How to write a Kickass Outline and get Hooked

photo credit: pacres via photopin cc

Last week I attended an online writing class on story beginnings with the awesome Les Edgerton, organized by StoneHouse University, a very successful indie publisher and training center for writers created by Aaron Patterson and K.C. Neal. It was great fun and very instructive, full of straightforward tips, great examples, and interesting tales from Les’s considerable writing life experience.

One of Les’s eye-opening books on writing is Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go. It’s by far one of the best writing advice books I’ve read, and I’ve read truckloads of them since I started to take my writing seriously. You’ll get so much good stuff out of this book that you won’t get anywhere else, and you’ll understand beginnings and story structure much better, so you can harpoon your readers right from the start and keep them.

If you haven’t gotten your hands on Hooked yet, you should go grab it right now — or stay on this blog and read on! There’s a great prize in it for you, I promise.

One of the many useful things I’ve learned from Les last week was how to write

A novel outline in just 5 sentences!

That’s right, a whole freaking outline! Not a pitch or cover blurb, those are meant to entice the reader, not steer the writer. And not a tweet either, those are meant for constant selfpromotion funny links and thoughtful conversations. A true, functioning novel outline—in just five sentences. Think I’m crazy? Okay, I probably am but that’s not the point here. *moving on*

The point of an outline is to ground the writer during the long process of writing a novel. It has to be clear and easy to follow, much like the yellow brick road. It’s not supposed to be an extensive collection of notes that takes more time to read than the actual book, nor is it a synopsis or a summary. It’s a life-line, red thread, a backbone of the story. And because every story is essentially about trouble, the outline must describe the spine of that trouble.

So what’s each sentence about?

They are about the main plot points of the story, from inciting incident to resolution. And, as Les puts it, these statements about the plot must be akin to endings, not beginnings.

This is quite different from writing a query or pitch, where you try to instill curiosity and draw people in, make them want more and leave them hanging with their mouths watering. The outline mustn’t do any of that. It’s not a sales tool, it’s a writing tool. What it must do is offer you a set of milestones you can write toward, so you can remember where you’re going and are able to tell when you’ve got there.

Here’s what the five-sentence outline (and subsequently, a tight novel) is made of:

1. The inciting incident
2. The story arc (built on the three major turning points of the story)
3. The resolution

Sounds familiar and doesn’t mean much, am I right? Well, here are some examples of five sentence outlines applied to stories you already know, so you can see what it feels like to get a hold of the bare plot essentials of a story familiar to you (like the one you’re writing). Remember, this kind of outline is not a sales pitch but a guideline for the writer.

Morpheus awakens Neo to reality. Neo meets the Oracle and learns he’s not The One. Morpheus is captured by agent Smith. Neo saves Morpheus and earns Trinity’s love. Neo becomes The One.

How about this:

Lucy enters Narnia through a wardrobe. Edmund falls prey to the Witch. Lucy & co meet Aslan who saves Edmund’s life. They join an army and fight the Witch. Aslan kills the Witch and passes his reign over to the kids.

And another one:

Elliot finds E.T. and becomes his friend. Together they build a machine to contact E.T.’s parents. The government kidnaps E.T. and kills him. Elliot’s love brings E.T. back to life. Elliot rescues E.T. and reunites him with his parents.

One more?

Maximus escapes the execution ordered by Emperor Commodus. His family is murdered and Maximus is enslaved. He wins the love of the masses as a gladiator. Maximus challenges Commodus in the arena. Maximus kills him and becomes Emperor.

Of course the full plots of these stories are more complex than that, but down at the bottom, underneath all the nifty action scenes and the dramatic moments, their backbones can be expressed—and followed—with the help of a simple, five statement outline.

Writing a novel is not a linear task, and it’s downright intimidating. However artistic it may sound to pants it, the truth is that you run a much higher risk of meandering, and leaving behind a field of plot holes and five-liners (characters that only live for five lines), and many more little, cummulative disasters, if you venture into novel-land without a roadmap. You can finish the thing alright, that’s not the problem, but you probably have to rewrite it more than once, edit the hell out of it and cry unicorn blood on the manuscript until it sparkles like Edward’s spray-on sixpack by the time it’s sorta, kinda finished.

A clean outline might save you months of agony.

And it’s not hard to write at all! Just jot down the main points of your story’s plot, starting with the inciting incident and ending with the resolution. Leave out everything that’s not absolutamente critical to the story’s plot.

My definition of totally mothereffing critical? If you were to leave it out or change it, you’d have a different story altogether.

Also cut out all the worldbuilding. All of it. You’re writing this outline to clarify the plot to yourself first and foremost. Also, Les advises to use only characters as subjects in each sentence, and use strong verbs without modifiers. You can also use direct objects in each sentence, but stay clear of describing them.

