I was wondering if for a future blog post on writing or writing tricks, if you could describe your story outlining process a little? And/or post a small example of your typical outline? Even just a short blurb would be really awesome.
I’m a very visual person, and I struggle with ADHD (diagnosed as an adult… boy it explains a lot), especially in terms of attention and organization. (What is this foreign concept of “organization”?) Outlines for essays have always been helpful, but I just can’t wrap my head around how that may look like for a story. I’ve tried Googling some examples, but I mostly come up with things like “fill in the blank” character profile sheets. Approaches I’ve tried to make end up being tooooo detailed… and then the story gets strangled to death. I’ve even tried looking in ADHD forums for ideas and tips.
There’s probably stuff out there, but I’ve been too dense to find it. I have so many story ideas that I’ve written paragraph idea sketches so I don’t forget them, but every time I try to sit down and write one of them, I get “lost” and can’t find my way around my own story. I know editing is where you refine your plot, but I’m hoping to somehow figure out a nice basic road map to reference to get through the rough draft.
I will continue to try looking for things out in the ether, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask you since I love your stories so much and love how you bring your pieces together. It would be pretty cool to see a small example of your outline style.
Let’s take a stab at this. We’re going to outline a retelling of Red Riding Hood. Any similarities to any future or past retellings are coincidental. There are only so many way you can spin this old story and many people have done it, so I claim no rights to this cliche synopsis and release it into public domain.
We’re going to do this in three stages.
Imagine a five year old, one of your relatives, children, siblings, etc. You need to tell the story of Red Riding Hood to him and do it so he or she don’t get bored.
Red Riding Hood was a very nice girl, who lived on the edge of a dark scary forest with her mom and dad in a little cottage. Red Riding Hood liked to wear a red cape her Grandma gave her for her birthday. Her grandmother lived by herself in the woods.
Five year old: Why did Grandma live in the woods by herself?
This is a valid question, so let’s think up of a reason.
Her grandmother was a powerful witch and she had to live in the woods, because that where she gathered the best herbs.
At this point let’s circle back to the first paragraph.
Red Riding Hood is a very nice girl, who lives on the edge of a dark scary forest with her mom and dad in a little cottage. Red Riding Hood likes to wear a red cape her Grandma gave her for her birthday. Her grandmother told Red Riding Hood that if she were ever in trouble, the red cloak would protect her. Red Riding Hood’s Grandmother lives by herself in the woods, because she was a powerful witch and that’s where she gathers herbs to brew her magical potions.
One day, Red Riding Hood’s mother asks Red Riding Hood to deliver a basket of
bread rolls cookiesbottles of imported nightshade to Grandma. Red Riding Hood puts on her cloak and goes to the woods.
In the Red Riding Hood’s village also lives a very nice boy, whose name was Ranulf. Ranulf is a hunter and he is really good at hunting, because Ranulf is a werewolf. He keeps his magic a secret, because people get scared of werewolves and Ranulf doesn’t want to scare anyone. For awhile now, Ranulf has been finding disturbing signs in the woods, animals who were hacked to pieces.
Need to up the stakes here.
Also, two girls had disappeared from the village. They went into the woods and didn’t come back. Some people said it was some deadly beast who tore them apart. Someone like a big scary wolf.
Back to the front paragraph.
Red Riding Hood is a very nice girl, who lives on the edge of a dark scary forest with her mom and dad in a little cottage. The forest is a dangerous place. Two girls from their village had gone into the woods and never came back, but Red Riding Hood isn’t scared of the woods. She loves wandering under the big old trees and goes there often, which is why her grandmother, a powerful witch who made the woods her home, gave her a red cloak for her birthday and told her that it would protect her in time of danger.
One day, Red Riding Hood’s mother asks Red Riding Hood to deliver some bottles of imported nightshade to Grandma. Red Riding Hood puts on her cloak and goes to the woods.
