Outlining Your Story: A Complete Guide

Some writers like to keep it spontaneous – they start a story with just a blank page and a single idea in their head. Others make a truckload of notes prior to the draft, often extensive enough to be archived in their own right as notes (as with Joyce Carol Oates). I’ve tried it both ways, and multiple times for each. And whether it’s my ADHD brain that needs the extra planning and plotting or simply the part of me that’s satisfied by structure, starting out with an outline and a set of notes won every. Single. Time.

Of course, everyone has their own style, but I’ve found that the best way to prep for a short story is to make a detailed, step-by-step outline of how the story goes. It helps me see what the story is about and iron out any plot elements that aren’t working – and also decide on the best way to narrate this story (from which character’s perspective, one flowing narrative vs divided into little sections, etc). Plus, it’s easy to do and super-flexible – another win for the ADHD brain.

So, for every writer out there sick of ideas that go in every direction except the one you want them to go in, here’s my top-notch, tried-and-tested guide to making outlines that get you way closer to your final draft from the get-go.

Use a notebook with blank sheets

Ruled pages tend to be more restrictive, especially the unspoken need to “stay within the lines”. Blank pages let you put things down wherever you want to and leave enough space for comments later. And while you’re at it, get a notebook with a pretty cover. You’ll be that much more motivated to use it.

Use the flow chart style

Arrows that indicate the direction in which your plot is moving helps you to think of things in sequence as well – so if two consecutive points don’t quite flow well, you’ll know you need to either change one of them or to put one of them at a different point in the outline.

Be as granular as possible

You can keep each individual point simple, such as ‘mother picks up the phone’, but have lots of them. Remember that every little thing matters in a short story! So after the mother takes the call, maybe she’s numbed for a while. Write that down! Her immediate response to the call will determine what she looks like or what she does when her child walks in on her – a child will respond to a crying mother differently from a completely blank-faced mother.

Include thoughts, realisations and description

This is one of the most important things I’ve realised over the last year. Short stories are rarely a series of he did this, she did that. There are pieces of internal monologue, people making observations about other people, descriptions, moments of truth – and those keep the story moving as much as incidents do. So, treat them as part of the flow as much as the events themselves. I’ve often started a story based on an emotional moment that I wanted a character to feel – such as, say, a young girl’s profound disillusionment about sex after walking in on her older sister doing it with her boyfriend – only to realise that the sequence of events leading up to or following that moment didn’t make sense. And I could only see that once I had the description of that moment written down along with the other stuff.

Read it out loud

Once you’ve finished drafting your outline, read it out to yourself, as though you were reading the summary of someone else’s story online. This will give you clarity on how each of the parts work together. Does the plot make sense? Do the characters behave consistently? Are the emotional responses commensurate with the things that happen? How well do “accessories” like description, observation or conversation fit in with the general scheme of things? By the time you finish, you’ll likely have spotted several changes you’d like to make. The next three tips cover how to tackle those.

Add comments that ask questions

When you go back and reread your outline, you’ll likely have extra stuff to add. A good way to weed out things that obviously don’t make sense is to ask “why”. If you don’t quite know why someone says something, or why a certain piece of furniture is described, flag it. You’ll know what to focus on first when you’re reviewing.

Reorder things

I know that the first instinct when you come across a false note in your outline is to just cut it out. Sometimes, though, it sounds false only because it’s out of sequence. Try and see if things make sense ordered a different way. Maybe your protagonist’s observation about his mother’s obesity belongs earlier in the story? Maybe the incident where he steals from the shop window could be the inciting event, rather than a response to something else? One tip you could use to easily reorder things is to draw “boxes” for each point and give them a number, and then just relist the new order by number rather than scratching stuff out and making a mess (I’ve always found that looking at too many scratched-out lines reduces my motivation to do anything with the piece.) You could also use sticky notes that you can reposition as needed (while bearing in mind that there’s a limit to their stickiness, so you might want some backups).

Write down a list of questions about the story

Another thing you’ll likely notice once you read out your outline is that some points just don’t come together fully yet, or that some emotions you want to evoke are missing. Rather than trying to redo your outline straightaway, write down a set of questions that you want your story to answer. Such as – what motivates the sister to bully the brother? Why does the presence of the fruit bowl on the table matter? What do I want the brother to feel at the end? What is the role of grief in this story? Your questions can be as specific or as broad as you like, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish with your story. Once you have those down, reevaluate the outline and make notes on how you can best answer those questions. Maybe a few extra scenes are called for, or maybe a character needs to go entirely. Make those changes, and then see how the new version answers your core questions.

