My Outlining Process: How I Prepare to Draft My Novels

Want a personal look into how one author outlines her novels? Check out this outlining process breakdown from fantasy author Kristen Kieffer over on the She's Novel blog!

Alright, alright friends. How's everyone doing today?

If you've been following along with my writing journey over on my author website, you may know that I spent the second half of September working on outlines for the remaining novels in my Books of Maveryn series–and will continue to do so this month as well. 

All of this outlining certainly hasn't gone unnoticed by you folks! 

Over the past 10 days or so, I've had a dozen requests to write up a post on my personal outlining process. Well, friends? You ask and I answer. Today, I'm going to break down the step-by-step process I use to outline all of my novels. 

Ready to dive in?

Part One: Story Ideas.

Of course, you can't write an outline without first coming up with a story idea. Right?

I wish I could say there was some rhyme or reason to how I come up with the ideas for my novels, but there's really not. The idea for The Dark Between came from a random daydream I had way back in 2012.

Meanwhile, Dreamworld was born out of a literal dream I had last autumn, while all of The Books of Maveryn (beginning with Lady Legacy) are a result of needing a standalone story idea to round out my publishing plan...only then my brain went crazy and the book became another series. 

( can learn more about all of my books by clicking here.)

At the end of the day, it's the brainstorming and purposeful daydreaming that really round out my story ideas. Before I even begin to think about outlining, I make sure I know my main character and have a good idea of at least three of these five basic storytelling elements:

  • The Hook. The opening chapters.
  • The First Plot Point. What drags the character into their adventure.
  • The Midpoint. The big showdown halfway through the book.
  • The Climax. The extra big showdown towards the end of the book.
  • The Resolution. The end!

If I know what happens at three or more of these points, I feel comfortable enough to begin outlining. The rest I can figure out as I go, as well as all of those in between chapters and scenes. I also don't plan out my character or plot arcs beforehand. All of that comes in outlining for me.

But as I mentioned, first comes the main character...

Finding my story's hero or heroine.

Most of my novels are action-heavy character-driven stories, meaning that there a bunch of sword fights and battles and fun stuff, but at the heart of story is the main character's inner transformation.

Thankfully, I've had pretty good luck with my characters just sort of popping into my head and demanding to be written. I don't think I've ever had to drag an MC out of thin air. They're like little fairies, popping up on a whim and demanding my attention. 

Once a character announces themselves to me, I walk through these 33 steps and use this personality-building method to flesh them out and bring them to life. 

I also try to do the same for some of the important secondary characters in the story. Secondary characters don't always appear to me as MCs do, so sometimes I have to go take a car ride or a long shower and just think about who they might be. 

Again, I wish there were some rhyme or reason to my character-finding methods, but really it just involves me completely losing focus on the world around me and letting my imagination go crazy. I don't know. Maybe I'm a wizard or something...

But in any case, once I know my main character and the 2 - 6 most important people that will help round out their story, I move on to the plot.

Are we outlining yet? NO WE'RE NOT.

That's right. You remember. Before I outline, I always figure out as many of those main story elements we mentioned above as I can. 

This is the point where I really start to think about theme. Theme is especially important with character-driven stories because it's the character's development that will shape the thematic statement, so brainstorming it is!

I try to ask myself these questions:

  • What do I want to discuss in this story?
  • Do I already know something about my MC that will help me decide on the theme?
  • Now that I have an idea of theme, what kind of development does my MC need to go through to make that theme apparent?
  • What does my MC think they want?
  • What does my MC actually NEED to make them a better person?
  • What is the biggest thing that's holding my MC back from growing?
  • How can I manifest that internal setback in physical form, be it another character or some sort of physical challenge, etc?

After mulling these questions over for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, I usually have a fairly solid idea of most, if not all, of the five story elements we talked about above. And once we have that down, it is...

Finally time to outline, baby!

Now for the fun stuff. This is the point where I crack open a Scrivener file and create a document titled "Plot Overview". This will be my outlining document, where I write everything that I plan for this story to be. 

For simplicity's sake (being as The Dark Between is multi-POV and extra long), we're going to use The Books of Maveryn for our example. (These are also the books I'm currently outlining. Bonus!) 

Each novel in The Books of Maveryn series is 37 - 40 chapters long, at about 2,500 words a chapter. Scene lengths can vary in both word count and number per chapter, as well. Honestly, I figured this out through pure trial and error with the first book in the series, Lady Legacy.

But I'd like all of the books in this series to be consistent, so thanks to Lady Legacy, I now have a baseline to work with. Hurray! But anywho, what's my outlining process look like? Great question! 

Simply put, I create a chapter-by-chapter outline using a combination of the 3-Act Story Structure and The Hero's Journey as my guide.