In the Red Riding Hood’s village also lives a very nice boy, whose name was Ranulf. Ranulf is a hunter and he is really good at hunting, because Ranulf is a werewolf. He keeps his magic a secret, because people get scared of werewolves and Ranulf didn’t want to scare anyone. Even so, people don’t like Ranulf. There was just something odd about him that makes them worry. So Ranulf keeps mostly to himself and doesn’t talk to smart and funny girls like Red Riding Hood.
For awhile now, Ranulf has been finding disturbing signs in the woods, animals who were hacked to pieces. Then, the girls disappeared. Ranulf knows that something terrible is in the woods, and when he sees Red Riding Hood leave by herself, he decides to follow her. But because he isn’t well liked, he turns into a wolf, so he can follow her undetected.
Red Riding Hood notices the big bad scary wolf and tries to lose him.
Come up with at least two ways of figuring out how she is going to lose him. Possible variations: she wades down stream. She uses some magic to distract him. She falls into a pit and he passes her by. Something here.
Unknown to her, Red Riding Hood is being stalked by a woodsman whose name is Gary. Gary is a very sick person. He liked to kill small helpless animals and set things on fire when he was younger, but now he grew up into a big strong man and he is looking for bigger things he could kill and torture. From Gary’s point of view, things that come into his woods belong to him and he can hurt them however he wants. Ranulf smells Gary early on and decides that nothing good would come from the woodsman being there.
Woodsman Gary, Ranulf and Red Riding Hood slowly make their way through the woods. Gary keeps trying to get Red Riding Hood. All the while Red Riding Hood thinks the wolfs if her real problem…
The cape should turn her invisible.
Red Riding Hood notices the big bad scary wolf and tries to hide from him. Just about when he iss ready to discover her, her cape turns her invisible.
Have a big scary scene here with her holding her breath. Have her do some magic.
Unknown to her, Red Riding Hood is being stalked by a woodsman whose name is Gary. Gary is a very sick person. He liked to kill small helpless animals and set things on fire when he was younger, but now he grew up into a big strong man and he is looking for bigger things he could kill and torture. From Gary’s point of view, things that come into his woods belong to him and he can hurt them however he wants. Ranulf smells Gary early on and decides that nothing good would come from the woodsman being there and decides to put himself between Gary and Red Riding Hood.
Woodsman Gary, Ranulf and Red Riding Hood slowly make their way through the woods. Gary keeps trying to get Red Riding Hood. Ranulf keeps trying to keep Gary from getting Red Riding Hood. Red Riding keeps trying to get to the Grandma’s house safe and outwit both of them.
This is a perfectly fine thing to have in your synopsis. I don’t need to completely plot the story down to every detail. I already know that I will likely do a three act structure in this part where there are two encounters between my three characters, with the big finale being the final encounter. As I will write the story, I will discover how it will unfold and those details will allow me to come up with a better encounter than if I just write it now cold turkey. Don’t be afraid to let stuff percolate in your brain. Like Grandma’s potions, stories need time to brew.
Gary, who is an impatient and impulsive bad guy, decides to abandon his pursuit of Red Riding Hood and instead to head directly down to Grandma’s cottage and wait for Red Riding Hood there. He arrives to the cottage to find the old witch is out, so he breaks the door and goes inside. While inside, he finds a transforming potion and takes it, turning himself into Grandma.
Because why the heck not, right? Might as well push this as far as it can go.
Red Riding arrives to the cottage to find her Grandmother inside. But Ranulf, who followed her, smells Gary’s scent and realizes that grandmother was the woodsman in disguise. He attacks Gary to save Red Riding Hood. Not realizing that Ranulf is trying to save her, Red Riding Hood fights him off and locks him outside the house. Gary has been waiting for this moment for a long time. He wants to hurt her very much. He just keeps smiling and smiling, but Red Riding Hood’s grandmother wasn’t a the smiling type. She realizes something is wrong and when Gary attacks, she was ready.