Obviously, once you start actually writing the story there’ll be a zillion more changes you’ll make. What the process of outlining does is to give you a clear idea of the what and why of your story. Once you have that down, you can focus on the how – the language, the turns of phrase, the types of description and dialogue, all that cool writerly stuff – without having to worry quite as much that you’re investing in scenes and descriptions that won’t make it to your final draft. And that, as you can imagine, is pretty liberating.

What did you think of this outlining guide? What would you do differently? Are you an outliner, or do you write your best when it’s just you and a blank page on Day One? Over to you.

Your Old Drafts Matter More Than You Realise

If you’re anything like me, you have cringed over things you wrote long ago. Flipping through old drafts, stories, poems, even diary entries almost inevitably unearths some laughable sections — stuff that was so crudely written, so silly, that you can’t help but wonder how far you have come since then. And sure, a lot of it was immature, poorly planned stuff, and it’s perfectly understandable that you’d think: “Thank goodness I’ve moved on from this.”

At the same time, here’s why I don’t like dissing old writing outright.

When you were your past self, writing that draft — be that five months, a year or five years ago — there was a certain thought process that you were following. Maybe it was an idea that was triggered by a movie you watched, a character who popped into your head after a chance encounter with someone, a conversation that’s ideal for immortalising as a story — there was something about that story that mattered to you. Or perhaps you were going through some sort of deep emotional experience back then, and writing was the only outlet you had for it. Whatever it was, be it inspiration or emotion, it was genuine. And genuine writing always has value in it somewhere. 

Plus, here’s something I’ve seen for myself over the last year or so — a lot of that old writing might be much better than you think. For instance, I recently unearthed the diary in which I used to write poetry back in 2015. I was going through my lowest phase ever back then and I’d spill all my anger and pain into my poems. They were your typical angst-ridden verses, filled with suicidal thoughts and bleak lonely nights and cigarette butts and whiskey bottles and broken hearts. Today, they don’t mean much to me as poetry. I don’t think I’m a poet anyway — fiction is my medium. But some of the phrases I used caught my eye. Some of the sentences I wrote. Some of the ideas. They were unpolished, often pretentious. But they showed promise. More recently, there were story drafts I started writing in June or July of last year that I shelved at the time as bad. But about a month ago, I went back to look through them and realised that they had a lot of potential. As in, they were actually workable into new stuff. And I am, in fact, currently working two of those old drafts into stories. The advantage of coming back to old drafts after a substantially long period is that you come back more mature, your ability to detect (for want of a better word) good writing much sharper. And that lets you judge the old writing objectively on its own merits, rather than while you were in the throes of it, which lets you sort the wheat from the chaff much more effectively.

So, from a writer who used to have night-long cringe fests over the banality of her writing, here’s what to do with those old drafts that seem beyond redemption. 

Come back to each shelved draft after two months

Or any sufficient length of time that allows you to look at it from a fresh perspective, rather than being immersed in it. If you’re a writer-in-progress (as I am), you’ll likely find that even two months can give you a good amount of perspective, but you can define this as you see fit. Once you’ve decided on a time frame, though, be strict about sticking to it. Don’t just randomly open the draft a week after you shelved it — you’ll likely feel the same sense of disdain and be tempted to delete it, or you’ll try too hard to fix it and feel frustrated all over again that it isn’t happening at once.

Identify elements of the draft that work

Once you come back, give your draft a good, long, close read and keep an eagle eye out for the things that currently work well. Maybe the plot needs some rethinking, but you wrote some lines that you can reuse. Or maybe the tone isn’t quite there yet, but there’s a character whose story you simply must tell. Once you’ve identified these, open a fresh page and write them out. You now have workable material you can examine 

See if you can merge two drafts

I’ve more than once struck gold when I realised that elements of two separate drafts worked perfectly when I stitched them together. And when I say elements, it could be something as subtle as an opening sentence. Maybe that, combined with some of the plot elements from another draft, could trigger an idea for a whole new story. 

Create a bits and pieces repository 

All those prettily written sentences and paragraphs that you’ve tried your damnedest to fit into a story and couldn’t? Have a separate document or notebook where you store them all. I call it the ‘bits and pieces repository’, one I flip through on occasion and dip into for those bits of filler content that are so important for a literary fiction story — turns of phrase, metaphors, bits of internal monologue, an impassioned exchange, a description of an empty street, that sort of thing. If you don’t already have something like this, change that — and your old drafts are great places to start from.

