How to Write That Story Without a Story Outline

For the past few months I have been in the process of “editing” my Nanowrimo novel from last November. Getting 50,000 words on paper or the screen, is a challenge in itself, getting it to make sense is another. Now I am completely happy that I participated, even if it does mean that it seems like I have more work now than I would have, had I taken more time with it. Before I did this, the longest story I had ever managed to get a beginning, middle and an end in were no more than 8,000 words.

Thanks to the open competition, more of a motivation based competition, I do actually have a “novel”. It might not make complete sense, has a bajillion notes on the side to add more or better descriptions, better terminology, more suspense, emotion and so on, but it is technically a finished first draft.

Before I just used Microsoft Word to write my stories. When I first learned about Nano, I visited the website, joined, and checked out various aspects of the sight. It was on that I found Scrivener. Huh. I hadn’t really thought that there may be specialty software out there that was actually affordable.

I don’t write in order. I can’t. I don’t think in order. Things come into my mind and I have to get them out before they are lost forever. I literally have dozens of notebooks everywhere with all types of notes and vague ideas for stories or portions of. Sometimes it is just one side of a dialog, and then I will build a scene around that. The point of that ramble is that I can now add a new chapter, scene, section, note, whatever, and get that information out before it vaporizes into air.

If you haven’t already checked it out, you should. There are so many more features that I haven’t listed here. But more about that later.

Okay, so now for the reason you are really reading this. What do you do if you really don’t have a clear idea of how your story is going to go? What if you try outlining but there are still a lot of holes?

I, open a new Scrivener, and save it using a word or short sentence so I will know what it is. Then I preload blank chapter sections (depending on whether I have an idea about how long I plan on it being), usually about 10, and for each one I start with two scenes. These I consider my starters. I can always add or delete anything I don’t need later.

With any information I have been able to already come up with, even if I don’t really like it, I will add it somewhere. If I had a character name pop in my head I will go the character section and add it along with any other information I might already know about him/her. Even vagueness such as: youngish 20-30, average looking or a crabby pants. Maybe a part of the dialog between this person and another came to me. Depending on what it is, I would probably decide where it might fall in the story. Say past the middle but not at the end, I might pick the 7 chapter section and add it to the notes.

When you are setting up your ideas and notes for this unknown, even yet to you, story, here are a few questions to ask yourself.

  1. What do you know or think you know about any characters?
  2. What do you know or think you know about the setting(s)?
  3. Do you know anything yet about the main problem/event/etc?
  4. Do you know where the story ends?
  5. Do you think it may take more than one book to complete?
  6. Are there any individual character problems/things they need to overcome that you have any ideas on yet?
  7. Do you know what genre the story will fall into?
  8. Is there any dialog or small events that are known to you yet?
  9. Do you know where the story begins?
  10. Anything else that you know about the people, place or things. This could also be societal, morals, religions, creatures, length of time, rules of the universe, laws and so on.

As of right now I am, as I said, “editing” the first novel, but I am already getting ideas for the second. (It’s a series.) This is exactly how this is going. Now you might be saying, but you already have settings and characters from the first you can carry over.

Not really. That is part of what I am trying to determine now. I had very vague ideas and descriptions of most of these. The only character I can say I really know at this point is the lead. As I am now going through each chapter I am finding places I need to add chapters and even rearrange existing ones. The more I go through it the more my characters and settings come to life, the same for the story itself. It makes itself clearier. I always knew the main problem, I had quite a few smaller issues someone faced already in there, but now those are expanding and making sense.

Regardless of where or how you write, the one thing that will get you to a finished anything, it to write it all down in one place. Everything. When you go to edit it later, you will have plenty of opportunity to tear it apart. Break it down, see what really worked, what needs more, what needs less and so on.

But it can be both difficult to keep going, and also intimidating to try and take a small idea and expand it into something with it’s own life.


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