Meanwhile, Ranulf finally finds the way inside the house. He breaks in just in time to help Red Riding Hood finish off Gary. Ranulf turns back into a human, and he and Red Riding Hood cleaned up the mess and waited for grandmother to come home together. Red Riding Hood always kind of thought that Ranulf was interesting but he was always off by himself, so now is their chance to finally get to know each other.
Now that I figured out the general layout of the story, the question is where to start.
I’m probably going to start with a scene where Red Riding Hood is in the woods, because I need to show her running around there not being scared of the scary woodland creatures. So perhaps something with a monster, of which she isn’t scared. As she turns to go home, she stumbles onto human remains, possibly one of two girls who disappeared. She might recognize the hair or an article of closing. As she turns to leave, she sees the big black wolf watching her from the shadows. Something about the wolf deeply freaks her out. She takes off for the house, where her mother asks her to visit her grandmother.
At the core, this is a story of two outcast weirdos finding each other, so getting them together in the first scene creates symmetry with the ending: they start together and they end together. The story comes full circle.
This is all I need to start. The general framework of the story and the general framework of the scene I am about to write. I don’t need anything else. I don’t need to think ahead on any details. Those will come as I write.
The woods stood still.
Red frowned. The woods were never still. They moved and shifted with life. Even in the darkest deepest corners, where sun barely broke through the dense canopy of leaves overhead, things with glowing eyes prowled, hunted, and cuddled their young. But here, in this shallow ravine, the woods stood still. Birds didn’t sing, squirrels didn’t scamper, and the woodpeckers had fallen silent. Nothing moved. The air felt dead…
There you go. Now you try to retell your own fairy tale for fun.
Wow! Thanks for the peek into the creative process. I never really thought about how authors outlined their stories. I think I thought the story came out and then you would go back and edit it.
Of course now I want to know more about Red and Ranulf. ?
Don’t you start. 🙂 This is not getting written, this is purely for edumacational purposes.
I was just joking around. Besides you gave us the beginning outline so we can figure out our own ending. Mine will have an HEA, because that is what I like but I can see how the story could turn dark.
Maybe on the forums someone could organize a writing contest.
I would like to read 3, or more!, versions of this written by different authors. Sort of like the cosplayer’s April Fools prank involving a Misty costume.
Reading Ann Leckie’s new novel, so my first thought was “How could an author expand on this outline and play with gender expectations the way Ilona played with the hood, the wolf, the hunter and the grama roles?”
Well, honestly I didn’t mess with things that much. If you really wanted to make this different, you would make Red Riding Hood a guy and wolf a girl and let it go from there. But I liked the picture, so I went traditional.
John Bonfiglio says
Pretty pleasums with sugar and candy sprinkles and REAL whipped topping on top? And cats meowing in harmony in the background? Pleeeeeeeeasums?
Chiara (Chandramas) says
Interesting description of the writing process. What seems implicit is the re-visiting of both the general story line and the pages and pages of what is written. Also implicit is the “format” of the story — maybe introduction and climax (with something in between and maybe after that I don’t know how to name). Thank you both for your stories and your insights (I have never written a comment before).
Interesting variation of outlining process. It’s pretty similar to my own actually. I about snorted my coffee when I hit the bright glowy pulsating heart. Funny stuff
This is awesome! Thanks so much!
Youre amazing. I really think so. Reading something like this, i want to gift you with only good things, so you
can write and live happily ever after. Sad reality is all i can do is buy your books. Let me, gimme :))
Tiffany Vakilian says
I’m not saying you “shouldn’t”, but Curran’s child would probably appreciate it (if you “did”) if the male hero were some form of a cat.
And if you “did”, Derek would love you forever, as would Julie. They’d probably act it out for fun during big holidays… assuming there were no magic flares.
Holy Cow! That was incredible. I am in awe of the authorlords incredible gift for layering, creativity, and adding interest in to a story we all recognize. Incredible! I don’t think I could do that if my life depended on it, but I’m sure greatful you can. Thank you for sharing your gift with us. Fascinating.
