Updated: Oct 19, 2020
How to Build an Outline Through a Simple Concept:
Outlining the first draft comes easiest if you start with a simple concept. Let’s take an idea like: A witch and her black cat need to find out what her specialty is. Let’s say there are 100 specialties.
Your first draft could be writing the Witch and her Cat as they muddle through these different specialties. You don’t have to come up with 100 scenes or even 100 specialties. Let’s say that you come up with Ten scenes of her trying ten different specialties in these scenes.
Let’s say: Potion Making.
You write the scene.
The Witch and the Cat are bickering with each other the whole time, but it's fondly, as they attempt to make potions. Right off the bat, the Witch adds too much Frog’s breath and ends up reeking up the whole house. She then tries a ‘Smell lifting Potion’ but rather than lifting the smell, it thickens. They are forced out of the house where they meet the neighbor. The neighbor turns out to be one of the End-of-Year Exam Proctors. She’s not impressed.
This single scene introduces the relationship of our two protagonists, a potential antagonist, and sets up the goal of the story; to find a specialty. But don’t think too hard on that. Keep writing the experimentations.
Our witch and cat try out Levitation. Together they march into the wide forest and they perform a detachment and levitation circle around a tree. Only instead of the tree and roots coming up from the ground to float, it is instead the leaves that detach from the tree itself and float high up into the air, blinding a flock of birds as they are flying high above. The two companions flee as the birds angrily descend upon them. They escape, barely, and decide to practice on smaller objects. Only these attempts do not go well either. She detaches Bees from their honeycomb above her rather than the flowers from the ground like she’s been attempting. The two are attacked by the colony where she successfully defends her and the cat from the Bees using simple shield spells.
Potions and Levitation fail her, so our Witch and cat try Harvesting magic. Growing plants and food, but while it appears successful at first, it inevitably rots. She learns this only after selling her tomatoes to Neighbors, only to return home to see all the things she’s grown have turned a frightening black, mushed against the table. She rushes to her neighbors home only to see hear her neighbor upset inside the home and to see her barrow out of the house to come face to face with our Witch. Our Exam Proctor Neighbor drags her inside and insists on teaching her the proper way to harvest. We see an extensive and impressive array of magic displayed but in the end, our Witch is not capable of copying any of her small or large spell work.
The Witch and Cat try Scrying next. There is a beautiful lake further in the woods and they take a bowl and use the water to try to see the people around their town. The Witch does manage to pull up images of their town, but she fails to be able to look upon any person. All she sees in the water are landscapes. Random images of windows and glass about the town. She has failed to scry a single person despite hours of trying. When our witch, in an act of frustration, performs the magic on the entire lake surface, it warps the water and causes a mini Tsunami of the woods around the lake. Including flooding our Exam Proctor’s garden.
Our Witch and cat decide to try elemental magic. Since her magic caused the water to warp so spectacularly, she must be strong when it comes to the elements themselves, right? She was terrible at harvesting though and the lake has been… temporarily, expunged from its normal resting place. Fire is very risky so she decides to attempt the element of Air itself. The Witch tries to summon a gentle breeze only to summon winds so sharp that the trees around her are cut into ribbons. Terrified and dismayed, our little Witch and Cat decide that perhaps it's not a good idea to practice with such magic.
Looking back at the scenes I wrote out just exploring these two characters, you’ll notice that this Witch is good at both Defensive and offensive magic. The protection against the bees and using wind to accidentally cut the trees up. There’s also the failure of scrying… which now that I think about it would be great fun if the reason it showed her nothing is not because she failed, but because the Townspeople are missing.
Just from these exploring scenes, I have a type of story unintentionally forming here. My protagonist is a little on the young side, it seems. Remember, I’m writing this all on the fly. I have no idea where I’m going with this. So let's say that when she comes of age as a Witch, she has to go through a Trial of Magic to find her power.
I’ve written six scenes of her ‘exploring her power.’
At first, I thought the Proctor might work as a sort of antagonist, but now I’m thinking this might be part of the world itself. The house isn’t HER house, it’s THE house. A testing house for Witches. The Proctor is next door to keep an eye on things (to be the adult supervising) but she isn’t supposed to intrude too much. It's a tradition for Witches to be out a safe distance from people so that they can allow their magic to be free.
