Techniques for getting from a concept to an outline / a plot


I really love making up ideas for stories on a conceptual level. On a level like this:

"There would be that boy who really is a wizard, but he doesn’t know. And one day, he finds out and gets to go to wizard school, leaving his old life behind. And there, he gets to know other young wizards. Of course there would need to be a villain. That villain could live on till after the end of the novel, so there could be a whole series. For the whole new world he gets to know, one could make up really strange creatures and plants and variations of everyday stuff. Like, newspapers could have moving pictures in them, because they’re magic. " And so on. It’s always got a lot of "one could …"s in it.

But I never really get past that. I have some ideas that I’d like to read (or write) a novel about, but when it comes to filling it with life, my head is empty. I’m professionally required to strive for clear and straight writing, maybe that’s a hindrance in fiction.

Are there any techniques for creating that flesh of a story? Something like asking yourself the right questions?

I have a feeling that if I could make that step from the general idea to having an outline of what should actually be happening, writing that down would be pretty fun.

Maybe that’s just the problem everyone has. Maybe that’s just that extra bit of creativity I’m missing. But I’m not sure – so I’d thought I’d ask.

Thanks in advance

This is a really great question, and it’s certainly the problem I most often face (and the reason I never finish anything). I’ve received a couple of great answers from a couple of authors I’ve quizzed via e-mail (taking unfair advantage of having authors for users :slight_smile: ) - I won’t copy them here without their permission, but maybe they will happen along and reply, and hopefully other users who get to the enviable stage of having a first draft in their hands can share their techniques, too. Like you, I have ideas for worlds, characters, scenes and details that I want to read about and would like to write about, but getting to the stage of writing, and enjoying the writing, is a great struggle - like you, it’s that stage between the idea and starting writing that leaves me cold, which is surely one of the most important stages. In any event, this is a great topic question so I’ve made this a sticky and look forward to reading the replies. And for once I’m going to ask everyone to stay on topic. :slight_smile:

All the best,

That’s difficult, indeed. It could be helpful to slow down and start with a first step. For your example, just start to imagine a usual day of little Larry Plotter in his non-magic life without getting to the next plot point already. Let it play like a movie in your head, fueled by your imagination, and if you can type fast, just write down what you imagine. If you’re slow, just take notes. Don’t bother about formatting or expression yet, stay in the “flow”.
Many of the ideas you have about the world will probably nicely appear on themselves as your characters travel. Don’t try to force these ideas to appear one after another in some kind of “originalities of my world”-tour.
I hope that works for you!

First, a disclaimer: like writing, planning is subjective. What works for one writer won’t necessarily work for you. I speak as someone who has finished–counts 4?–first drafts, if I don’t include things like plays, poems, and short stories.

The method that generally works best for me involves physical 3x5 cards. (Actually, 3x5 cards work best for me at pretty much every stage, including revision.) But in Scrivener, I work better with Outliner than the note cards, so I think it has more to do with the ease of reorganizing and adding/ditching than the actual card shape.

What I do is write one scene per card. I don’t worry about the gaps or ones that conflict–I just write them ALL down, one scene per card (or Outliner line). If it’s mainly that something within the scene can go one of 2 ways, I tend to describe both, separated by a nice big “OR” (caps included).

Once I have all the cards made for scenes I have in my head, I organize them. In organizing, I’ll spot gaps. How do I get this character from this card to that card?, I ask myself. And usually that’ll be enough to trigger the scene needed, but sometimes it takes a bit more work. (That’s when I usually pull out some paper and free-associative write (which is what your summary sounds like).

They need some cleanup, but you might find these articles I wrote helpful.

EDIT: I can’t do paper outlines. They stifle me. But the note cards give me something solid to sit down and write.


There is no shortage of books (and even software) that can help you in this endeavor, and I’m sure you’ll get a lot of good advice from this forum. I encourage you to search this forum and others for important titles. I also encourage you to think of all of it – the wisdom, the how-tos, the apps – as part of a lifelong process of learning. Absorb everything you read and hear on the topic, but don’t let it get in the way of the actual writing. I think it’s important to make a distinction between having an idea and writing a story. Having an idea can happen in an instant. Writing a story takes time and dedication. It’s a process, it’s a job.