Nicely done. I like how you built the tension and layered in new plot points. I used Red in one of my novels. Although granny is the shapeshifter and Red is the witch. Because you see, witches and Shapeshifters didn’t always get along.
Kat R says
Reading the various “Writing lessons with Ilona” over the years has changed my writing style, and I sure like it. Thank you for sharing your insight – for free. I paid a lot for my writing degree, and getting more lessons for gratis is pretty freaking awesome.
Julie Miller says
Thank you. I just only get sceens written down. Now I have a better idea of how to make them into a story. Please keep up the good work.
I would love to see you guys do some retold fairy tales…..including this one which you’ve already started here!
Courtney Mincy says
Yes! They don’t have to be long. A collection of short stories would be great!
OR the stuff that gets cut out of the books when they are too long….. we will take anything….. even the stuff that shows how different the books could have been so that we can appreciate the awesomeness of your Awesome Authorlord Abilities all over again- Although your AAA are never ever in doubt with the BDH.
(Because I often wonder for authors how much stuff they write gets left on the cutting room floor that is the editor’s office…… I often think editors are an author’s BFF and sometimes a reader’s worst enemy especially when we as readers like the author’s work and want more not less……..But we also want well rested, happy, healthy, non-stressed, …..happy Authorlords who will not get burnout because of our voracious BDH.)
Monina Cabanada says
Now you made me want to go back to writing…
Jessica G says
Wow! Thanks for the insight. I don’t have an interest in writing but this was still very interesting as an avid fan!
With my mind buzzing right now, all that is left for my mouth to do is say “thank you”, heartfelt and simple. As always: being able to enjoy ANY of your work made my day! <3
“Like Grandma’s potions, stories need time to brew.” best advice ever.
Loved the information, the outline of story structure. The best line was “The woods stood still.”
Perfect .Concise but descriptive. I haven’t never written anything ,but learning how is fascinating.
That was so awesome. Now I want to know more about Red and Ranulf.
Maybe it could be a book for adorable baby Conlan. 😀
About how he caught his first mouse……..!
Pat Crouch says
This was fun! I can have a really good time with this. Thank you!
A…maaaaa…zing! Thank you for being so generous with your writerly insights; I’m unlikely to write anything myself but enjoy seeing snippets of how you get from blank screen to masterpiece.
I want to read this story. You have an amazing gift to turn the routine and mundane into something awesome and amazing.
Red riding hood could use a remake ,you made it interesting again.
Awesome. I would recommend the program Scrivner to the person with the question. It’s designed to help you organize large projects like books
With the above example in mind, maybe incorporating pictures like the visual storyboards (in fact a quick google search for visual storyboards even brings up software) will work well with your visual orientation.
Best RRH story I have ever read — all the behavior has a logical, magical explanation. Generally this story has a creeper element, “the woodsman”, with young Red as the underage target. The grandmother has a legit, important job (medicine woman). What a neat idea, a book of PN fairy tales.
Greedy Guts says
Aren’t all fairy tales PN?
Sorry for my ignorance, but what does PN mean?
Kristin L. says
PN = Paranormal ?
I always pictured authors outlining stories as some kind of I, II, III, A, B, C kind of thing. This makes so much more sense of all the outlining tips and stories I’ve heard now.
Patricia Schlorke says
The creative mind of Ilona Andrews strikes again. 🙂 Hugh’s book came out of an April Fool’s joke. Will Red Riding Hood come out in the future or, as a couple posts I read, will this become a snippet for Kate or Curran to read to Conlan? Hmm……. The joys of educating the fan base is that eventually we want more.
Cheryl Anne farley says
Many thanks and extra chocolates for your time and efforts. Never saw a narrative outline arrangement and this will be so helpful in my writing. Think my next book title will be stuff happens. Xxoocf
That was both enjoyable to read and informative. Thank you.