Okay… so I feel confident enough in these scenes to add another layer to this outline.
While these two have been outside of the Town, the townspeople have been locked inside various pieces of glass throughout the town. Who's doing this? I have no idea. Why are they doing this? I have no idea. Why does the reader care? I have no idea.
So let's make the reader care about this town.
Our little Witch has a Necromancer for an older brother who raises dead pets from beyond attached to the life of their owner so that the pets will pass peacefully with their owner and the owner doesn’t have to live without their pets. He’s not a very powerful one though so he can’t raise a human and there’s something about humans where they’re never quite raised from the dead right.
Our little Witch loves her brother very much. Perhaps open the story with her brother raising her cat from the dead? Perhaps our little kitty has a tattered ear and a missing leg from an accident but is alive other than that. OR… another pet from the dead, but explore the idea that her black cat is actually one of her brothers ‘saved.’ Returning a soul to its body is his special magic.
Each Witch earns a Title after they’ve found their magic.
The Proctor could be called a Harvester.
Yes. I love that. Okay.
Another attachment point for our Town? Hm.
There are no bullies… I’m really sick and tired of reading about ‘mean spirited’ bullies in Middle Grade (which is where I feel this outline is going). But it does need a bit of tension. Hm… Ha! Okay. The Fairy Godmothers have been forcing their ‘good’ magic on the town for a time. Oh!
They have an academy. It acts as a complete Foil for the way the Witches allow freedom and exploration. It has a strict manner in which is teachers its students who are magically inclined and the student has to follow what they are best at regardless of their own wants with limited ability to explore other areas of magic.
And there’s no ‘dark’ magic practiced.
Like our Necromancer brother.
But is the Fairy Godmother Academy at fault for the townspeople being locked up in glass? Or are they the obvious red herring? Oh! And let's say that our little Witch has a best friend who is being FORCED to go to the Godmother Academy. Her friend loves magic that is formed through dance, it is a form of battle magic, but she is not very good at it.
But her friend IS good at sewing magic.
She is able to whip up beautiful gowns of magic in a moment of concentration. So she is being forced to specialize in Sewing magic to become a Seamstress Godmother. YES. Alrighty then.
The story opens by introducing Our Witch, the cat, and her brother. Necromancer is introduced along with how the community loves their attachment to their beloved pets. As these two are out and about, we come across the best friend.
The best friend is introduced in a strict uniform she hates. She has to be on time. We’re introduced to her hated textbooks on sewing magic. Our Witch playfully derails her with a dance in the streets, but she is dragged off-screen by a Godmother who sticks her nose up in disgust and horror at our Witch’s cat which is how we find out that the Cat is one of the brother’s doing.
Here: Let’s say we introduce another party here.
Some innocent-seeming person: A new edition to the town. A friendly Mage (a magic user that pulls from the world around him rather than within like witches or godmothers). Oh! Maybe he uses glass as a conduct. They become crystals when a person is pulled in and their magic becomes something he can pull out.
We got something here.
Okay, so then our Witch goes off for her Ritual. All is right in the world. She does her testing but becomes more and more frustrated as she seems to mess one thing up after another. The flood becomes the breaking point for the Proctor and Witch because it ruined the food they had stocked up.
Our Proctor has to go back to town to get more supplies.
She doesn’t return.
Dun, dun, duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuun.
After a full day of waiting for the Proctor to return and trying out more magic even though she was told not to, she notices something very odd and scary. Her black cat is starting to rot.
This means something has happened to her brother.
Her Proctor never returned.
Knowing that something is very wrong in the town, our little Witch and rotting cat go back to the town, but with more caution than our Proctor. The town appears deserted. But WAIT!
Insert thing in beginning: Witch and best friend have necklaces… no, too clique.
Something more ingrained in the world we're creating here.
They have Witch charms. Little sacks that have mummified bird hearts inside a mouse’s skull wrapped around by thin vines and flowers (I don’t fucking know). Something cool like that that we mention in the first meeting with them.
This charm allows our Witch to find her friend in a small glass slipper inside the Fairy Godmother’s Academy where they were practicing enchantments on clothing items.
But how to get her out of the glass slipper?