Which brings me to the most important part… 

Don’t delete your old drafts

Seriously. I can’t emphasise this enough. Don’t delete your old drafts. Just last week I wanted to kick myself because something I read triggered memories of a draft I was working on a year ago, only to realise that I’d deleted it. Yes, from my Recycle Bin too. I know it may feel like some things you write are too awful to exist, but you just don’t know whether that very draft mightn’t lead to something good later. Instead, have a separate folder (digital or physical) for all your shelved drafts and give it a creative name, nothing negative. Mine is ‘To Do Someday When I Am Ready’. Whenever you’re fed up with a draft, move it there. Come back to this folder once every two or three months (the time frame you decided in the first step, basically), and give them a fresh, emotion-free reading. You’ll surprise yourself with how often they can end up working their way into finished stories.

What’s your story with old drafts? Do you preserve them with tender loving care, or do you follow a let-go-of-the-past policy? Do you think there’s wisdom to be gained from your younger self’s writing, or do you believe in looking ahead all the way? Over to you.

The Nonsense Of An Ending: How To Make A Story End Well

Back when I started writing short stories, I got teased a lot by my boyfriend (now husband) about how often I killed off my characters. “But that’s just the story,” I’d protest, “it called for a death.” “Well, it’s interesting that you keep dreaming up worlds where people need to die.” Well, what can I say, I got my Dostoyevsky game on as good as I can. 🤷‍♀️

But let’s get real. Endings. As crucial as beginnings, and even bigger in weight when it comes to measuring the story. You can have the best build-up in the world, but if the ending falls flat? Your story didn’t work. On the other hand, a story with an okayish beginning and middle can still be redeemed by a killer (cough) ending. The ending is the piece de resistance, the final outcome of all the work you put in throughout to make the events work and have your characters behave a certain way and insert the right number of clues and symbols. Small wonder, then, that it’s so hard to get right (witness the number of ditched drafts in my Recycle Bin on account of delightful concepts descending into un-delightful conclusions).

Now if you’re a writer of literary fiction, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you probably don’t want a conventional happy ending for your story. That’s more a fairytale sort of deal, anyway – everything comes right at the end, they defeat the bad guys, live happily ever after, etc etc. Literary fiction is about grown-up life, where bad things happen. And what’s the worst thing (okay, one of the worst things) that could happen to anyone? Death, especially when it’s of a gruesome nature. That’s not to say there aren’t other options. There are ambiguous endings, where you either circle back to where the story began – with conflict – or where you don’t really know how the protagonist ends up. You can also – at most – have a bittersweet ending, although this tends to require a much more detailed catalogue of ups and downs and is best left to novels. But conventional happy endings? Where the hero finds the treasure and gets the girl (or boy, or person, or two-headed shark)? Nah.

Of course, death for death’s sake is clumsy. You shouldn’t kill off characters unless their deaths make sense in the grander scheme of the story, or the world it is set in. Far too often an otherwise good story is ruined when the writer doesn’t know what to do with the protagonist and just kills her off. Never mind how prettily it’s done and how many descriptions of dying visions and tragic drug overdose there are – it doesn’t work. But as long as you keep this in mind, deaths as a story ending are a useful tool, and often an artistic one. And if you’re worried about your plot reading like pulp fiction, who says deaths have to be bloody and violent affairs? I’d say a clever bit of psychological skullduggery that drives someone to kill themselves is as good an ending as any other.

But. Let’s say you don’t want your story to end with a death. Either because you’re trying to break the habit of killing off your characters, or because your plot doesn’t call for a death. You still want a compelling ending, though – one that doesn’t fall flat or rely on something unrealistic working out.

So how can you end your stories satisfactorily, if not with deaths?

End with a life-changing realisation

You can never go wrong with a smartly executed cliffhanger. And it doesn’t have to be too thriller-y either. Bring about a twist that’s unexpected but not unrealistic, and leave your reader hanging. Something that challenges whatever the protagonist has held to be true all this time, or something that will require a whole new set of decisions for him. You might need a bit of deus ex machina for this to work – a letter bearing shocking news, for instance, or a remark let slip by a neighbour or guest. Remember to introduce this element plausibly – panting messenger boys bearing telegrams went out with whalebone corsets.

