Brainstorming & Outlining for People Who Hate Outlines

We have to tell stories to unriddle the world - Alan GarnerThis post is for people who are having trouble getting past the exciting beginning of their story and into (and through) the mushy middle. It works for novelists and short story writers.

Beyond The Beginning

Starting a story can be hard. But once you get started, the excitement carries you through some initial world-building, character-developement and scene setting. Then what?

Then, you get stuck, going around in circles, with your characters doing stuff, but not really going anywhere (either literally or plot-wise).

This is the perfect time to outline the next part of your story and start thinking about where you want to go from here. If you hate the thought of  outlining, think of it as brainstorming. You do this in your head, if you’re a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants), but sometimes it can be helpful to catch some of your ideas on paper.

Brainstorming (Not Outlining)

If you’re not a natural outliner, don’t go crazy with this. You know you’re going to write something that captures your interest and throw out the outline, or maybe a new character will do something unexpected and interesting. So don’t outline. Just brainstorm a few questions like:

  • What is my character’s main desire?
  • What is stopping her from getting to that desire?
  • What does a ‘victory’ look like, in story terms and for my character?
  • How can I make things worse for her?
  • How can I make things even worse for her?
  • Who does she need to ally with to help her reach her ‘victory’?
  • Who/what is the antagonist and what does it/they want?

Even if you’re not a fan of outlining, keeping these questions (and the answers you discover) in mind as you write, will help keep your enthusiasm high for your story.

Revisit these questions every few writing sessions, or after every couple of scenes. Map out what needs to happen next to advance your character’s journey. Let future ideas dance around the back of your brain.

Then add another scene to your story.

More Resources

I’m posting these with the caveat that you should use as few of these as possible and ONLY when you are absolutely, dead stuck. Do not think these will help you if you aren’t actually writing. You must be writing your story for these resources to make any meaningful contribution.


Jill Williamson has a fabulous resource page full of everything from Novel Brainstorming Worksheet and one for short stories, to scene planning worksheets (one and two POVs), to character archetypes, genres & subgenres, even a worksheet for thinking about your characters’ hobbies!

Larry Brooks has a one-page checklist to help you plot out your novel. I find this one a little overwhelming, but if you take it step by step (i.e. write  your way to a point when you’re stuck, then consult his list to see what you need to think about for the next quarter of your story) it might be more manageable. You can also find his Character Checklist here.

Books To Get You Unstuck

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi is one of three books they’ve written (along with the Negative Trait Thesaurus and the Positive Trait Thesaurus) that can help you if your characters are feeling flat.

Book Architecture: How to Plot and Outline Without Using a Formula by Stuart Horwitz. Can’t recommend this enough. It takes a fresh look at how to keep your plot interesting, by examining through-lines of themes and imagery and character traits rather than focusing on the old ‘Plot point I”, “Plot point II” “Dark Night Of The Soul” structure, which I find really unhelpful. This book, on the other hand, make small explosions go off in my brain. If you’re resistant to the idea of outlining, this might be the book to help you keep your story on track, nevertheless.

Million Dollar Outlines (Million Dollar Writing Series) by Dave Farland. Unashamedly commercial in outlook, this book is stuffed with examples (mostly from the movie world) of what makes a compelling story, what readers are looking for (even down to age and gender breakdowns) and leaves you feeling totally convinced that anyone with a modicum of talent and the will to persist, can do this and maybe even make a living at it. Why not you? Hoo-ah! Also stuffed with practical advice on how to make YOUR story sing.

Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between by James Scott Bell. I found this very encouraging, particularly his insight into what the ‘midpoint’ of the novel really is, and the kind of moment you can write for your protagonist that crystallizes both the midpoint and what comes next.

Motivation for Creative People: How to Stay Creative While Gaining Money, Fame, and Reputation by Mark McGuinness. This book won’t tell you how to write a novel, but it will help you think about all the ways your poxy brain is holding you back, and how to make it work for you, instead. This is not your average ‘rah-rah, tell yourself you can do it’ book. McGuinness uses everyday examples and his background as a coach to show you how different types of motivation work on you. Grounded in academic studies, this is a chatty, accessible and inspiring look at how you can free yourself to create.

Other Resources

The Snowflake Method – From Randy Ingermanson, this is another wonderfully logical way to avoid the whole inverted-triangle, unhelpful story structure plotting that drives me crazy. It helps you focus on the key points of the story you want to tell (which you’ll discover while going through his exercises). It has the added bonus of creating your story summary and proto-marketing materials before you’ve even written it (which is the part most people say they hate even more than writing the thing in the first place).

This works even if you’ve started your novel. I was stuck at the half way point of a novel I’d been tinkering with for years, when I came across this method. Spent a few hours following Randy’s advice and pounded out the second half of the novel in a couple of weeks!