If you’re serious, I suggest setting aside some time every day to think and write (and by “write” I mean make notes, make outlines, make lists – you’re not going to sit down and write beautiful sentences on day one). Break your idea down to its simplest parts, and discipline yourself to thinking about each of those parts methodically and logically, with one overriding question in your mind: what happens next?

Using your example above: There is a boy who is really a wizard, who will go to wizard school and leave his old life behind. Okay… so what you really have is a boy and an “old life”. Who is this boy? What’s he like? What’s his name? (I suggest Harry). What is his “old life” like? Every boy has parents, right? Who are his parents? Are his parents wizards? If they are, then why don’t they just tell him he’s a wizard? Maybe they’re dead. Oh, maybe they died because… no, wait. I’ll jot down that bit about why they died so I don’t forget (in a notebook I keep with me ALL THE TIME), but let me keep going with this boy, this orphan. If he’s an orphan, where does he live? The street? An orphanage? Maybe with relatives. Relatives might be interesting. Might be fun if he’s super magical, and they are resolutely NOT magical. Maybe they’re mean…

You’d be surprised to discover how much can develop my asking yourself these kinds of questions for a few hours a day, every day.

Aside 1: obviously, reverse-engineering one of the most famous stories ever is a lot easier than doing this from scratch, but this really does work.

Aside 2: All of those books (and applications) that provide help with asking important questions are based on models derived from previous efforts – they are formulas based on what’s worked before. (For example: LOTS of young boys in fantasy stories are orphans – Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Superman…) Just as it’s easier to reverse-engineer Ms. Rowling’s work, you can take a shortcut and conform your story to one of these existing models. People do it all the time. Leaving aside the argument over whether this produces boring, formulaic work, I think these shortcuts do your story a disservice. I think it’s important that you tell your story based on the questions and answers you come up with – your take on “what happens next” is what writing’s all about. Maybe your story will conform to an established pattern, and it may serve you well to have an understanding of those patterns stored somewhere in the basement of your mind. But when you’re asking and answering questions based on the things that really interest you, you’re doing the real work of writing.

PLUS, when you get in the habit of amusing yourself by asking these kinds of questions, you don’t need a full blown idea to begin. Maybe instead of a boy who’s a wizard, you just have an image of a boy getting yelled at by a fat lady. Hmm. Well, who is this boy, and why is she yelling? Maybe he got into some mischief. What could he have done?

Anyway, on to better advice from others. Good luck.

So what, no posts from me, vic-k and wock (although Molly’s mum would be a good candidate to make us the +4)? Back on topic…

Isn’t the biggest point of any technique just the “put it in the chair”? Here the it is your backside. Also, wouldn’t using a “technique” really be conforming to a story model?

I personally fail miserably at this. Lots of starts, few finishes. Almost always due to my “it” not being in a chair. While I am not a big supporter of methods/techniques none of it really matters if you are not actually sitting down and writing.

Start by doing it the other way round: Take a book you like and try to figure out how it is constructed. Write 1-2 sentences to describe each scene, look how different threads of action intertwine, look what the different characters are doing when, how and why and so on. Doing this seriously can teach a lot and will most probably make most of the “how-to-write-the-next-blockbuster-novel”-books superfluous.

I’ve learned it this way when I was young. Which was, unfortunately, a long time ago, but there were no “how-to-write-the-next-blockbuster-novel”-books then that could interfere… :laughing:

By that I do not mean to copy. It’s just like when you want to build a clock, you better take another one apart, piece by piece, and figure out how all the pieces work together. So that you can go and build your own set of pieces.


Could not agree more, though once IT’s in the chair, it’s good to have some idea of what you should be doing on the other end.