Explain something that you’ve been hinting at throughout the story

A lot of stories use this technique, and for good reason. Revealing an underlying secret in bits keeps your reader interested throughout and gives you the scope to conclude with a bit of a shocker. This is different from the previous idea in that the twist was hinted at all along, rather than happening at the last minute. It could also give the reader the opportunity to piece it together for himself, like a detective story – which makes it more fun.

Have a character find what they wanted, but with a twist

There just isn’t enough justice done to the ironic good fortune technique. You can have this play out as pure tragedy – the character gets what they want, but at terrible cost – but it’s ever so much more delicious to do it as tragi-comedy or black comedy. So maybe an intern who conspires with a hot fellow intern to overthrow a workplace conspiracy gets to see her psycho boss get his comeuppance, but in the process the the hot intern vanishes without a trace and leaves only a mysterious note that sort of hints that he was part of the conspiracy all along? (This, by the way, is a plot I shelved long ago as too Iris-Murdochian for me to do justice to, but perhaps one of you will make something of it.) Typically this requires a black comedic tone throughout the story, so be sure to structure your plot so that it doesn’t feel like you suddenly changed your narrative register at the end.

Bring the day to a close

This isn’t exactly a plot suggestion, but there’s obviously a sense of closure inherent in a sunset, or the end of summer, or a party winding up. Introducing elements of departure into the setting allows your characters to bow out, without necessarily bringing their journeys to an end. It might even be a new beginning for them. For instance, taking the overnight train to a new city heralds the start of a different life for your protagonist, while winding up the chapter of their life that was represented by your story. This kind of ending isn’t always the most exciting, so it’s especially important to evoke the right feelings with your prose. Descriptions of the surroundings, little details that build up that sense of finality – they all count. As long as you make them that way.

Perhaps befittingly, writing a conclusion for this post is a head-scratcher of a task. So I’ll bypass it altogether (the luxury of this being a blog post!) and open the floor for comments. Do you find it hard to end your stories suitably? Have you tried any of the techniques I’ve mentioned? What short story endings do you regard as #goals – or, conversely, #cancel? Type away.

Writing Short Stories: A Primer

One of the first rules about getting into literary fiction seems to be that you start with short stories. Novels can be too unwieldy for a beginner – short fiction is a safer arena to practise in. All the stalwarts of literature have done it, which means that newcomers looking to cut their teeth ought to do it too.

My own feelings about this rule have changed over the last two years. My first foray into literary fiction was a novel, one I gave eighteen months to. I was actively against writing short stories, in fact, chiefly because I didn’t much enjoy reading them. I would far rather have savoured a good long novel that really fleshes the plot out. Plus, the very fact of there being a rule about starting out with stories put me off them.

Last summer, however, I decided that my novel needed to be shelved for a while so I could come back to it with renewed perspective on how to fix it. In the meantime, I opted to swallow my prejudices and try my hand at short fiction – influenced, largely, by Joyce Carol Oates’ short story course I took on Masterclass.com – and proceeded to come up with about half a million bad ideas that I ditched after varying degrees of effort to salvage them. I did, however, also complete a few stories that I’m happy with – one of which became the spotlight feature in Eclectica’s Jan/Feb 2021 issue (#bragalert). And for the foreseeable future, I plan to work on getting better at this particular form of fiction.

From a craft honing perspective, here’s why short stories are ideal for the beginner – they’re short. No matter how difficult it may be to write a good story (and believe me, it’s hard as hell most of the time), the fact remains that you don’t need to come up with hundreds of pages worth of good writing. Anywhere between two to twenty pages of coherent prose and you’re done. Which also means that they’re a good exercise in learning not to ramble, because there just isn’t enough space for rambling. You learn to keep only the things that count, be it dialogues, descriptions or characters. And that, believe me, is a skill that will make you a finer writer even if you choose to later specialise in 1000-page novels – because you’ll have learnt by then to keep the fluff to a minimum. Bottom line? As someone who tried starting with a novel and then moved on to short stories, they’re honestly your best bet if you’re just starting your fiction journey.

One battle I’ve faced a lot with short fiction is, how do you know the right amount of detail and scene-building to put in? How do you build your characters enough so the reader cares what happened to them, yet not so much that you complicate the plot? And for that matter, how do you come up with plots that aren’t just the same old story? Over the last eight months or so I’ve tried to find some answers to these questions, both from great writers and from my own experimentation. Here’s what I’ve learnt so far.

