Author Stuff, Writing

From concept to outline: plotting for the chaotic mind

From inspiration to concept | How I organize my work | Creative process series overview

Last time I talked about going from inspiration to concept in my post “harassed by the muses”. I used to skip that step and find myself struggling to grasp what my story was about whenever anyone asked me what I was writing. Coming up with the concept before drafting was the right step for me, helping me figure out what the story was about, what its themes might be, and is another stepping stone to writing the synopsis.

Image of a binder with papers portraying graphs and flow charts with text underneath saying “Elisa Winther’s MY CREATIVE PROCESS, on how I write my books, from inspiration to finalized manuscripts.

There’s a lot of preparation to be done at this stage, or at least, for me. What preparation I do early on helps me not to flounder later on. I don’t force myself though. I let things come to me naturally, so it can take me a while to progress from this stage, and that’s fine. It’s okay to let a project sit and simmer, marinating to improve its flavors.

My preparation includes:

  • Character creation,
  • Main story beats,
  • Worldbuilding.

Character creation

Usually, at this stage, I already have some ideas about the main characters and maybe a couple of the supporting cast. I used to go with a spreadsheet in the past but lately just wing it. There’s a couple of bases I tend to cover every time though. Of course, they need a backstory, they need an appearance, and likes and dislikes. It’s easier to fan out from a base than from only a vague number of traits.

From the basics, I go into their goals and motivations. What drives them? Are they driving the plot or do they go with the flow? What kind of relationships do they have? Do they have specific abilities or powers?

Main story beats

So what will these characters be doing? For me, the story beats often develop along with the story and characters. Thinking up these story beats are the seeds you sow to finding your plot.

You’ve got your concept, so you know what this story’s about. Don’t have a concept, only a vague idea or just the story? That’s fine too. We all have our ways.

I always see the story beats as the steps of a stair. You can’t just jump up in one leap, you need a couple of steps. So what I usually do is figure out where the story starts and where it ends. Once you know where it needs to end, you decide on how your characters get there. What needs to be done?


Most of what I write takes place in the same universe. Perhaps not during the same time period, but it’s the same world. One day I plan to write off-planet scifi as well, some space opera perhaps, and these will still be the same universe. I’ve got lots of plans.

Anyway, these all have fantasy elements in them and they need a good amount of worldbuilding. I’ve had to think up new cultures, governments, histories, wildlife, magic systems, and many things more and damn do I love it to bits, but it’s a lot of work.

I do my worldbuilding in a separate file (or rather, several) and I do just what I need when I start out. Since the story is probably going to change anyway, I keep worldbuilding as I draft, even as I edit. I just make sure I have enough to work with when I start.

Writing a summary

All the preparations are gathered in a file. With them, I start on a rough summary. Keeping the concept in mind, I put everything together with a start, middle, and ending. The focus lies on the main story beats of which some if not all (depending on how many I’ve thought up at this time) become plot points later on.

If I have specific details in my head about a scene I’ll jot them down as well just so I don’t lose them. Aside from the rare sprinkles of details, it’s usually still vague and mostly bare backbones but its gradually gaining shape.

From summary to outline

From the summary, I write my outline, but where I used to go deep into details, I know now it’s kind of a waste of time for me. I write down the details I like, but I don’t go digging. Biggest reason why I say it’s a waste of time is that I tend to make so many changes during my drafting that it can turn in a whole different story. So now I tend to keep it simple.

At this point I like to focus onto the plot. The story’s there and so is the worldbuilding, now I just need to glue everything together with the plot. So what will the characters do to achieve their goals? What will they do to reach the end of the story as planned?

If I’m working on something longer, like a novella or novel, I’ll do more plotting. These need more managing for me, but I leave the microplotting (plotting on scene level) for later. I make sure I know what steps need to be taken from one scene to the next.

Plotting tips

There are multiple ways to plot and write outlines. There’s no wrong way, nor is it wrong to not be a plotter at all. Some people wing it, some people just need the bare minimum. That’s fine.

Things that help me plot are

  • Keeping in mind characters have their own dreams, goals and motivation. Having these align with your plot one way or another will help you develop it.
  • Figuring out a timeline in when what will happen.
  • What information needs to be learned along the way? Who needs to learn them, when and by who? Work that into your outline.
  • What are your antagonists doing? If you have one or several, don’t be like me and forget about them until the last minute xD Work them into your outline and have your characters interact with your antagonist(s)’s plotline(s).

Have no idea what to pick for the plot? Look at books similar to what you’re going for or just books you like and figure out what they used as plot. Use it as an example to inspire you to make your own.

That not done the trick? Go into your worldbuilding and see how your setting lives. What’s current news? What is the government planning? If the world is lived in, there will always be something happening. Have those influence your plot. How do your characters respond to the? How are they affected?

Still no idea? Try story prompts, or give it some time to simmer.

Here are some links on plotting

An example

(spoilers for my Masquerade story; A Spell to Soothe a Heart)

I have had an idea for a short story where a character would have a memorable moment dancing with a stranger. It developed into a masquerade paranormal romance as over time every now and then new ideas came to me and I figured they were a fit for this. Eventually, these joined to form a concept:

Sabel feels lost and alone in the world, when she gets invited to a masquerade party and meets a mysterious hot stranger, gets a little more lost in the world, but much less alone.

Quite simple. So right around that time I came up with some new ideas for dream magic and a dream world. I grew excited about the magic and the possibilities, plotting out a trilogy that I will eventually write, but not now. Figuring out this dream world lore fit this new concept I combined them. And wow was I right.

Since it was a short story I used the summary to draft from, instead of making an outline first. I knew what the story beats were, so I knew what steps to make to get from start to finish.

1) Sabel needed to get invited to the masquerade party, so I gave her a neighbor who does so. 2) They go to the party together, 3) Sabel meets a handsome stranger, they dance and have a romantic moment. 4) They lose each other at the end of the party without exchanging contact info. 5) They meet again through dream magic.

Note that that ending is pretty vague. Most of my endings are and it’s a thing I struggle with. I hope to figure something out how to fix that one day.

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