Sunday, July 25, 2021

Staying on course

In writing Wrath of Empire, I’ve mentioned the need to stay on course and not let the story drift away from the key events already set in stone. That bare-bones outline was mentioned briefly in Ghosts of Innocence, which I first drafted thirteen years ago. At that time I had no idea I would consider backtracking and writing about those times, so they were just convenient backstory. I’d given no thought to how events progressed from A to B to C.

Now, of course, it matters greatly.

To help me, I’ve drawn heavily on a number of tools and techniques I’ve accumulated over the years. Most of them are tools I keep handy to help avoid writer’s block, and which I describe more thoroughly in Breaking the Block.


First, naturally, there’s the good old standard outline. In terms of what an outline looks like, I reckon there are as many varieties as there are writers, but to me an outline is a top-down expansion of the story. It focuses on what happens, and starts with the main highlights then expands each into greater and greater detail.

Avid and practiced outliners will map out the entire story in this way so they know exactly what will happen in each chapter and scene before they write a word of actual story. I don’t go that far. My outlines are a combination of bullet-form statements laid out as an indented list, and sometimes more fully fleshed-out paragraphs as if I was trying to describe to someone what is happening in this part of the story.

In the case of Wrath of Empire, the top of my outline consists of the three headings: Empress Florence’s funeral, Imperial family assassinated, and destruction of Eloon (Shayla’s home world). These form the outline's skeleton and are the key events that I have to land on. From there, it’s a matter of fleshing out details to make a story.

Of course, as these events take place over the span of four years, that leaves a lot of empty space to fill. Expanding the outline directly only takes me so far, and I don’t do well with simply laying out things that happen. I need other tools to help figure out what goes into that space.


I find it helps to think not just about what happens, but why. A couple of vital tools for me are Motivations/Goals/Methods, and Stakeholder Stories.

The first tool looks at the key players in the story and asks what motivates them, what are they striving for, and how do they set about achieving their goals. The idea is to write just a few sentence to capture the main drivers for the story. You can’t get too deep into this, because the whole point of a story is for people’s goals to be thwarted, so these notes just form the starting point. After that, characters’ actions will intersect and conflict, throwing them off course.

Stakeholder stories takes this method further and examine what happens when things go awry. They generally start with what a character is trying to achieve and how, but they go further and look at how they react when things get in the way. These stories start off with the overarching motivation and goal, but move into a lot of sentences along the lines of “When X happens, it affects Y this way, and Y decides to do Z”. This tool is also a form of outline, but it exposes how the different story threads weave together in a network of cause and effect. I find this a great tool for brainstorming the “what” because it allows me to delve deep into each character and think from their point of view.

Another tool is the character interview. I’ve used this in the past to ferret out some of their underlying motivations. I’ve not used this technique yet for this project, but I have drawn on interviews I happened to do with my main character when I was writing Ghosts.


No matter what form my outlines take, I always lay out the main events on a timeline. This helps keep track of multiple threads, making sure they align and cross at the right points. This is especially important when things need to take time to happen, such as traveling from A to B, or things taking time to prepare.

In all my novels, the story timeline eventually becomes the primary outline, and becomes what I regard as my go-to source of truth, a single reference to which everything else aligns.

My timeline usually takes the form of a spreadsheet, with each row representing a day, and columns for each of the main players in the story. This has worked well for my previous novels, where the stories have all taken place over a few weeks of time.

Here is a part of the timeline for Ghosts of Innocence.

Wrath of Empire posed a new challenge for me, because the story takes place over years rather than weeks. I found the spreadsheet format hard to manage, because I needed more flexibility to handle approximations and to move things around as the outline evolved. For this project I settled on using a drawing tool to capture main events in a more free-form picture.

Taken in combination, these techniques have (so far) kept me on track.


Rick Ellrod said...


I tend to keep the bullet-point outline as my major 'source of truth' -- but that may be because most of what I've written so far tends to be fairly linear, rather than a lot of threads happening at once.


Botanist said...

Rick, the stories I've written tend to be narrated linearly, but they've always involved multiple threads to be woven together. There's always more than one thread to keep track of - including things happening "off stage" - it's a matter of whether you can follow it well enough in a simple outline or not.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Well done Ian - it's a good discipline to have ... at least your thoughts are put down for use as your book develops, and you know exactly where you are with it. Good for you - cheers Hilary

Botanist said...

Thanks Hilary. Getting things down in this form also helps prevent contradictions that would be easy to creep in if I just sat down and wrote.

Chrys Fey said...

Your timelines look really neat.

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