Thank you, Ilona Andrews. I appreciate your Little Red Riding Hood story education. My sibs and I have grew up reading and telling our own stories. Chores go so much faster. Of course we also had tea parties during the cold weather when we were forbidden from going outside where we would make up a story and we would each be a character or characters. Well, Dad got us started with Asimov short stories and it grew from there. [I did not read the Brothers Grimm tales until I was in college in a required literature class and Dad was hard core science fiction for most of my life.] Our favorite was detective stories. we looked forward to Ellery Queen or Randall Garrett or James Schmidt (all of his Telzey stories and most of his Trigger stories) in Analog magazine or one of Dad’s other magazines. I forgot Spider Robinson as he taught us about word puns with his Callahan bar stories which Dad enjoyed. Plotting a good [detective/ mystery] story is hard work whereas romance we had 6 or 7 standard plots when we were teens.
Thanks again, Ilona Andrews for the good memories of us taking a character or a book that we had all read and making up our own spin on it.
could make a grocery list appear on nyt….. nuff said
Thank you, Ilona and Gordon.
That was amazing, you guys have such a way with words. Reading your books/posts/free goodies feels like hanging with a really good friend. Thank you for being so accessible and generous to your readers.
This is actually amazing. I am not a writer and this makes me think my chances of becoming one are slim as, even though I might sometimes have moments of creativity, my capacity to articulate such stories are juvenile at best. Just reading the brief scenes described here and I can picture them. When I try to do the same the words just aren’t there, so it would read very much as a monologue instead of a woven tale of wonder.
You are amazing guys and I thank you for being who you are and offering your fans (us) so much of yourselves.
Lib, this is 10 years of the crucible that is commercial publishing. 🙂 I couldn’t have done this as easily in 2007, when Magic Bites came out. You have to remember, I had a LOT of practice. Don’t be discouraged.
All I can say is “WOW”.
I am going to laugh so hard if Curran ends up reading this to Colan in the last book as a bedtime story. He would of course change it to a lion instead of a wolf. 😉
A big heartfelt thank you. I don’t write but I could still appreciate the coaching. Beautifully done.
“We are not worthy”.
My mind is officially blown.
Thanks for that look at your creative process. It’s incredible!
Vasanti Ramesh says
OMG. That is the most amazing take on a tale I always found weird. How do you even think up these variations? I feel so dumb. Anyway at least I have enough sense to love and appreciate all your writing. May the Force be with you.
Now I cannot get the song out of my head….. !
Thank you very much for your peek into your very creative mind!
It’s great to learn how you’re working and I’m guessing that you’re very thankful to the invention of computers, with all the changes in chapter that you do along the way.
Really impressed, thanks so much!
OMG!!!! that was such a great alternative of the fairy tale. 🙂 At the end i was already so sucked in that i did’t realize it was the end and kept scrolling down, looking for more 😉 I wish i knew how it would go on. I loooove your writing style. I read every book you’ve written and wait for the next Kate book.
That was fantastic, I loved the way you each time you expanded the story you captured my imagination.
You both are truly gifted!?
I would love to read Ilona Andrews fairy tale retellings! And retellings are HOT right now, at least in the kindle world. For a while they weren’t very popular, I remember reading Robin McKinley retellings back in high school after I fell in love with her fantasy novels (my sister forced me to read Blue Sword, she’s also the one who introduced me to Ilona Andrews).
This was wonderful and I hiope it helps the questioner.
My favorite line was “…things with glowing eyes prowled, hunted, and cuddled their young.” Scary but leavened with a little warmth.
In my imagination, when George babysits, she will read this to Conlan. Well, she will read it after a retelling of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
Patricia Schlorke says
I can see that, but instead of Goldilocks going to the bears house, the bears go to her house. ?
You could incorporate it into The Innkeeper story. A planet where the Grim brothers went by accident and all our fairytale stories originated… 😉
Patricia Schlorke says
Oh, that would be a great Innkeeper story. I remember when Grimm’s fairy tails had the really good parts taken out because at the time parents thought the stories were too gruesome. I grew up reading the stories with all the really good parts, so when they were taken out, I was shocked.
