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A Crash Course in Outlining: The W.I.P. Workbook

A few weeks ago during a particularly nasty bout of (dare I say it?) writer’s block, I stepped back and spent some time analyzing my outline process. To be clear, I’m a natural “pantser,” but if you want to publish novels on any sort of regular basis, at some point, you’re just going to have to break down and work on your outlines. So, I did. And in so doing, I developed the skeleton for a W.I.P. Workbook.

Over the course of my writing journey, there’s been one thing that I’ve always searched for and never really been able to find: a drafting workbook. Of course, I know they’re out there, but it seems like the ones I come across are always full of explanations and prompts, when what I really needed is a fill-in-the-blank map to guide me through a rough plotting of my novel.

Don’t get me wrong, I know there’s no cure-all formula for any one author or story, but I would like to challenge that doctrine by suggesting: there is if you make it specifically for yourself. So, I set out on a slight detour to create a workbook which I could print for myself and use in the drafting process for future novels.

Naturally, it includes plenty of space for the big ideas, settings, characters, and world building, but for my writing style, the most valuable section is the 15-point chapter outline. This was an amazing plotting tool that I found after I had written my first novel (which coincidentally has 15 chapters that lined up almost perfectly with this method). Naturally, I realized it was well suited to my process and immediately, I stored it in my little resource bank.

So, without further ado, I’d like to share an overview of my favorite process for outlining my novels.

The 15-Point Chapter Outline

Chapter 1: Use the opening image to introduce your protagonist and paint a visual that sets the tone of the novel.

Chapter 2: State your theme or tease the “essential truth” of your story.

Chapter 3: Expand upon the world of your novel and start introducing your supporting characters. Also, start hinting at the changes to come.

Chapter 4: Surprise! If you haven’t already (I’m definitely guilty of doing this in chapter one) go ahead and flip your protagonist’s world on its head and kick off the main plot.

Chapter 5: Revel in the mounting tension and stakes as your protagonist tries to figure out where to go from here.

Chapter 6: Welcome to Act II. This is where your protagonist decides to take action and begin their strange new journey.

Chapter 7: Remember that theme we talked about back in chapter 2? Yeah, this is where you’ll want to bring it back into play. Usually, you can use a mentor, friend, or love interest to help get this ball rolling.

Chapter 8: This is the chapter in your book that you’ve probably been itching to write. It’s the scene where we run into the bad guys for the first time. Or maybe your lovers have their first big argument. Either way, this raises the stakes even higher.

Chapter 9: Congratulations! You’ve reached the turning point. Your protagonist has finally achieved a goal (10 points to Gryffindor)! But as with all things in life, don’t forget to throw in a little setback for spice.

Chapter 10: Uh-oh, thunderclouds on the horizon. Use this chapter to explore your protagonists fears as the bad guys close in.

Chapter 11: This is where disaster strikes. As writers, I think we all tend to be a little dark, so chances are, you’ve been mulling over this scene for a while. In this chapter, it should start to feel impossible for the protagonist to achieve their ultimate goal.

Chapter 12: Many people refer to this chapter as the “dark night of the soul.” This is the aftermath of the crisis, when the protagonist is totally crushed (mentally, physically, emotionally, or all three) and it seems like the world has finally fallen apart.

Chapter 13: But, the sun also rises. This is the perfect point for a forgotten subplot or side character to sweep back in and remind us that hope is not lost.

Chapter 14: Revitalized by hope (if you’re into that sort of thing), your protagonist tries again. (Or if your books are as depressing as mine, it’s less of a “hope” situation and more of a “do-or-die” scenario.)

Chapter 15: My personal favorite, use this final chapter to mirror chapter 1. Show readers exactly how the protagonist and the world have changed by placing old and new side-by-side. (Don’t forget, this doesn’t necessarily have to be a happy ending. Some change is disastrous. Just look at “Game of Thrones.”)

Now, I’d better get back to working on Book 2. After all, Roz and Grey won’t save themselves . . . or will they?

17 thoughts on “A Crash Course in Outlining: The W.I.P. Workbook”

  1. Love this! Outlining is one of my favorite parts of the writing process. Unfortunately, when I start writing the novel, a lot of the outlined ideas go out the window… My current WIP has about five different outlines. (I”m on the fourth draft and fifth outline… ugh)

    I love the 15 points you have. That’s a great place to start!

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    1. Oh, I definitely understand. I’ve had so many plot points fly out the window in the middle of WIPs. But if you’re on the fourth draft and fifth outline, it sounds like you’re pretty close to having the end in sight! Hang in there!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Good on you to craft this thing for yourself.

    I feel like a lot of writing is either “creating the tools/resources” we need, or adapting the tools/resources of others to our own purpose.
    I feel like I collect sets of archetypes, plot patterns, and different ways of dividing up a story’s structure (the 7 steps, the 21 steps, the 3 act, the 4 act, etc.)

    What I find really helpful is “aligning” one character archetype, plot pattern, or structure style with others. I find that “seeing/hearing” the same thing expressed in 3 or more very different ways really helps me to lock in on what the “real” meaning is.

    While reading your 15 chapter structure, I was able to see how it would align with the 4 Act structure (the one I most recently reviewed), and enjoyed the experience. Thank you for sharing.

    Your structure looks very solid, though I’d be tempted to add little notes like “this is the earliest/latest that the character might step out of their familiar space” and what not.

    That’s another reason I’m fond of comparing. I feel like some stories are stronger by “starting at the crossing of the first threshold” while others are not, and in some cases (for narrative reasons) two steps may “make more sense” combined as a single event (i.e. the false triumph and the “all is not right” that re-galvanizes the second act.).

    But yeah, definitely a solid outline structure. I’m glad it works well for you.

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    1. Thank you! And that is so true, fine-tuning our own resources is definitely half of the battle! Oh, I love your idea of aligning characters/plot patterns/etc. together. And your point about starting from the first threshold is excellent. I’ve definitely tweaked the structure for different projects (depending on how the story ends up developing) but it sure helps to have a starting point when it comes to plotting. Glad you enjoyed the read! šŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

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