Our little witch has to ‘destroy a magical enchantment.’ Undo magic. Let’s see… maybe each time she messed up our Proctor cast an ‘undo spell.’ She saw the spell done over and over and over again. Yes. I like that.
She manages to succeed, finally, at a bit of magic. Drawing her best friend out of the glass shoe. But it leaves her drained. And the whole town has been pulled into glass. Perhaps the stakes are shown by a crystal glass shattering. Oh! Maybe the girls are still in the Academy and on their way out, when they are chased by (I don’t know… minions of our Mage or something), a glass breaks, and the best friend tearfully informs our Witch that it was the godmother who dragged her away that morning that was inside the glass that just broke.
So let's talk about the Minions.
They can’t just be minions for no reason, right? So let's say it's… brownies. They are very good at fixing things but they have no magic of their own. The town uses them to make everything better when something breaks, but they don’t have a lot of power or influence. So let's say… at the beginning of the story the Brownies are petitioning again to have their owns levitated so that they can enjoy a view from above the town they live in. They are small creatures and hate living life constantly struggling among the large people. They are denied though because that would take a lot of magic to fix them in place like that. The Mage promises them the magic they so desire if they help him take and keep control of the magical people in the town.
The first person the Brownies are pulling from for their town is our Witch’s brother. Which is why all the bonded animals in the town are dying. And why there is the beginning of a small city appearing above the town.
So the first goal is to save the brother.
Which causes a dramatic fall of a mini-city at the Midway point of the book after the brother is saved somehow. And a vengeful army of brownies coming after them that they have to beat somehow.
How do we get there? Our best friend character combines her talents of dance and cloth. She dances across the streets and uses her movements with the cloth around the town to wrap the brownies up while our Witch uses her defensive magic we saw against the bees to defend against their attacks. A perfect sword and shield combo.
Our Witch performs undo magic as they search for her brother, trying to find which piece of glass he’s hidden inside of. (Write some kind of glass that will be obvious the moment our protagonist lays eyes on it). Perhaps our Necromancer is pulled into the window of the pet shop or maybe he carries around a glass sturdy water bottle because his magic dehydrates him.
Maybe each type of magic drains some kind of energy or price from the wielder. That’s always fun to add in.
Alright, so they battle their way through the town, pulling random people from the windows. Our Witch is exhausted at this point. Maybe they almost get dragged into the glass themselves. OH!
Maybe our Witch LETS her cat get dragged into a glass piece to stop the decay temporarily and puts it in her pocket. Her magic becomes WILDER without the channel of her black cat. Maybe that’s how the Mini town above is really destroyed.
She reaches out in anger with her wild wind battle magic and absolutely destroyed the mini-city. The brownies become more preoccupied with saving the occupants inside the homes than going after them.
She’s conflicted about hurting a people who are trying to hurt them but whose always been in her town. She knows them. They know her.
And where is the mage who caused all this trouble?
Soul magic (like necromancy) is the most difficult magic to create. And how do they figure out it’s the mage? How was it done on such a wide scale?
The Mage was making his art pieces on the cement walkways throughout the whole town as entertainment but they were actually anchoring points for a HUGE magical diagram. It’s what’s causing the magnetism, the thing that keeps dragging them towards the glass pieces.
Okay, so how to fix this?
How do you get rid of art on a sidewalk?
A massive amount of water. Like the flood she created. But how does she do that for the whole town with no obvious waterways?
The antagonists of our story, of course.
The Fairy Godmothers.
Let’s see… They can bring up (summon) water from the underwater irrigation system. They just need to free enough of them from the glass to summon the water. Then Our Witch can flood the place. Our Necromancer specializes in soul magic so he can pull the Fairies out at a much stronger rate than our Witch.
So we have the solution, which means that we need to put a time clock on this bitch.
So our Mage starts his own end all be all magic.
He’s going to drain all the magic, outside of the ones he left for the brownies, from every person in the town. The group of three can see crystals starting to go dark.
I’m tired of power-hungry just for the sake of being power-hungry.
Let’s give this bad guy a really good reason for being an asshole, shall we? There was a magical accident. The man’s daughter is on the other side of a portal, but he can’t draw enough magic from around him to open it in order to save her. He tried going to the magical council to try to convince the Head Witch Community to work together to open the portal, but like the brownies, the risk and power was too much for a mistake the man himself created in the first place through his need to figure out how a magical crystal worked.