Let one thing happen

I recently took Neil Gaiman’s course on Masterclass.com, and when it comes to short stories he advises letting only one thing happen. That’s actually a great rule of thumb, as long as one understands what he means by ‘one thing’. Your story should basically centre around an important incident – such as a birthday party, someone’s death or a theft – and delve into the details and events leading up to and/or following it in sufficient detail for the story to feel engaging and complete. It doesn’t literally mean that you talk about one thing throughout the story.

Don’t be afraid to keep characters as names

One thing I’m terrible at is knowing how big a role each character needs to play. Do I give the postman who drops off the pivotal letter a home to go back to? Does the alcoholic mother need to reveal why she started drinking? While the shorter landscape of a story means that the characters that do make it to the plot need to all matter somehow, know that it’s perfectly acceptable to have someone speak one line and then vanish. Maybe the line includes an important bit of information, maybe it’s comic relief, maybe you just need a quick glimpse of the person to add colour to a setting – whatever the case, they don’t need any more attention than just that one line. And that’s okay.

Keep the cast small

On that note, try to avoid having too many characters, even if they just have cameos. Most stories will work just fine with four or five characters, or even less. The more people you have, the more you need to worry about making each of them count, and then you could end up having too much of setting and dialogue and not enough forward-moving plot.

Keep descriptions short

I know the pain. You’ve laboured all morning over the perfect description of a waning storm, and you’re determined to fit it into your story by hook or by crook. But but but – it disrupts the rhythm of the story. It doesn’t fit anywhere organically. And you want your story to breathe as a whole. Which means – exeunt waning storm description. Of course, that doesn’t mean exeunt entirely. I have a separate Google Doc titled ‘Bits and Pieces’ where I store all those pretty lines and paragraphs that didn’t make it into any of my stories. It’s a repository of sorts that I can refer to if I’m feeling stuck with a future project. The thing about good ideas is that they can be reworked – they rarely belong to just one context and nothing else.

Backstory is great – in small doses

Some amount of explanation is usually helpful in setting the context for your story – family dynamics, for instance, or why the failed professor on a road trip failed in the first place. What’s important, though, is to weave the backstory into the actual story rather than devote an entire section to recounting it. Let the facts come out in bits, maybe through dialogue, incidents, parallels or flashbacks.

Invest in building your storyline

One thing I’ve observed in the short stories I’ve read is that a lot of them tend to be variations upon the same handful of themes. Divorce, affairs, troubled parental relationships, angry siblings, failed holidays, dinner parties gone wrong. You can’t have too much going on, so you make the story as dramatic as possible, which often translates into picking one of these well-worn themes. And I think that was the original reason for my beef with stories – too many of them are too similar to each other. Of course, I know now that this isn’t the failing of the craft, but of the writer. It’s our job as fictioneers to ensure that every story we put out has something special about it. Does that mean your story can’t have a divorce or an angry sibling? Absolutely not. But always aim to weave something into your divorce/angry sibling plot that makes the reader think ‘I’ve never seen it done quite that way before’.

Read more short stories

Goes without saying, you can’t nail a short story unless you see how the masters have done it. Katherine Mansfield, Guy de Maupassant, O’Henry, Saki, Shirley Jackson, Daphne du Maurier, Anton Chekhov, Bernard Malamud – take your pick of the greats. Many of the top online literary magazines are free to access and publish some impressive short fiction in every issue, both by stalwarts and by up-and-coming writers. Read the stories – then, read them again and try to spot what worked for you in the story and what didn’t. Were the characters sufficiently formed? Did the themes come out naturally? Did the sequence of events make sense? Did the characters show a convincing growth arc? Was the language compelling and aesthetically appealing? There’s a tremendous lot to be learnt from just paying attention to how other people’s stories are constructed before you start constructing your own.

Where do you stand on short fiction? Do you love working with it, or does the page limit bother you? Who are your favourite short story writers? Love to hear your thoughts – and of course, if you have any short stories of your own published online, leave the link below, and congratulations!

On Continuity, And The Power Of Asking “Then?”

“Then?”

To my boyfriend, it’s a way to break a pause. He says this whenever we’ve been silent for a while and he’d like us to talk of something new. It’s one of the zillion things I like about him.

But when I think about it, I realise that pretty much all of life is a then. There are pauses longer than others, and for good reason. But at some point, we are all asking ourselves – or being asked – that simple question. “Then?”

What happens next? Where do we go from here? Does where we’re going make sense, or do we need to take a step back and reassess?

