Before You Outline: How To Discover Your Story’s Big Moments

Before You Outline: How to Discover Your Story’s Big Moments

Before You Outline: How To Discover Your Story’s Big MomentsToo often, writers maintain a limiting viewpoint of outlines as “a list of scenes.” But outlining can (and should) be so much more. For starters, there’s all that good stuff in the outline before you outline.

Before you ever get to the scene list, there are a gabillion important questions for you to ask about your story. So, so many awesome things to explore. After all how can you know what scenes you want to include in your story if you don’t first know the answers to questions of plot, theme, and character?

This is why I never start my outlining process with a scene list. In fact, the scene list is the very last thing on my outlining to-do list. Instead, one of the very first things I do when I sit down to start brainstorming a new story is figure out all its big moments.

The Spine of Your Story: Finding Your Story’s Big Moments

Whether you prefer to start out with by outlining or just jumping straight into your first draft, you will undoubtedly begin with some knowledge of the story. You might know everything about it—how it begins and how it ends. Or you may know only one or two interesting things that have piqued your curiosity. Or, like me, you may be somewhere in between.

I’m never quite ready to start physically writing a story until that story has had a little time to gel in my imagination. By that point, I will have a general sense of the story and a handful of scenes, in the form of visual clues. I may not know how it will end, and I will probably have ideas for only two or three of the main structural moments.

But right now, that’s all you need to know.

These known elements are what I call your story’s Big Moments, and they’re the foundation upon which you’ll build the entirety of your story.

How to Use Your Story’s Big Moments

Outlining Your Novel Workbook computer program logoThe first thing to do is mine your conscious imagination. Sit down with a pad of paper and start making a list of every thought you’ve ever had about this story. (This is what the Big Moments feature in our just-released Outlining Your Novel Workbook computer program is for.)

This might include a handful of characters—some of them with names and faces, others who are just shadowy catalysts in the background. You might have a handful of fully fleshed-out scenes; some may even include dialogue conversations. Others may be only snapshots: a vivid image of your characters doing something exciting or intriguing (a kiss, a battle, a scream).

At this point, it doesn’t matter how complete any of the ideas are. What’s important is getting them out of your head and onto the page. The reason for this is twofold:

1. It allows you to consciously assess your story’s big picture (such as it is) thus far.

2. It cleans out your head, allowing room for more pertinent ideas.

Use Your Story’s Big Moments as a Springboard to Find More Big Ideas

At this point, what you’ll find in front of you on the page is probably a pretty random and comparatively sparse list. It’s certainly not likely to be a whole story. But it’s a start: it’s the backbone of the story to come.

By viewing what’s there on page, you also get the opportunity to clearly see what isn’t there. And that’s where the fun kicks up a notch.

This is where you get to start connecting the dots, filling in the blanks, and fixing potential plot holes. In order to bridge the gap between two great, but so far unrelated, ideas, you start brainstorming causal possibilities and—most fun of all—complications.

If this happens now and that happens later, what’s is the most interesting way to take the characters from Point A to Point B? What if this happened? What if that happened? What if…?

And you’re off! From this point on, every moment in your process will use the initial foundation of your story’s Big Moments as the jumping off point for bigger ideas. But it all starts here—with a conscious iteration of the possibilities. And the possibilities are indeed vast, so have fun with them!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Which of your story’s big moments did you know about before you started writing? 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.


  1. directornoah says

    Hi K.M
    I totally agree with everything you’ve said on this post. The scene list is the very final phase in my outlining plan, as there’s far more important stuff that needs to be done beforehand, like character interviews for example. The scene list should be like adding the final layer to seal and solidify the foundation you’ve carefully constructed.