Here’s the five sentence outline for my WIP, “The Deep Link”, book number one in a sci-fi series.

Taryn becomes mentally linked to an alien warlord. She agrees to help liberate a colony world. She inadvertently starts a civil war. Taryn and the alien fuse. They save the colony but become codependent.

So!

Got your novel’s outline down to five crispy clear sentences? Then post it in the comments below, and don’t worry about spoilers and such, because what really makes a story unique is the how not the what. So post away, and then Les and I will pick a winner, who will receive a copy of Hooked straight from yours truly. The deadline is Friday July 6th, 8 pm MDT.

All you have to do is

  • Write an outline of your kickass plot in just 5 sentences,
  • Share the outline with us in the comments by July 6th,
  • Get rewarded!

Simple as that.

Until then, have a great Independence Day everyone! Grab a hot dog, get wasted, get loved, and throw some firecrackers around! Go crazy!
*note to self: must visit the States sometime soon*

 

______________________________

P.S. How many of you clicked the Edward link, huuuuh? C’mon, I’m not gonna tell nobody that you’re a Twihard. I’m one too. Goooo Jasper! *wooot*

 

47 Replies to “How to write a Kickass Outline and get Hooked”

  1. He’s just so sparkly. *ahem*

    I’d post a five sentence outline for my WiP, but it’s a short story so that probably wouldn’t be fair since there’s so much less ground to cover, eh? But I love this, and I’ll definitely be using it soon. I’ve been trying to approach each new story a different way (i.e., heavy outlining, light outlining, prompt-based, seat of the pants, etc) to see how the results vary. So thanks for giving me a new toy to play with!

    And hot damn, your novel sounds crazy. Can’t wait to read it one day!

    Like

    1. Thanks, James! Glad you can put this to some use. Outlines are great at any length, but keeping it this short and clear is a real handy thing! 🙂

      Like

  2. Awesome Vero! I do have Hooked and just pulled it out to re-read the other day. Great book. And I’m going to try this outline thingie!

    Like

    1. Don’t worry, Jay, if you follow the definition and don’t include any details, only the most stripped-down core of meaning that stage of the story (or plot point) has, you should be safe from spoilers.

      If you really think about it, it’s all pretty much in the execution, in the “how” of a story, not so much in the “what.” Aren’t all stories deep down about a clash of opposite forces? And yet, there are hundreds of thousands of versions of that clash out there, each completely different from the rest. 🙂

      But it’s also okay if you choose not to post the outline. It would be a pity though. 🙂

      Like

  3. Okay, I’m going to post my first draft of my five sentences and then my last draft. The first is too wordy for sure but it helped me focus.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    Ashleigh inherits a logging ranch in Montana from an uncle she never knew and before she can sell it, she has to live there for thirty days.
    The operations manager, Cole Ferguson, doesn’t want some city girl taking over the ranch that he plans to buy.
    PaneX Corporation wants to log out all the timber and close the operation and they’ll go to any length to see it happen.
    A near fatal accident bring Ashleigh and Cole closer together but the arrival of a long lost brother drives them apart again.
    After discovering the truth behind the accident, Ashleigh realizes that she belongs where her heart is.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    The final draft isn’t the be-all, end-all, but it’s a good start. Thanks for this exercise, Vero.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    Ashleigh inherits a logging ranch.
    Cole Ferguson and Ashleigh dislike each other and disagree about the future of the ranch.
    Ashleigh and Cole grow closer after Ashleigh has a near fatal accident.
    A missing brother arrives and drives a wedge between Ashleigh and Cole.
    Cole and Ashleigh find out the truth behind the recent events and agree about the future for both the ranch and themselves.

    Like

    1. Thanks for participating, Donna, this is great!

      I love how you drafted and then cleared the extra info out of the outline — this is exactly how it’s done. AND you wrote the resolution in, without including any serious spoilers!

      Thank you very much! 🙂

      Like

  4. Oh no, this is so difficult to get the sentences short…. but then it’s for us, not the reader, isn’t it.

    This is the book I’m just about to publish. I think the plan form needs to be shorter, but would this be about right for the short outline that agents need? The advice we had was that it shouldnt be a pitch – they want to know how the plot works and twists. Ths outline misses out the comedy of errors about the two Kiras and how Fred can tell the difference though!