Thankfully people rebelled and the good parts were put back in. If I ever need to buy the book form of Grimm’s fairy tails, I always read one of the stories before buying so I know it’s the right book.
Patricia Schlorke says
Tales, not tails. Don’t know what I was thinking earlier.
Thank you for sharing, it’s always interesting to get a glimpse into the mind of an author. 🙂 Especially since I’m very interested in the process of writing.
For the person who asked the question, I have also found that Patricia C. Wrede has an interesting blog about writing. I did a quick search, and she had a post about storyboarding that you might find interesting:
That is awesome! You have such an amazing brain!
I absolutely adore your way of writing and putting the story together.
I wait for every book and then re-read all of the series again before each book. I already booked holidays for 8th and 9th May 2018 so that I can read as soon as the last Kate book comes out and skip work.
Have you guys ever thought of hosting a creative writers’ workshops?
As per the example you provided, you’re not only a part of a fantastic writers team, you have an remarkable skill of teaching by demonstrating the creative process.
Adrianne Middleton says
I really enjoyed reading this. It’s more or less how I work, so it’s nice to know that the method works for others.
I’m laughing to myself…this is proof you are the most amazing writer! Even after all the explanation stage three sucked me right in…now I want the rest of the story! ; )
Christine Eaton says
Well now I would like to read your version/retelling of fairytales.
Definitely need a bed time story book for Conlan.
What a great start you have made with little Red Riding Hood…now if you could just finish it off, Ilona, then start on lots more and before you know it you and Gordon will have another great book to publish!!!?Heehee!!! ?
I don’t know why but the fact you decided to name the woodsman Gary was very amusing to me. Fairy retellings are always fun. Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted will probably always be my favorite.
Thanks so much for this. I’ve been writing my book for about a year now and I’ve been stuck at the same spot. I thought I had an outline and I just didn’t know where to take the story. Today, I put my book into this format and the rest just sort of fell into place. It seems my outline was only half. I missed the piece “need to up the stakes here” and when I added the outside force/conflict that was causing many of the parties to act the way they were, everything else just made so much sense. I almost want to cry I’m so thankful. Thank you again. This post was perfect!….also the story is nice. I’d definitely read it…
Wow/ Just… wow. I’m good with characters, and a good teller of tales, but I’ve never really been able to get the two skills to meet in the middle. Thanks; this helps.
Kat from Australia says
<3 <3 <3 <3 <3 Thank you! And thank you C, for asking this question. I've been interested in this answer for literally years. Time to go sign up for NanoWriMo…
I just did last night! ?
Dang! I definitely would have read more as a kid if this was the “Red Riding Hood” of my youth! 😉 I am making up for it – I read constantly. You make writing look so easy, and exciting. Thank you for your expertise!
This is really fascinating. No wonder your books are so well balanced and full of detail. Thanks so much for sharing this. I don’t write, but this makes me want to!
WOW! That was wonderful, and I don’t write creatively (dry technical is how I earn my living). Thank you so much for all the fascinating work!
Boy, if you ever do a retelling of “Red Riding Hood”, I’m so going to buy that book! 😉
Charlene Amsden says
Chances are, if Ilona did a retelling of the blurb on the back of the Cheerios box, we’d buy that, too. She always brings something magical to her stories.
this is fantastic thanks
Is it normal that on my first draft things like feelings and details about stuff are left out? I feel like I’m not taking enough time to dwell on my MC’s feelings, or the specific details she notices in other people’s expressions when she’s talking. Or not giving her enough time to process when things happen. I’m so focused on getting all the bare bones on the page that I don’t take the time to develop anything. Is that normal? Does it make sense that I figure I can just add it in later and edit the rest to match wherever the additions may ripple and change?
Yes. That’s why it’s called first draft. Put the framework in, fix it later.
[…] this week the wonderful Ilona Andrews took on a writing question about how she writes story outlines. She laid out a great method, with a lot of insight into her writing method. But for me it was not […]