Writing Tips: The Skeleton Outline

I thought I’d share one of my outlining techniques. I must tell you that I’m a “pantser” as in “fly by the seat of my pants” when it comes to writing. I dive in with a vague idea of the story and have to undergo an extensive revision process to flesh things out but I almost always have the following elements in the back of my mind even if I don’t write them down. I recommend that you open a document and consider the following questions:

  1. Who is my main character and what is his problem? I use the male pronoun because right now that’s who I seem to be writing about. Usually I know who my main character is already as I’ve been thinking about writing the story for a long time BUT it’s not always clear to me what his problem is. I ran into this situation with my first historical fiction story (which I’m still working on) and had difficulty moving the story forward until I figured it out.
  2. What are some “candy bar” scenes for this story? Holly Lisle, who has a wealth of writing courses, free and paid, refers to major scenes you can’t wait to write as “candy bar” scenes. This could include the climax of the story, an amazing love/sex scene, an ending that makes you want to cry, a major confrontation between your would-be lovers. I talk about getting a good idea for a story and this is where the idea starts: with a major candy bar scene. I almost always have 2-3 in mind but you might only have one. That’s fine too because it will give you a jumping off point.
  3. Do you know how the story begins? Maybe you don’t. Or maybe you have an idea but you don’t know if it’s going to work. No matter. Write down some quick notes and take a look at it. Sometimes the beginning is a running start. You feel like you need to explain everything to reader. You don’t necessarily need to do that. You can try starting the story mese in reins or right in the middle. What would happen if you dropped your reader in the middle of some exciting action sequence, a chase, a battle, during a gut-wrenching conversation, even in the middle of a sex scene? Sure, you’d have to explain as you go but the reader would be right in the middle of the story.
  4. Do you know how the story ends? For me, the story is going to hinge on one question: Does my couple get together or not? I usually know the answer to this question but you may not. If you don’t know the answer, you can sketch out two or more scenarios and decide later.
  5. This little outline is not set in concrete! You can change it as needed, if you story changes, your character changes, or your couple’s relationship changes. This is something for you to play around with and it becomes kind of an anchor for your story. In fact, as you move through drafting and revision, this outline will likely change as you learn more about your characters and plot.

If you want to take things further, you can consider adding more ideas for scenes. What would have to happen between the beginning and the first candy bar scene? Again, you’re not writing down every little detail and making a massive document. These are just short notes you can expand later. And what would have to happen between the last candy bar scene and the end? You can stop here and have a decent skeleton of an outline to work from, a document you can change if need be, and flesh out more fully later.