I used to write a one-paragraph summary for each chapter, but I found that I sometimes had trouble visualizing my scenes while drafting with such short summaries. So for my latest outline, I actually wrote 1 - 3 paragraphs for each scene, depending on how much detail was needed.

In a few months, I'll be able to tell you if that helps me write the first draft any faster!

Let's breakdown my process.

Every time I outline a book, my process is a little bit different–and usually this depends on which of those five story elements I already know before outlining. 

For example, when I was outlining Lady Legacy, I didn't know exactly how the story would begin, but I did know the 1st Plot Point. 

Thankfully, working backwards from the 1st Plot Point to figure out the opening chapters is usually pretty simple. First, I ask myself when the MC first received a Call to Adventure and why they initially hesitated to answer that call.

(The MC always answers the Call to Adventure at the 1st Plot Point. If you need more info on story structure, I recommend checking out this She's Novel post and this blog series from K.M. Weiland.)

Once I know the initial call, I ask myself how I can show my character in their everyday life while highlighting why they might want to escape from it (or why they might be dragged from it). This question helps me figure out the first few chapters of the book, before we hit the Call to Adventure.

And finally, I ask what conflict my character might face and overcome in their everyday life. This will form the Hook, the very first scene in any novel. Again, I recommend checking out those links above if this structure talk has you a bit confused. They're helpful. I promise!

After I have my opening chapters figured out, outlining is fairly straight-forward, if still a bit mind-numbing at times. 

Following the 3-Act Story Structure and The Hero's Journey, I begin writing little summaries for what happens in each chapter of my book. This usually involves a lot of story structure contemplation, extended periods of thinking about theme, and just plain brain-wracking imagination. 

Unfortunately, there is no magic spell that makes this process simple or easy.

Depending on how much of the story I've already created in my daydreaming sessions and how much time I have in my week to work on outlining, the entire outlining process can take me anywhere from two or three days to a few weeks. About 15 hours worth of work. 

Is it worth it? For me, absolutely.

I hate drafting (give me editing any day!), so the faster I can speed through the first draft, the better. Having a well-planned outline allows me get drafting over with ASAP rather than struggle to imagine each chapter as I write it.

Is this the right method for every writer though? Absolutely not!

I figured out this process over the course of years. Lots of exploration, experimentation, and personal examination went in to figuring out what works best for me, and I'm still tweaking my process to this day!

Can I get a closer look?

Sure thang, friend!

Here's a screenshot of my "Plot Overview" document inside of Scrivener. I use the comment feature to highlight and mark each chapter, as you can see in yellow. I did block out the spoiler-y parts in white, so if you'd like to read my sloppy outline, go for it!

I don't try to write with proper grammar or sentence structure when I outline. I basically just word-vomit all of my ideas onto the document and let it be. I'm not writing a masterpiece, just an outline for one. ;)

This particular outline that you see above is the longest I've ever written for a novel, topping out at nearly 10.5k. Which, of course, sounds like a lot. But in actuality, it wasn't that bad to write. When you know where you're going with your story, typing up the outline can go really quickly.

I think I wrote the whole second half of this outline, about 5,000 words, in the scope of a few hours one evening. Not bad at all!

Here's a quick overview of my average novel structure:

  • Hook at chapter 1 (duh!)
  • 1st Plot Point between chapters 4 - 6
  • Midpoint at roughly chapter 20
  • Climactic Sequence between chapters 34 - 37
  • The Climax itself at roughly chapter 36
  • Resolution from roughly chapter 38 on...

Every book is the tiniest bit different, but that's the average breakdown for my outlines. And again, please don't think of my process as the ONLY process. This is what works for me. What helps me tell my stories as dramatically as possible. 

If you're writing in a different genre, your outline may look different. If you prefer writing shorter or longer chapters, your outline may still look different. And if you prefer a different outlining method, your outline will definitely look different.

At the end of the day, this is what works for ME. I hope sharing my process will help you in some way, whether you try out my technique or think of a new way to tweak your own, but don't worry if this process doesn't at all work for you. 

Tackle the trial-and-error head on, and figure out the outlining style that works for you, even if it takes you several years as it did for me. Believe me, it's well worth the time and effort.

Let's Chat!

Did you enjoy this inside peak at my outlining process? In the comments below, tell me:

  • Do you outline your novels before drafting?
  • Have you found your perfect process yet? What does it look like?
  • Will you try out my outlining method to see if it works for you?

I can't wait to hear from you, friends!

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Kristen Kieffer is a writer of fantasy fiction and the creative writing coach behind She's Novel. She's made it her mission to help aspiring authors write sensational novels because obliterating expectations is her jam. Her other passions? Coffee and Tolkien, of course!

Kristen is the author of the upcoming The Books of Maveryn series and The Astral Series, as well as several non-fiction books for writers.