    The Princelings and the Lost City
    George, Fred and Kira are diverted on their holiday by a blocked tunnel and explore a silent city in the middle of the woods.
    Kira acts strangely afterwards and returns to Buckmore with George, while Fred discovers the silent city was asleep and is run entirely by females.
    The real Kira is kidnapped again from the lost city by the cause of her alter-ego’s mission, their outcasts turned bandits, but she escapes back to Buckmore.
    Kira and the imposter return with advice from Buckmore and assistance, but the Queen resists and the bandit groups force another attack in which one of the Kiras is killed.
    The Queen accepts the need for change, Fred finally earns Kira’s hand in marriage, and George completes his life’s work on their wedding day.
    ———————————–
    yes, well I can see now it needs to be much shorter (sigh)

    Like

    1. Thank you very much for participating, Jemima! 🙂

      Shorter is generally better, but as long as you focus on the actual plot elements that keep the story upright, you’re right on track. And your outline is doing it’s job pretty well in that department. Sounds like a very intriguing story too! Impostors, kidnappings, and bandits, all lit by humor? Awesome!

      Like

  5. Check out my 5 sentences! I’m pretty impressed that it worked for me 🙂

    “Alphonsine falls pregnant to Pierre. They go home to Quebec and get married and start farming. Pierre dies of pneumonia leaving Alphonsine to care for their thirteen surviving children. After a few years when she only has the two little girls at home, she runs out of money. She finally consents to marry Leandre to take care of the girls.”

    Like

    1. Thanks for participating, Sarah! And nice meeting you. 🙂

      I’m sure it’s not easy to write an outline like this for a biographic novel, but you captured the main tent-poles of the plot, and it works!

      Like


  6. Caught in a struggle between domains Shi Ni finds a survivor from another side. Helping him to find the humanity that was denied to his existance she remains unable to mend his broken mind. His origin and the knowledge he carries are the few sparkles of hope that remain. As turmoil reigns, her father has no other recourse but to sacrifice her humanity, using her death and being to mend the man. Healed to stand as a bridge between empires at war, the very best he can hope for is to stand as a wall against oblivion.

    From a twenty year old manuscript, I really should grab a pen and embrace it once again.

    Like

    1. Thank you for posting your outline, Meijers!

      It sounds like a very intense and heartbreaking story. I assume it’s fantasy (as a genre)?

      And yes, you should definitely put pen to a project that’s ripened for that long. You’re sure to find some very neat surprises once you dig into it again. The writer’s mind is a bottomless well. 😉

      Like

      1. Well, it’s a science fiction story actually. Cyclic universe, the case of karma in spite of seperating ourselves from our natural universe. The psychology of man, under duress and without knowledge of his self (think of it as an enforced tabula rasa, leaving environment and stimuli and character intact, removing just the knowledge and history of choices).

        I once wrote it as a military sci fi story, but found out that I ended up subjecting myself to the same change the characters went through on that stretched scale of human – technology 😛 So I took a different angle, and focused on the challenge of learning as human beings. A bit of a dark approach though, people only learn from pain and repetition.

        We’ll see. It’s still in my mind, and heart, unfortunately I must confess I am far better at telling stories like an archaic bard who has somehow survived to a modern age, than handling that pen 😛

        Like

      2. Oh, a philosophical exploration of Karma in sci-fi form! That sounds like a difficult topic to tackle, and I’m sure the angle you took didn’t make it any easier either — but worthwhile projects are never easy. 🙂 Wish you the best with it, and any other projects you might have!

        Like

      3. Thanks, and yes it’s not been an easy ride – to say the least 😛 But, interesting. Challenging certainly. Biggest hurdle remains that translation from spoken word to written word.

        Like

  7. (LOL… I think we’re commenting at the same time! I just got a notification you are on my Word Cloud Wednesday post.)

    I’m going to include this post in tomorrow’s Three for Thursday recommendations! You know how I loved “Hooked” – and now I read that you took a class with Les?

    *reigning in jealously*

    But seriously… Wow! I’ve found so much value in his books and posts. And, he’s very accessible.

    Okay, one last note before I ago: when you visit, swing into Upstate New York. 😀 We’ll have dinner!

    Like

    1. (Yup, we are! See you on Twitter!)

      Thanks, and YES — “Hooked” is awesome, and Les is incredible! I’ve learned so much from him, and still do!

      If I ever visit the states, I’d have to make a full tour. There are so many things I’d love to see and so many great people I’d love to meet in person — and you’re certainly way up on that list!

      Like

  8. thank you for this article, Vero. I’ve ordered “Hooked”…whether in relationships, or our writing, we all know how critical are beginnings. Now, I’m off to see if I can come up with a five sentence outline 🙂

    Like

    1. You’re spot on, Sandy, beginnings are crucial (especially since people are getting busier and the world louder). Hope you’ll get the most out of “Hooked”, and working on the five-sentence outline. 🙂

      Like

    1. Indeed! It’s very useful to keep one focused on the essentials of a story. And after finishing a draft, to bring the plot back into focus for the rewrite. 🙂

      Like

  9. That was a bit harrowing, seeing as I started with paragraphs and just took a butchers knife until I came out with this:
    -“The Word Eater”-
    Ezekiel’s master is gravely injured by the Word Eater.
    Ezekiel is sent with a group to find and kill the Word Eater.
    They barely defeat creature who is the WordEater’s servant.
    They accept the WordEater’s offer of penance.
    Ezekiel is offered the crown, and the people learn to coexist with the Word Eater.