    When you first dream up a story idea, your mind goes into overload, just imagining all the endless possibilites. In fact, I would almost say it’s as exciting as writing that first draft, at least for me anyway.
    For the novel I’m currently working on, (which is well into the outlining stage at present), it was exactly as you described. It started with some random ideas, like coming up with several strong scenes, bits of dialouge, a couple of characters, and the general concept of the story. But before doing any solid writing down of stuff, I developed it more clearly in my head first, fleshing out the plot, adding new ideas, etc. When I am certain it’s a good enough story for a novel, and I know it’s something that’s worth the time and effort, and providing it’s still holds my enthusiasm after a few weeks, I’m ready to dive in and start making notes.
    It’s one of the most exciting parts of writing, exploring the world you’ve just imagined.

    P.S, keep up the good work with your fantastic posts K.M, looking forward to the next one! ?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Oh, yes, I totally agree! The “conception” stage is always my favorite. The story is a bundle of perfect possibilities at that point. 🙂

      • In my theocratic space opera story…the struggling single father relationship with the theocracy is that he was a soldier for that theocracy who had a secret affair with the daughter of the “sovereign”

        She became sovereign by killing her father and seeing the throne with the help of her brother who was a bastard son.

        Her brutal slaughter of her father’s supporters caused the single father to take the child and leave to the out skirts of the galaxy

        She wants her son back and when she gets her son back she slowly corrupts him under the guise of “doing what best for her child”

        In another version it is the uncle of the son who had his sister killed and brainwashes his nephew under the guise of doing what’s best for him

        In both cases the father must save his son before he loses him and his son becomes a monsterous t

      • Thoughts

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          It’s good. I like the mother angle better than the uncle, since it’s more personal.

  2. Yes! Excellent, thought-provoking article. My WIP needs more Big Moments. Otherwise it’s just a series of flat scenes with no life. Do you think these Big Moments should coincide with the main structural points of the story (inciting incident, 1st plot point, midpoint, climax, etc), or should there be other Big Moments sprinkled in between? Can there be too much of a good thing? Or do these Big Moments only contribute positively to a strong pace?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You definitely want your main plot points to be Big Moments–and you want them to be the *biggest* moments in the story. They should leap out in an obvious way that says: “This is important.” But, truly, every scene can be a comparatively big moment in its own way. If a scene isn’t “big”–in the sense that it’s full of good, plot-turning stuff–then I would always question if it actually needs to be in the story and/or can be juiced up.

  3. Having just submitted the manuscript for my new novel to my publisher, I’m currently in that lull where I’m thinking about a new story. All I have right now is a notebook and a pencil (I always use a pencil when I brainstorm).

    The first things I wrote last week is “The Sasquatch is missing!” and “Casey’s mentor will betray her”

    And I have absolutely no idea what any of that means. But I’m excited…I think.

  4. I’ve been outlining the next three books in my series, since they all follow a theme and are connected, and this post has helped me put some things into focus. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m currently writing the second book in what will be my first trilogy. Outlining it (the first book was intended as a standalone) was a totally new and fun challenge. The same, and yet different. 🙂

  5. I’m still dreaming of my story and characters. So far I’ve got three big moments. It’s a romance and I’ve got how they meet, a big moment with a dog, and the HEA.

    Thanks for sharing K.M.!

  6. K.M., this is helpful. I love your idea to get all of our thoughts on the page, even if they’re not in any order, to make room for new thoughts. I’ve been trying to corral them in my brain while I write the scenes. This gives me permission to let go. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yep! That first step of writing everything down is one of my favorites. It’s so much to see what I’ve actually got and then even more fun to see what interesting questions I get to explore from there.

  7. Oh, Katy, I’m so excited you included the video of how to apply this Big Moment information to your outlining software I purchased a couple of days ago! I’ve just begun brainstorming for a short holiday story–what’s that movie line? “Doncha love it when a plan comes together?” 😀

    Were you reading my mind???


  8. The first thing I had for my newest book was the world. I built the characters into it afterward.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Characters usually come first for me, but I can never move forward until I know the world. It’s the context for everything.