The crystal broke after the portal formed and he has not been able to find one again since. But he discovered that they could be created through dark soul magic by drawing various people’s magic into one larger crystal.
Back to our group.
They notice the crystal is fading in a particular direction. They have to make a choice. Stop the magnetism trying to pull them in or get the Fairy Godmothers out to summon the water. Our witch gets the brother to pull her cat out.
They split up, traveling on the roofs.
The Necromancer goes to free the Fairy Godmothers, best friend goes with to use clothes across roofs as walkways.
Witch and cat go towards Mage. Using Levitation on herself and the cat to awkwardly throw themselves across the city. It’s a very bad idea. But fast. She ends up catching herself with Wind magic in a last desperate attempt to save herself.
She’s more gentle, though does end up with a lot of deep cuts.
Confrontation with Villain Time!
Her job is to keep the Villain busy. She uses wind to attack. Shields to defend. In the distance, she hears the sound of glass shattering. The brownies want vengeance. The mage curses, stating that he wanted to take their magic, not their lives.
She has to make a choice.
Save her people’s magic or save their lives.
Furious and hurt, she reaches inside herself for that gentle wind and pushes it through the whole town, pushing the brownies out of the city limits altogether.
The crystal finishes pulling magic in.
It turns on.
The portal forms.
The water rises but it's too late.
Her people are falling out of the glass, alive, but magicless.
Well… Except for the Fairy Godmothers who were pulled out beforehand.
The Mage and her are pulled into the portal where they are forced to work together in order to save the girl on the other side and escape safely. In the process of this… the Mage sacrifices himself in order to get the two girls out of the portal.
The story ends on a bittersweet note.
The Portal Girl is safe, but the monster that created the nightmare has technically escaped, the Witches and other magical folks of the town are alive and safe, but are magicless now, their magical cores were taken. The Brownies are banished. The town is partially destroyed. There is an obvious shift in power as the Fairy Godmother’s remain with their power intact. She’s become the Last Witch, her brother, the last Wizard.
This is a Complete First Draft of an Outline.
There's a lot of complexities here even though we started with the simple concept of a young witch trying to figure out what she's good at in concerns to her magic. Even after reading this, you might be a bit stumped, even more when I say I wrote this in an hour. Just following the natural progression of the story. How did one lead so naturally into another and more importantly:
You might be asking: How can I do that for MYSELF?
The first thing you have to do once you come up with a basic idea is to explore it through writing. There's no other way, no amount of thinking inside your own head, that is going to be more useful or more giving than actually starting the process and putting words to paper.
When you start out with a simple process, the questions you ask along the way will naturally develop a story into a more complex creature. You don't have to start with ten complex ideas and weave them together. A first draft should be about exploring ONE idea.
If later on, you find the story is a little too simple, you can easily add more layers to it.
In the Second Draft, I could add in the fact that our Witch suffered from an accident herself when she was young that left her with three fingers missing. This would add a connection with our Villain but it would also fundamentally change how she goes about doing her magic in the first half of the story.
This would also add on to her terror of the wind matter slicing things.
In the Third Draft I could add in the fact that it was her brother's fault when HE was practicing his own magic and trying to find what he was good at. I could lean into his guilt and maybe add in his want to protect her. Maybe at the start of the story, he shows tendencies to mother hen her. Making sure she's fully packed. Making sure that she knows that if she needs him he'll be there in a second.
In the Fourth Draft maybe we could add on to the Best Friend character since we focused on other people in the 2nd and 3rd drafts. We can maybe explain the differences between Godmother and Witch magic more. Maybe it's not necessarily a magic that appears through genetics but age. When you reach the age of, I don't know... 8, you know what type of magic you lean towards. Maybe Witch's magic is about withdrawing magic from within to connect with the elements or soul and Godmother magic has to do more with providing wishes and hopes. It's a mental kind of magic. It has to do with the community and the individual. Making what they want come true.
The point here is to try to keep the First Draft as simple as possible and allow the story to grow in complexity as naturally as possible.
The world itself might be super complex and big, but the only magic and world you need concern yourself with is the magic and world that our Witch sees and experiences.