Posted On August 3, 2015 by Print This Post

Demystifying the Outline with Kat Cantrell

Last time Kat Cantrell visited RU, she received a lot of questions on how she outlined her books.Today, she’s here to answer the questions – and answer more! Please visit our site to ask your questions!

Kat_CantrellIn my last Romance University post, I mentioned the word “outline” and it raised some eyebrows. I’m hoping most of them were raised in interest, and not derision, because I’m back, ya’ll! And I’m ready to dive deeper into how you too can outline. I’ll even let you keep your pants. J

Quick side note: I’ve been involved in a lively discussion about plotting vs. pantsing on one of my writer loops. I would like to make it very clear that there is no RIGHT way or WRONG way to write a book. You must find the process that works for you and repeat it. I’m wired to think about structure in advance of writing one single word, but if the thought of doing any planning before writing your book gives you hives, I grant you permission to skip this post. But if you want some tips on outlining…read on.

An outline is just a list. If you’ve made a grocery list, you can outline. Yes, we’ve all winged it at the grocery store, but let’s be honest. When you don’t have a list, you come home with two bags of Doritos, Chunky Monkey and a loaf of bread…but nothing for dinner and you forgot your husband’s favorite lunch meat. So you write down what you need the next time and off you go.

coverSo when writing a book, we have to think about our shopping list. What kind of book are you writing? If you just said “romance, duh”, I’ll steal a line from Captain Barbossa and reply, “Yes, we know that one.” I’m looking for major turning points. Think about where you want to start with your book, where you want to go and where you want to end up, based on your particular genre tropes. Write down that list, in order.

For example, in a romantic suspense, your list might look like this:

Villain commits crime

Heroine becomes involved

Hero protects heroine

Villain makes it more personal (or “Complications and Higher Stakes” in Michael Hauge speak)

Hero and Heroine work together to solve crime (find villain, escape danger, etc. Whatever your story will include)

Looks like villain will get away with it

H/h stop villain


Voila. You now have a skeleton outline. Maybe you’re looking at this list and thinking, nonono. Heroine should protect HERO, not the other way around, or “Villain makes it more personal” should be first. Guess what? You have permission to drag and drop or edit at will. It’s YOUR outline and it should be fluid.

At this point, you can be done. Really. That’s a solid outline for a romantic suspense. But if you’re thinking there should be more, let’s move on. Again, the goal is to find a process that works for you. Next, I think about my characters and their romantic journey. What are some Big Relationship Issues they might have to work through while they’re searching for Villain and how will they overcome them? Make a list of those. Today, you might be shopping for “best friend’s little sister”. Tomorrow, could be “he’s her no-good ex”. I do try to separate their issues and make them specific to each character’s journey. Your list might look like this:

Heroine has always had a crush on Hero

Hero won’t touch Heroine because her brother is his best friend

Heroine has to convince Hero her brother won’t mind

Brother tells Hero “don’t you dare”

Heroine tells brother “back off”

Hero is conflicted because he’s terribly attracted to Heroine

Heroine thinks the best approach is to seduce Hero


I may or may not be done with my list. I haven’t decided yet because my list is looking pretty generic, but we’ll get back to that in a minute. Next, we have some romance staples that have to be in our book. First kiss, first love scene, etc. This list is also variable pending your heat level. I have a friend who writes Romantic Suspense with BDSM elements. Her list will look really different than another friend who writes Inspirational Romantic Suspense. Let’s go for middle ground in our example:

Almost kiss (this is a personal favorite of mine to increase the sensual tension)

First kiss

Second kiss

Love scene

2nd love scene

Disagreement or fight about relationship

Black moment

Happily ever after


And done. I think you’re seeing the pattern here. Figure out what elements you need to include and make a list. I do a goal, motivation and conflict list because I don’t write romantic suspense and each character’s GMC is the root of my plot. I might do a subplot list and sometimes I do lists of setting elements if that plays into the book. But let’s work with the three lists we have and put it all together. I like to put all my lists into Word because I can reorder easily but you can use Scrivner or Excel or a notebook. Your choice. The point is to weave all of your elements into the order you think works for the story. I use the word “weave” because I think of my story like a tapestry. I’m weaving in the blue threads of base plot, the red threads of the relationship conflict and the purple threads of the romance. And maybe other threads too. But they need to be integrated and moved around. Sometimes combined.