      • Joe Long says

        I’m kicking around ideas for a totally new story. As you said, conjuring up some big moments was up front.

        First I thought of a scenario – a dystopian vision of American life & politics in the 2020’s. That involves looking at what actually is happening today, on all sides, then conjecturing what might happen in the future assisted by looking at recent historical parallels in other countries.

        Once I had that world, I thought of what kind of characters might find conflict in out. How does that outside world intrude on someone’s family and the search for a normal life? That gave me a dad with a pair of kids in their late teens. As things in that outside world proceed, his kids are affected, and he’s drawn out of his normal world and then has to decide whether to choose a new path – sit back and watch or become an activist.

        With that premise and a draft ending I’m now thinking about the big moments in my protagonist’s story that gets everyone to that ending.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Very cool! New ideas are so fun to explore, especially when they offer significant new ground from previous stories.

          • Joe Long says

            Very significant new ground. The first was semi-autobiographical. I stuck with people and places I knew. With this I could still use the same settings but expand the stakes nationally.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Have a blast with it! 😀

  9. Great advice to come up with the “big moments” and then outline or write around it. If you’ve got a big emotional scene planned out in advance, this can also help with foreshadowing as you build everything up to it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      These are usually the best bits anyway. They’re *why* we start writing. It’s our job then to make sure we’re creating a story “big” enough to support them.

    • Joe Long says

      My WIP is nearing the 2/3 mark and I already have draft versions of several future big emotional scenes. If they decide to play out in my head in a version that I’m satisfied with, I write it down before I forget and clear out my mind for more.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        Maybe that’s why we all become writers in the first place: our poor little brains just can’t hold all our ideas at once. :p

        • Joe Long says

          It gets worse as you get older. I was about your age when I realized that some things that had previously been in my brain were no longer.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            I used to believe the only ideas worth keeping were those I could remember without writing down.

            Ha. :p

          • Joe Long says

            Couple days ago a visualized a new upcoming scene, one I hadn’t thought of before. MC finally gets a job, parents are asking him about it in small talk around the dinner table. Good back & forth. But I was at work and couldn’t jot it down. Slipped my mind for a couple days then it was “Crap – what did they say to each other?” It’s coming back to me.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            It’s in there somewhere. 😉

  10. I need to try this. I usually have a character (or several), a premise, a setting, and a few big points, and have trouble building up in between.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I like to think of it as “connecting the dots.” You start out with a few dots–the Big Moments–and then work to fill everything in between to discover the big picture.

  11. I always think that the “Big Moments” stage is the one where it’s hardest to rush, because sometimes it’s a very big struggle to figure out what should go between point A and B 😛 But when you finally do get that connecting piece, it’s always very exciting! Another great post KM!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I so agree. When you slow down and really give it the time it needs, it can be one of the most fun parts of the process.

  12. Nicole G says

    Before I started working on my story I knew one protagonist was going to betray the other protagonist along with the entire cast of characters. But before he does he starts to have second thoughts unsure of what he really wants and if this life of crime with his targets that comes with the love of a family and a romantic relationship is better than the life he had before. Your post has me wondering how I can springboard from big moment to big moment and of course, the only fun answer is complications!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, exactly! Complications and consequences are where stories really come to life. 🙂

  13. J.M Barlow says

    Big moments in my graphic novel.. Well therr are 8 volumes. So these momengs are relative. But the overall story has some very big moments.

    The very beginning. Ascending from one world to another. Learning the truth. A literal leap of faith. And the end. This graphic novel has gripping moments. I hope I can portray them as they are in my head.

  14. Awesome advice! Thanks. Outlining is always crazy hard for me because I’m trying to jot down detailed scenes. I probably should be doing something more like this to start – getting the important things down ahead of time and letting the inspiration flow from there. 🙂 I’m going to have to try this out on my current outline. Thanks again!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      My scene outlines end up being very detailed by the time I’m done. But I work my way up to that. The scene list, which explores the scenes blow-by-blow according the beats of scene structure, is the very last thing I do. Before I know enough to do what essentially amounts to creating the actual story arc, I first have to make lots of discoveries about how that story works.