I have always known that I will write literary fiction. The English language astounds me with how many possibilities it contains, and I wouldn’t be doing justice to the language if I didn’t explore and expand on as many possibilities as I can in my writing. Literary writers are all about using the language to convey emotions, build scenes and expound on themes – over and above the plot itself. And more than once I’ve been awestruck by a clever description of an outfit or a comment on marriage or an unusual use of adjectives, even if I didn’t love the story as a story.

But here’s the catch with that.

We literary writers often get caught up in the beauty of what we’re writing. A killer simile here, a slick juxtaposition there. It reads like a dream and we’re all but giving ourselves the Pulitzer already. Till a few years ago I was the same, hung up on the literariness of literary fiction. “Hey, that’s a really cool way to describe a disappointing sunset. Oh wow, I finally found a way to use ‘senescence’ in a sentence! I want to write something that begins with a cow falling out of the sky.” I’d make careful note of every line and phrase that I thought of and wow myself at how seasoned I sounded. When I’d go over them again, though, my practical side would speak up. “Yes, that’s a nice line about a sunset, but does anyone in the story have the kind of eye and vocabulary to make that observation?” So what I’d end up with, most of the time, was a handful of pretty sentences that had only the most tenuous links to each other and practically no idea of how to weave them into a full-length story. Enter self-loathing, enter angry crying, enter conviction that I will never make it as a writer and I should just stop trying.

I’m different now in my approach. I’ve come to recognise, more than ever before, the importance of having a solid story first and foremost. It’s like steak – if the meat itself isn’t good, doesn’t matter how much sauce you pour over it. Every line, every character, every incident in a story needs to make sense as part of a bigger picture. And now that I’ve started pairing my pleasure reading with critical reading (more on that later!) I can see for myself which short stories are good stories in themselves and which ones use linguistic tricks to cover plot holes. (And you’d be surprised how many stories by ‘famous’ writers fall under the latter category.)

And the most foolproof test of whether or not a story is good boils down to one question.

“Then?”

Does every paragraph, every motif, every new character, tie back to a central theme that has a beginning and an end that are plausibly connected?

And the same applies to anything that you are writing.

If you’re new to approaching your fiction this way, there are two ways you can get started.

The first way is to write out a summary of the story as you envision it. Keep it to one page and focus only on the sequence of events, not on any linguistic devices or motivations the characters might have. Then, read the summary through and ask yourself whether it makes sense as a story. Does every incident follow as a consequence of the previous one? Do the hints given throughout the story resolve themselves properly at the end? Are the characters’ actions consistent with who they are as people? Remember, this is about having a plot that works. It doesn’t matter how Nabokovian your language is, if your story doesn’t make sense it won’t work. If you find that your summary isn’t quite as strong as it could be, take a step back and figure out what you’re trying to say with the story and how you want things to work out at the end. Once you have that in place, you can move on to writing it prettily.

The other way – and this can be much harder – is to start writing the actual story in a single draft, just as you currently envision it. I say this is harder because here you’re working on the story itself, but you’re focusing more on the plot movement than on the language – which can be agony for us literary fiction buffs who want every sentence to be perfect. I struggle with this method myself, which is why I tend to go for summaries first. The advantage of this method, though, is that you get to see how the plot works in the actual setting rather than in a theoretical abstract. A face-off scene at the bar might seem cool as a bullet point in your notebook, but what if the flow of events preceding it calls for the protagonist to be by himself at the bar instead? Things like this often come to light only when you’re working on the actual draft, which is where this method scores some points over the summary method.

And if you’d like to start off even simpler, just create a flow chart of events. Start with the opening scene, mention each important event/conversation/character intro and see whether the final step adds up from all the ones above. This is a barebones approach that might miss out on a lot of crucial detail, but it works at a pinch if you’re looking to do a birds-eye check on your story.

If I’m honest, I realise as I complete this post that continuity isn’t a separate aspect to plot-building. A plot must by default have continuity, or it isn’t a plot but a hotch-potch of events. So asking yourself “Then?” at each stage when you start a new story is really a way of developing it all the way to the end, and not just checking an existing story for loopholes. Who would’ve thought, right? Just a one-word question, but it’s so important. It’s helped me out of many a tight spot with my fiction, and it’s sure to help you too. By all means, though, do keep the pretty similes and the outre scenes. Continuity makes for a strong skeleton, but those make for an attractive overall structure. And you need both to have a winning story.