StoryADay May Flyer 2015

If you’re a member of a Real World writers’ group and would like to spread the word about StoryADay May, here’s a spiffy flyer that you can print out and take with you.


storyaday flyer link
Right-click to download the file to your hard drive or click to open in a new tab, then print.


Likewise, if you frequent a literary salon, coffee shop or grungy cafe full of secret writers, as long as it has a noticeboard, why not take one along with you and spread the word?

Remember, Peer Pressure Is Good, kids!

Writing Flash Fiction Gems – Small, Precious, and Slower Than You’d Think


What Is Flash Fiction?

There are, of course, as many definitions of Flash Fiction as there are writers.

Flash Fiction image

Length: The closest point of consensus I could find is that Flash Fiction ought to be not more than 1000 words.

(One journal points out that, in China, this fiction is described as a story you can read in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette. Since there’s no smoking in public places where I live, we’ll have to come up with an alternate definition. A story you can read while waiting for the barista to finish making your non-fat, no-foam, chai vanilla iced latte? Tea-break tales? Soda stories?)

Content: Flash fiction must contain a complete story — a beginning, a middle and an end. It can be in any genre. It may — or may not — have a twist in the end.

What Flash Fiction Is Not

Flash Fiction, though short, is not:

  • Simplistic – Getting a whole short story into so few words requires all the tricks up a writer’s sleeve. After writing a few of these, you’ll start to look fondly at that half-finished novel you just archived.
  • A Fragment – a description of a scene or a character is not a Flash Fiction story. It’s a fragment.
  • Easy – A Flash Fiction story requires just as much thought and planning as a longer story (perhaps more).
  • Quick – Spare, pointed writing often takes much longer to create than longer works. The good news is that much of the ‘writing’ can be done in your head before you even sit down to type.

How To Write Flash Fiction

Good Subjects for Flash Fiction

“Look for the smaller ideas in larger ones. To discuss the complex interrelationship of parents and children you’d need a novel. Go for a smaller piece of that complex issue. How kids feel when they aren’t included in a conversation. What kids do when they are bored in the car.”

G. W. Thomas, writing in Fiction Factor

This is excellent advice. It’s easy to let a story run away with you, but the beauty of short stories is exactly this ability to focus on the moments that shape the big ideas.

Another way to find subjects for flash fiction is to take advantage of what the reader already knows: base a story on familiar tales (fairy tales, urban myths, traditional myths). These provide many short cuts for the writer: if you talk about a fairy godmother, we know what we should expect (and you’re free to quickly subvert that!). If you write about someone waking up in a bath full of ice, the reader immediately thinks they know something. Run with it (or away from it!).

And don’t forget about mystery and humor. What is a good joke, after all, but a tiny mystery tied up with a punchline?


In the same article, G. W. Thomas advises focusing on one powerful image. E. B. White uses this technique in his short story The Door, where the single image of the lab rat’s trigger (a circle) runs throughout the story, tying it all together. It’s a very efficient and effective technique.

Short-short stories often feature a mystery or a twist in the tale, subverted expectations. you only have so many words, and this is a great way to pack a punch. Be careful, though, not to make your ending feel too much like a traditional punchline, or risk alienating your reader.

Some writers advocate writing long stories and then paring them to the bone. Me? I’m lazy and that seems like a lot of extra work. I’m working on focusing on the essentials as I write (but that comes with the risk of inviting in the dreaded Inner Editor, so beware).

Writing spare, low-word-count fiction doesn’t mean you have to state the bald facts and lose all your style. You get to choose every word: leave out dialogue attributions and lush descriptions if your style tends towards satirical commentary and unexpected metaphors. Or cut the metaphors and go dialogue-heavy. There is plenty of room for style in a Flash Fiction story as long as you focus on one central idea, and pare away everything that isn’t ‘you’.

Where To Read Good Flash Fiction

There really is no excuse for not reading flash fiction: it doesn’t take long! You can study the form a lot more quickly than if your preference were the Russian masters.

Finding Flash Fiction is not hard to do. The Internet is the perfect vehicle, especially now that we’re all walking around peering at our mobile devices.

Flash Fiction Online – a paying market, so you know it is curated and someone has decided it’s worth a look.

The Raleigh Review – has a page of sample Flash Fiction.

Every Day Fiction – long-running site that sends a new story to your inbox every day.

Daily Science Fiction – a short science fiction emailed to you every day!

Romance Flash – no, the sci-fi fans don’t get to have all the fun 😉

The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts – This is for all you literary types.

10Flash Quarterly – self-described fans of “science fiction, fantasy, horror, suspense, crime capers and slipstream”.

Vestal Review – describes itself as ‘the longest-running flash fiction magazine in the world”.

Microcosms – Twitter-length fiction with a speculative tinge.

Nanoism – Another long-running Twitter fiction site.

FlashFiction Chronicles – which is part of Every Day Fiction. It has a fabulous resource page that led me to many of the sites listed here. It also has an annual Flash Fiction contest with a cash prize. Check them out.

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