  15. I’ve basically been doing this on my own before you even wrote this post. I guess that’s proof that great minds think a like. 🙂 It’s nice to see I’m not the only one who does this. Obviously there is no one right way to do outlining and writing, but I’m glad to see that someone who has written actual books available to read out there has done this too.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Just as in stories themselves, there are definite patterns in the way things work in real life: cause and effect. 🙂 We’re all unique individuals with unique writing processes, but at the end of the day we’re still adhering to Willa Cather’s “there are only two or three human stories–and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they never happened.” 😀

      • Michael Hesterberg says

        Hi KM,

        I have been reading your details about how you write, outline and stuff. I have written stories since Jr. High days. A couple I’ve even sent in to magazines thinking they might be published, but no!! But, I’ve entertained myself, and my early grade English teachers.

        I’m a little new to this idea of outlining! Sorta like writing my book, before writing my book!! I usually get a simple idea of how to start it, then just keep writing until it gets through. I don’t think about which way my character will head until I get him there! But, I am at a problem now. I have wrestled with my most recent attempt at a “novella” I’d written these 200 pages quickly. But then went back to alter some things. Pretty soon there were places that didn’t make sense or was a contradiction to other parts.

        So, NOW I understand the value of an outline. I would be willing to take advice on how to fix my problem, without re-writing the whole thing. I have even considered writing my changes with an idea of my protagonist just going through all the mistakes, but then near the end she rwealized that her story was one that she “dreamed”!! That might excuse my several mis-matches. What do you think?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Sometimes you can fix problems without rewriting the entire thing. Sometimes not. Either way, the approach to figuring out which is going to be the case is basically doing what I call a “revision outline,” which I talk about in this post: The 6 Best Ways to Rewrite Your Book.

  16. Hi! I love your blog and just bought your writing program. LOVE IT. My question is…how do you define the big moments versus plot points? Like more reveals/nail-biting scenarios? Also, the question “How does this moment make your protagonist uncomfortable?” this doesn’t always have to be “bad,” correct? But more like “how does it complicate plot?” Just seeking maybe another way to phrase it so my mind doesn’t go to the negative…

    Thank you! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Plot points are structural moments that fulfill very specific functions within the story (First Plot Point, Midpoint, etc.). Plot points *are* big moments, but big moments don’t necessarily have to be plot points. Big moments are just any fun and exciting scene that grabs your imagination and pulls you into the possibilities for the story.

      Complications, at their best, are always consequences. For example, perhaps your character will achieve a goal in the scene in question, but what complications/consequences result that fuel the conflict into the next scene and its corresponding goal?

  17. I use the Structural Skeleton feature on the OYN software to create the 9 main Plot Points as Big Moments on my scene list first, before I even enter one scene on the scenes list screen. That makes it easier for me to determine where each scene fits in the big picture.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Same here. Big Moments always come first scene, while the scene list is all but last for me.

  18. I really like this idea; it can be a struggle sometimes allowing myself to daydream before cracking the whip and getting to work.

    Have you ever started with a Big Moment only to remove it later for a better one? I’d love to hear how you replaced, reduced, and recycled some of your initial Big Moments. (And that goes for everyone, not just Katie)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Oh, yes, stories always end up much different from my initial conception. Here’s an example: One of my stories originated with a dream I had of a married couple hiding out on a boat in the 1920s. So obviously that was a *big* moment. But as the story developed, that scene became entirely extraneous to the point it didn’t work at all.

  19. I can’t find the “Big Moments” section of the software.

  20. Sorry, KM, I found it!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Great, Gary! Just for anyone else’s interest, you can find Big Moments under Premise > Pre-Outline Questions.

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