    Thank you for the inspiring and motivating article! It eases some of the procrastination at the idea of a detailed outline in me, by starting with these absolute bare bones, and just filling in the middle of each point, so I don’t just start and kind of fall by the wayside as I try to come up with important stuff between the beginning and end! ❤

    Like

    1. Thank you very much for participating, Nadia! 🙂

      Seems the butcher’s knife was forged especially for you! Well done, and *fingers crossed*!

      Having a short, clear outline like this one can be a major relief for the creative side, because it provides just enough to go by, but not that much as to suffocate you. It’s so worth the bit of torment it takes to write it!

      Like

  10. A witch, a blood sacrifice and a late C19th ghost-dance changes the past.
    Colonial America is on the verge of extinction faced not by Indians but by ‘Shades’ that feed on men and cannot be killed.
    Jack, Verity and Moses have to sort out their own love-triangle, and work as one to find a solution.
    Jack realises that one of the three is the ancestor of the future witch, but so does a more powerful magician intent on thwarting them.
    Moses makes the ultimate sacrifice.

    Like

  11. Thanks for the article! I’m in the early stages of my WOP and I’m definitely trying out the 5 sentences outline =).

    Order warrior Anara kills a thought to be extinct monster. Anara and her apprentice get captured by the rebel gypsies. The Gypsy camp gets attacked by vamps then the Order. Anara is forced to choose a side. New leadership makes Anara realizes that her time in Alvera is long over.

    Like

    1. WOP, yo! Words On Pages. Dig? 😀

      Thank you for participating, Sarah!
      Outlines belong in the early stages, they’re the blueprints we craft our worlds upon. Hope it’s a useful exercise to you. 🙂

      Like

      1. Venker, a mage, and a company of marines board an alien spaceship. He discovers that the ship is alive and they are the pathogens. The marines start planting explosives; Venker struggles to stop them. The ship starts devouring the planet, so it can reproduce. Venker escapes from the exploding spaceship.

        —-

        That’s the story I want to write in a nutshell. I want to finish it by the end of this month, but I am a bit distracted and I have difficulty getting started. I hope this would help.

        Like

      2. Thanks for posting, Andrew!
        Great outline and very interesting story. Hope you were able to clarify your plot points doing this exercise — now it’s all a matter of fleshing it out with action, tension and character. Keep writing! 🙂

        Like

  12. This tool is very brutal & awesome. So, for my recently rewritten main WIP, titled We Who Are About To Die:

    1. Ren and Don are sentenced as gladiators.
    2. Ren develops her iron heart
    3. Ren leads in the fight & ‘mutiny’
    4. Ren survives losing Mat
    5. Ren and Don save Leta and return home.

    The three key events focus on my MC, and not so much the exterior fighting going on since WWAATD is the story of her growth more than the adventure.

    Thanks for enticing me to do this with the contest!

    Morgan

    Like

    1. Thank you for participating, Morgan! 🙂 Super crisp outline you’ve carved out there.

      Any work that forces you to shove the clutter of details out the window and focus on the core of a story can hurts da brain, but that’s because it pushes it beyond the comfortable. And that’s an awesome way to gain perspective!

      Like

  13. Thanks, everybody, for participating in this little contest! 🙂
    The submission window is now closed. Stay tuned to this blog to find out who won!

    Like

  14. Young Zenjiro Kanze is sent to a faraway land in search of the legendary Sky Blade. He befriends and helps defend a native tribe against a psychotic pirate. Zen agrees to go help a female gunslinger find her kidnapped son from the clutches of a greedy merchant. In the end, Zen discovers that everything he thought he knew about the world was wrong.

    Like

    1. That sounds great, Jay! 🙂

      Unfortunately you’re a bit late to enter the contest, but I’m sure intrigued by Zen’s story! When’s will it be out?

      Like

      1. It’s okay, I knew I was late with it but I really wanted to go through the exercise! It was not only fun, but forced me to really think about my project.

        The publication date is looking like January, maybe February.

        Like

  15. Hi Vero! I know I’m late for the contest and 5 sentence outline, but that’s okay. I just had to let you know that this post was not only super helpful, but also FUN! You’re so good at presenting information in a useful way and providing relevant examples to bring it all home. And I can’t wait to read The Deep Link now!

    Like

    1. 😮 Wow, thank you so much, Leslie! I am so happy to be of any help to other writers, it makes my strange little heart glow! Thanks for taking the time to deliver encouragement, it’s highly appreciated.

      Like

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