural moments (once I found them on the scrap paper notes) but never did a scene outline because I’d thought about the book so many times by the time I started writing I thought I’ve got this. But daydreaming is extremely different from writing. I found that I would get stuck when I reached a point in the story I hadn’t thought about or a point where I couldn’t bridge the gap between two scenes and that led to discouragement. So after a while, I thought maybe if I had a roadmap to this story I wouldn’t get stuck in a ditch because I would have spotted that ditch a mile back.
    So I read your outlining series, I took notes on your outlining series, and I reread your outlining series. I found it extremely helpful! So I sat down with my manuscript and wrote a scene outline and when I reached a scene I had skipped I brainstormed what should happen next and wouldn’t move on until I had something. But going back to create a scene outline for a story you’ve already written wasn’t as easy as it sounds. It was better to have it than to not, but I’ll never do that to myself again.

    I’m starting a new novel idea and I’ve been trying to fill the plotholes upfront by asking questions but I’m not sure if I’m asking the right questions. I’m kinda wandering about my story world like where do I start. I try to follow any question that arises down the rabbit hole, but I’m worried I’m not seeing all the questions I should be asking myself about the story. I’m trying to get past what’s on the surface, do you have any pointers or tips about specific questions we could ask ourselves to explore our story more deeply in the early stages? Because I discovered when I have found the right question the answer normally fits nicely into a slot I’d yet to fill.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The big questions to ask are always those that that have to do with the main structural beats, what connects them, and how your character arc and theme are emerging and tying together with the plot. I have a list of questions at the end of the posts in my series on story structure and character arcs. They might be a helpful place to start. And, of course, I also have workbooks for both structuring and character arcs.

      • Nicole G says:

        Main structural beats. For example, how did the characters first find themselves engaged in the story at the inciting event? What are all the choices the protagonist could make at the third plot point and how can I “cut the loose threads” so the choice I write isn’t second-guessed by readers wondering why the protagonist didn’t do this instead?
        So simple but I could not see through the forest until you said that. I swear you’re a writing Merlin Katie
        Thank you.

        I have both of your workbooks, I’ll dive into structuring your novel this weekend. But creating character arcs is my favorite because once I’ve outlined the character arcs I magically have my story structured as well. But since I haven’t settled on names or started character interviews I’ll stick with the structuring workbook.

Trackbacks

  1. […] the first draft of your novel? K. M. Weiland tells us how to use your outline when writing your first draft, and Becca Puglisi takes a look at first pages and character […]

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