I most often start a story with a cool premise. A concept that comes down to me out of the aether that I am extremely excited about, and a story is born. The characters, however, usually stink. When I was going into my fourth draft of #ODUM I was doing a ton of research on character arcs, story arcs, and series arcs in order to build in what I knew my story was lacking.
In doing so, I looked into so many of the same types of outlines, relatively the same story beats, just phrased or arranged in a different way. While I do consider myself to be a “plotser”–that is, both a “plotter” and a “pantser”–I knew I needed to give myself some sort of structure to tell a more complete story.
Still, I generally dislike a traditional outline, often using sticky notes, mind maps, or really any other method to not have to lock myself into place with a story. Being a plotser is a hard line to walk. On one hand, you want to know where your story is generally going, and to see plot holes before you’ve written 50,000 words that won’t work, but you don’t want to have to know every detail of the scene or find you’ve made a change while writing that no longer fits the rest of the story as precisely outlined.
That’s the ideal, right? To know where the story is headed, and to get there with all the freedom you need to let the characters come alive and to let your story world breathe. Well, plotters and pantsers would both disagree. Us plotsers are probably in the minority. I can’t exactly change the way I am though, and so I was constantly floundering somewhere between the plotting and pantsing methods.
Then, I heard of something that was both completely new to the plotter crowd, and still extremely flexible for a pantser. It’s the method used by Brandon Sanderson and it’s called a goal-based outline. This is an outlining method that lets you identify the important moments, characters, places, information for your book, and describes what kind of beats you will need to make it the most impactful.
It makes a lot of sense. You can’t have a happily ever after romance novel without the characters meeting, kissing, and falling in love. You can’t have a murder mystery before you have a dead body and some clues. If you’re going on a quest to find three keys hidden in a video game in order to obtain a real-world fortune, you need to figure out clues that no one else thought were clues, you need to know things better and deeper than the other participants, and you need to find each key in the appropriate order.
While these elements are important, if not completely essential to the story you are trying to tell, neither do they describe the exact scenario in which you will encounter them. This keeps it super flexible to discover these elements as you are writing them. It’s a plotser’s dream.
So how do you make a goal-based outline, and how do you use the outline to build an entire story?
Identify your plot threads.
First of all, your story came to you with a few ideas for characters, scenes, places. Identify each of them. What are the relationships? What is the main mystery? What story elements and scene ideas do you already have? Do this in a word processor and give each of them a Header format. Or make a mind map, spacing all these elements out on a blank sheet of paper and circling each of them. Be sure to identify the kind of arc each of your characters and your story need, and what beats will accomplish that type of arc.
Identify the things that will need to come before each item to make the most impact.
What kind of events need to happen? What kind of discoveries need to be unveiled?
In my novel #ODUM, I have a character named Samael who had previously left Heaven because he fell in love with a woman that God didn’t like, and which caused a huge fuss in Heaven. Samael believed the woman killed, believed himself to be over her death, having learned the lesson the hard way. It is revealed to Samael that the woman was imprisoned on Earth instead.
To make this reveal impactful, Samael had to show signs that he still thought about her from time to time. He needed to rekindle a friendship with someone in Heaven who knew that the woman was not dead, but merely imprisoned. He needed to go see for himself whether the information was true. He needed to feel, very suddenly, that he still had feelings for the woman, and to also realize that what he needed to do to save her might destroy him.
So all of these threads go under Samael’s story arc as bullet points. Samael is not the main character in #ODUM, but I can see several other moments that will need to occur after this reveal that will shape the rest of his arc. Other characters will have their own arcs and their own bulleted threads.
When you are doing this sort of goal-based outlining, it is important to remember that other story elements might also have their own bullet points. What is important for your reader to know about your fantasy world’s city or town? What kinds of religions exist? What kind of races? Choose several non-character elements to brainstorm about and give them their own headings as well.
Mash several elements together and make a scene.
If you are a discovery writer, you might pull a thread from several header sections and try to mash them together to make a scene. Take a character element, a story element, and a worldbuilding element and see where they take you. If you outline, you might actually make scenes and chapters in an outline style.
It’s a good idea to cross out or delete the elements you’ve used as you go through them. This helps you keep track of your progress as you go through each item in your list. At the end, you’ll either have a complete outline, or a completed draft.
The point here is not just to have bulleted ideas. The point is to make them into a cohesive story. The further you work through your character arcs and resolve the internal conflicts they have, the more your characters become backed into a specific corner that pushes them through the narrative arc of your story. Your arcs should weave together and feed into one another, so that each time a major beat is had by either your character or story arc, it is decisive, conclusive, and leads toward the inevitable end.
So tell me, are you a plotter, a pantser, or somewhere in-between? Have you ever heard of or tried this goal-based method before, and how did it go? What is your favorite method for brainstorming and organizing your story ideas? Let me know in the comments below!