I disagree, for the reasons stated above, and because enough people have done that work for you. But, of course, to each his/her/its own. The only absolute is Jaysen’s advice above.

Mr Coffee,

Your credibility has been shot all to pieces in that last post. Anyone who agrees with me should be institutionalized! There is hope for you though. You were not really agreeing with me, but with … wait for it … yourself. My post was nothing more than a distillation of your, sometimes very emphatic, suggestions to me and a few other folk on similar topics. While my natural leanings put my “method” more to the self discovery philosophy that Andreas recommends, the fact remains that my only productive moments have come from your excellent advice. Granted you are not the only one who has suggested “A in C” on these forums (Ahab comes to mind). For some reason I always associate you with that concept.

Maybe it is the crazy cat picture.


Glad I could be of assistance. That’s very gratifying. I wish I followed that advice as emphatically as I repeat it. Now get back to work! :smiley:

Back on topic:

One of the most illustrative comments on writing I’ve ever read was the observation that so many fine writers of fiction began life as newspaper reporters. Here were people for whom crafting a very specific story from a mountain of information was a professional necessity – as was the need to do it every damn day, come hell, high water or hangover. Ask “then what happened?” a hundred times a day, every day – if you have that skill and that kind of discipline, you are on your way to amassing a nice stack of pages. (Now, that stack of pages may amount to a pile of something else entirely, but writing well is off topic and above my pay grade.)

Lacking a crazy-cat picture (though not crazy cats), I have missed my chance at being eternally associated with A in C. Which is where mine is, right now, frowning at last night’s crop of index cards.


Much of the advice above is of the practical, “how-to-do”, variety: “butt-in-chair”, 3-by-5 index cards and so on. Good advice too. (And by the way, the Snowflake Method is a good formulation of many similar techniques.)

But it’s not clear to me Leif whether that’s all that you’re asking about. Because in getting from concept to outline there is at least one other thing.

Even more difficult than the “how-to-do” is the “what-to-do”. What do you fill those 250 pages of book or those 122 minutes of movie with?

Again there are numerous guides. Plus of course the gurus: Truby, McKee, etc. And as Andreas says, reading Masters and Mistresses of the story-telling craft is very helpful. But despite these, even established writers fail, their failures often expressed in comments such as “the long second act”, “I could see the end coming a mile off”, “the middle section sagged”, “the plot dragged”, and so on.

My own conclusion - for what it’s worth, which may not be much - is that a successful, satisfying narrative takes at least three: three entities, characters, forces, locations, motivations…

A single idea, however Hey-Mum extraordinary, is not enough. That is a snapshot or a news story. It is not a novel, a play or a film. There has to be something else. A boy who discovers he’s a wizard is not enough. A boy who discovers he’s the only wizard who can defeat the most evil individual since evil was invented - maybe that begins to have legs.

A mentor once said to me:“Every story has to have a Billy the Kid and a Wyatt Earp, and also a Doc Holliday. And Doc is the most important of the three.” Leaving aside my mentor’s slightly off-target knowledge of American history ( :confused: ), I think he was correct. If a story is to sustain, it needs at least a third “factor”, and possibly more. Possible many more. These extra “factors” increase the opportunities for weaving a tale. The permutations of possible interaction rise exponentially.

It’s not enough to say that a story consists of two people fighting for supremacy or even their lives; for a satisfying tale with complications, intricacies and fun and games that will keep a reader or viewer entertained for two hours or more, there needs to be at least one other someone or something else involved. I don’t mean just more minor characters or locations; I mean significant forces that shape the tale.

To put it an old-fashioned way — a satisfying story cannot be expressed in a simple sentence. It needs to have a subordinate clause. The Good and the Bad will of course be involved, but also the Ugly as well. Romance needs the Other Woman, or the Other Man (or even simply the Other Distraction). Butch needs Sundance but they also both need Ella.

And – again just my theory – it’s conjuring up these “extra factors” and successfully weaving them into the narrative that really make the whole thing so bloody hard. But also satisfying.

My theory. Please feel free to tear it to pieces.


