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Outline Your Novel in 5 Steps

Plotting your novel can be an enormous challenge. You may have taken time to begin developing your world and your characters, the moral gray areas you want to explore, and the central conflicts that will challenge your characters. Now you have the daunting task of putting all these elements together into a coherent story that is interesting enough to get a reader hooked. This is called an outline.

A novel outline is a document that includes the important planning information about your novel’s structure, plot, characters, scenes, and more. Effectively, it is the skeleton of your novel.

There is no rule as to what an outlineshould look like. it can be anything from a one-page document to a comprehensive visual mindmap that uses diagrams to represent the link between information and ideas. Alternatively, you can write sentences on index cards and post them on a wall to make it easier to view and manipulate the story. If you do this, each event should be a single, short sentence.

All writers create their work differently. Some are comfortable creating a detailed outline for a novel: new writers in particular find it helpful to have a road map. However, many others feel that writing an outline diminishes the pleasure they find discovering the story along the way. They argue that working from an outline means the author is not creating anymore, they are just translating their ideas.

In the literary world, novelists who use outlines are referred to as “plotters.” Those who don’t are known as “pantsers”. This is a reference to flying by the seat of their pants. Famous pantsers include Margaret Attwood and Stephen King. In the plotting camp you will find Ernest Hemingway and J.K. Rowling. There are some general pros and cons to consider before creating your novel outline.

The benefits of an outline:

  • It helps you visualize the big picture

  • An outine keeps your story on track

  • It allows you to workout which scenes should go where

  • An outline also clearly presents character arcs

  • It can act as a guide to ease any writer’s block

  • An outline clarifies the middle of your novel and avoids the “muddle”

The drawbacks of creating an outline:

  • An outline can create a stilted narrative

  • If you follow it too closely, your novel can feel formulaic

  • An outline can lead to more showing rather than telling in the actual writing

  • Characters may seem to make inauthentic choices, based on plot points rather than resulting from the narrative

How do you Create a Novel Outline

1. Create your premise

The premise is the underlying idea for your story. A good way to find it is to ask yourself, “What would happen if…?” For example: The premise of Life of Pi, is - what would happen if a young man who survives a shipwreck spends months in a lifeboat with a large Bengal tiger? The premise of The English Patient, is - what would happen if four strangers met in an Italian villa during World War II?

It also helps to answer some key questions to help expand on the premise and generate new ideas. For example:

  • Who is the main protagonist?

  • What is the situation?

  • How will the protagonist develop from the beginning of the novel to the end?

  • What is their objective?

  • What do they want?

  • How do they get or not get what they want?

  • What is the opposing force that is stopping the protagonist from achieving their goal?

  • What is the central conflict of the novel?

  • What are you trying to say in you central theme?

Once you have worked out the answers to these questions, write a one-paragraph summary of the novel. Think of this as an elevator pitch.

2. Determine your setting

In a novel, the setting of both time and place can be as important as the characters. Your readers need to feel a sense of where things are happening, just as much as why they are happening.

Get to know your setting intimately. Do as much research as you can. If your novel is set in the real world, find photos, descriptions, and other materials to inform your ideas. Visit the setting if you are able to do so. If your novel set in a boarding school or during a particular time period in time, find as much information, both written and visual, about boarding schools in that era. This will allow you to picture your setting in your mind, and write down as much detail as you can. This should include everything from how something looks and sounds to how it might smell, taste, or feel.

3. Get to know your characters

Write character profiles, although you may not use all the information it will help you ensure that your characters always act consistently. Visualize your characters. Pretend you are introducing the characters to your friends. What would you say about them? What details would you include or omit. Why? What kind of journey will the characters undertake in the novel? Who will be central to the novel’s plot, and which characters will just serve as colour or background?

Make sure you develop your characters' backstories. Think of the moments in each character’s life that have made them the person that they are and led them to the point where they are introduced in the novel. Consider the elements that have shaped their personality and progression as characters and their unresolved issues that are crucial to the plot.

One way of doing this is to conduct a Q&A with the most important characters, as a way of finding out more about them. Ask your characters a series of questions and have them answer in their own words.

4. Construct your plot

Construct a timeline of events and write down everything that happens in your novel, from the beginning to the end. Include details where you can, including when and where events take place, and which characters are involved. If you know the outcome of the events, and how they will impact the novel’s overall plot, include this as well. These can also help you form the foundation of additional subplots.

The beginning of your novel has to accomplish a lot. It must introduce the hero, the villain, and the world of the story, as well as the story’s sole dramatic question, and this must happen in a way that grabs your readers' interest. A prologue can be very useful for seizing the reader’s attention.

Often, tension evaporates in the middle of a novel, so it is always a good idea to work out your ending first. It may not be perfect, and you might need to change it or refine it later, but it is useful to know the climax towards which your characters are headed. Having that detail will help you stay focused and avoid the “middle muddle.” Write as many short sentences as you need to describe the pathway your characters will take to reach the climax.

While it may seem difficult to figure out the ending so early, if you return to your sole dramatic question, it should already have your ending hidden within it. For example, if the question were: Will Ahab catch the whale? Then your story’s finale will be the moment when he does.

5. Write your scenes

Once your plot outline is in place, you will have a good idea of what scenes need to be placed where. Add these to the outline. Flesh them out as much as you want with everything from where the action takes place to which characters are involved. You may even want to create the relevant dialogue if you know what you want your characters to say. You do not need to worry about things making sense at this point, you have time later to go back and highlight everything that feels out of place. Focus on getting everything down on the page so that you can see it in front of you.

Once your outline is complete, you will be able to start writing your first draft in the knowledge that you can always turn back to your outline to see the big picture. As you begin the writing process, watch out for gaps in logic and continuity. You can refer back to the outline, and update storylines, plot points, and your timeline as you progress.

It is necessary to have a basic grasp of your characters and your world when you start writing but it is not essential to know everything in the first place. Even with the most meticulous outlines, you may still find that your characters do things to upset your plans.

If this happens, follow your instincts. You should not be afraid to revise your outline while you are writing your novel. A good rule to remember is that outlines involve plotting what will happen to your characters, but in the end, your characters should determine your plot.

Your outline should allow you to complete your novel in a methodical way, but not to prevent you from exercising your creative talents.

Val Penny

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