Here’s what I came up with for my order:

  1. Heroine has always had a crush on Hero
  2. Villain commits crime
  3. Heroine becomes involved
  4. Hero protects heroine
  5. Brother tells Hero “don’t you dare”
  6. Hero won’t touch Heroine because her brother is his best friend
  7. Hero is conflicted because he’s terribly attracted to Heroine
  8. Almost kiss (this is a personal favorite of mine to increase the sensual tension)
  9. Villain makes it more personal (or “Complications and Higher Stakes” in Michael Hauge speak)
  10. First kiss
  11. Heroine has to convince Hero her brother won’t mind
  12. Hero and Heroine work together to solve crime (find villain, escape danger, etc. Whatever your story will include)
  13. Second kiss
  14. Heroine tells brother “back off”
  15. Heroine thinks the best approach is to seduce Hero
  16. Love scene
  17. Disagreement or fight about relationship
  18. 2nd love scene
  19. Looks like villain will get away with it
  20. Black moment
  21. H/h stop villain
  22. Happily ever after


At this point, I would flesh out all of these items with more background, conflict, setting, that kind of thing. You may not want to and prefer to start writing that first scene with some type of cute meet that establishes that yes, the heroine has always had a crush on the hero but he doesn’t even see her. Or you might combine 1, 2 and 3 with a scene where the hero is in law enforcement, and when he shows up to the scene of the crime, heroine is already involved. The beauty of an outline is that it’s exactly that. You can veer from it, use it to get the story straight in your head and never look at it again, or if you’re like me, you see that entire fight from #17 play out in your head while at the dentist. I immediately write key notes into my outline so I don’t lose it. #12 might be broken out into three or four scenes that you then scatter throughout the outline. Don’t forget subplots. It’s easy to hit return at the end of a row and add something. Or delete. The point is to think about your story and make sure all the major elements and turning points are there.

And then I write a synopsis. But that’s another post… =)

Thanks for sticking with me through this very long post. Questions? Comments?


Join us on Wednesday for Ella Quinn!


Bio: Kat read her first Harlequin novel in third grade and has been scribbling in notebooks since she learned to spell. What else would she write but romance? When she’s not writing about characters on the journey to happily ever after, she can be found at a soccer game, watching Friends or dancing with her kids to Duran Duran and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Kat, her husband and their two boys live in North Texas. She’s a proud member of Romance Writers of America®. Kat was the 2011 Harlequin So You Think You Can Write winner and a 2012 RWA® Golden Heart® finalist for best unpublished series contemporary manuscript. She writes passionate stories about smart, sassy heroines and the men who try to keep up with them for Harlequin Desire and Carina Press.
Visit Kat’s website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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20 Responses to “Demystifying the Outline with Kat Cantrell”

  1. Thanks for having me back Carrie!

    Posted by Kat Cantrell | August 3, 2015, 7:17 am
  2. Kat, this is FANTASTIC! I’m a scientific-minded person and like things broken down to “recipe steps.” Haven’t had much luck with outlining my novels because I always end up with too many words.

    This boils it down to the essentials, and then shows us how to build from the framework. Brilliant. Thanks so much!

    Posted by Frances Brown w/a Claire Gem | August 3, 2015, 7:28 am
  3. I love your outline order! I’ve been using Alexandra Sokoloff’s method of index cards. I took one of her workshops and found it helpful. But its basic three act structure:

    Posted by Cynthia Rayne | August 3, 2015, 9:01 am
  4. Even a pantser can do this! Thanks for a great post. I think maybe I finally understand outlining.

    Posted by Heatherly Bell | August 3, 2015, 11:02 am
  5. Kat –
    Thanks for mentioning me in your terrific article on simplifying outlining – and for including a link to my article on plot structure. I might add one suggestion to the step outline for your novel. Complications and Higher stakes come after the midpoint of the story – what I term the Point of No Return. This midpoint is a moment of bigger commitment on the part of the heroine to her goal(s). Based on where you position your characters’ first kiss (#10), it sounds like that is your logical midpoint. After that, the outside world should start closing in on your heroine. So I’d suggest that you put your villain “making it personal” AFTER the kiss, and after the hero and heroine start their investigation into the crime and stopping the villain. This alerts the villain, he starts coming after her, and that’s what leads to the complications and higher stakes, the greater conflict and the accelerated pace of the second half of the story.
    Just a thought – hope it helps.
    – Michael

    Posted by Michael Hauge | August 3, 2015, 1:22 pm
    • WOW. Nothing like getting advice from the master himself! I will print this out and frame it. 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to provide some thoughts. It definitely helps–and for everyone else, I highly encourage you to check out more of Mr. Hauge’s wonderful story structure posts on his blog. I read them religiously.

      Posted by Kat Cantrell | August 3, 2015, 2:04 pm
  6. One of the Best post I have ever read! I really needed to see this today as I tackle a struggling project.

    Thank you for taking the time to write this!


    Posted by Brandie Nickerson | August 3, 2015, 1:52 pm
  7. Evening Kat!

    Excellent post, wow. Love the way everything just flows…one logical step into another.

    Thanks for putting it all into (an easier) perspective!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | August 3, 2015, 8:32 pm
  8. Really clear and simple, thank you! I just forwarded this to a friend who was asking about plotting, I’m sure she’ll love it.

    Posted by Katie Meyer | August 3, 2015, 8:33 pm
  9. Hi Kat,

    I’ve written myself into corners enough to know that I need an outline. Alternate paths emerge as the story progresses (sometimes referred to as organic writing…in my case it’s the duh moment), but having an outline keeps me from deviating into wasted word territory. Thanks for blogging with us again!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | August 4, 2015, 12:18 am


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