Let me start: Her name is Etta! :smiley:
Seriously: Your theory of “three powers” condenses an important point very well!

Interesting and instructive advice.

A lot of your advice hinges (as I read it) on the need for conflict within a story, which is – of course – solid advice. I still think it comes down to “what’s next?” – conflict being a good way to choose your answer to that question. To continue with Leif’s Harry Potter example, take a look at the choice Rowling made re Harry’s “old life”.

She could have chosen to make him the son of living Wizards, who sent him to a fantastic school. Okay, fine, but it’s not a terribly interesting choice. Do this, and the thing doesn’t get good until he gets to the school. It renders the beginning of the story free of conflict. She could have made Harry reluctant to attend, which would have added conflict, but internal conflict is kind of like no conflict at all, no? If you’re connecting the dots every day, give yourself interesting dots.

She could have chosen to put him in an orphanage or on the streets, but I’m guessing that was a little more Dickensian than she’d prefer. I can imagine her thinking, “Are there even orphanages like that anymore? I don’t want this to be old-fashioned.” This is JKR doing the work, making choices that hold her interest (and so, presumably, the interest of the reader). She wanted to make Harry a contemporary kid, not Oliver Twist.

She chose to put him with relatives, I’m guessing because it was the choice that offered the juiciest bits, a treasure trove of conflict – it was a contemporary choice; the relatives could be douche-y like a clichéd and outdated orphanage mum (conflict!); but they could also harbor secrets she’d want to use later.

I apologize for the horribly facile Creative Writing 101 crap here, but it all kind of makes sense. When you have a good idea and the possibilities are spinning out into infinity, the act of getting it all down may seem daunting. But when you boil it all down to one dot at a time – and give yourself the hours to do so (stop reading this and get to work!) – it all becomes logical and manageable.

Ahab, I think you scare me. Last I checked you were inside a whale. Now here you are telling me to get my A in C. You can see why that would be a tad frightening, right?

On a slightly more serious note, I find that the A in C, or H on R (hand on racquet), or F in B (face in book) or more realistically the X in/on Y method is the only real method to success. It is only through dedication to an activity that we will really achieve goals. The methods that Mr. King uses, Ms. Rollings, Mr. Coffee, Hugh or The Great Whale Hunter use only work because the A is in the C. Oh, and they are all a little crazy in their own way.

Which brings us back to Mr. Coffee. There are lots of books, very few of which I have read, that talk about how folks work once the A is in the C. As noted earlier these are guides and not gospel. There is a thread here somewhere where someone was so distracted by the book method that no writing was happening. You will need to find one that works for you based on your own “little crazy”. My method, which is purely for my pleasure is:

  1. Have idea and put it on paper.
  2. Ask kid. If they don’t like I pout and toss.
  3. Interview myself over the idea. If the answers are lame, pout and toss.
  4. Jot a few of the big points. These are plot or info points. I typically use scriv for this.
  5. Take each of the outputs of 4 back to 3.
  6. If anything makes it past 4 get A in C and work. Otherwise pout and toss.

Let it suffice to say I don’t make it to 6 much. Then again, I am not trying to feed my family with what I write. The writing is for me and I expect it will never see the light of day. But who knows? Maybe.

I was most of the way through your post before I figured that one out.

I actually seem to think/plan best while walking around and acting out a scene.


Now that that secret’s out, can I go hide, now?

Lots of advice from Fiction Writing 101, and good, too. Maybe, though, you could apply some advice from Playwrighting 101.

1a. Bring a character on stage.
1b. Character talks, to self or audience.
2a. Bring another character on stage.
2b. Characters talk. Dialogue only, no stage direction.
3a. Bring a third character on stage.
3b. More dialogue.
4a. One character leaves the stage.

If you don’t have a story underway by then, throw it all out and go back to #1.


… so that’s what happens when you get and “error” crash. Two copies of the post.

You need to stay out of vic-k’s bottle.

Vic-K’s bottle rules. Where do you think I came up with all that advice?