8 ways to outline a novel (article) - Robbie Blair
How to outline your novel (video) - Jenna Moreci
How to Plot a Comic From Start to Finish! (video) - McKay & Gray
First off, even if you’re not an outliner, I encourage you to read this section. There are a whole bunch of tips that will transfer completely to the revision process (which is really just outlining in retrospective).
Okay, so outlining!
This is where you figure out all the major plot elements and the order they go in. You don’t need to sort out all the little details yet (save that for the actual writing of the scenes), just the general idea of what happens within each scene.
I’ve put outlining before world building and characters but these steps are really all intertwined.
Plotting vs Pantsing
There are two extremes when it comes to outlining:
- Plotting absolutely everything out before you write.
- Flying by the seat of your pants (hence the name pantsing) by writing as you go. This is also known as Discovery Writing.
I believe outlining is a spectrum, with all writers falling somewhere between these two extremes. Personally, I prefer to outline my stories in depth, but I encourage you to figure out your own path.
The common understanding is that each approach has its benefits.
- Easier to fulfill your promises (more on this later)
- Stronger ending because you’ve consciously built up to it
- Less revision
- Better understanding of the length of the story
Pantsing / Discovery Writing:
- Get to start writing much sooner
- More natural feeling characters
- Story tends to flow better from one scene to another
I agree with this to an extent. When heavily outlining, the focus tends to be the plot. This often results in unnatural characters that only exist to serve the story itself. When discovery writing, there isn’t a path in place for the story and so the endings tend to be underwhelming. This isn’t always true though. The approach I take to writing is an attempt to gain the benefits from both approaches.
Before I explain my approach though, first let me tell you about…
The M.I.C.E. Quotient
If you haven’t heard of the M.I.C.E. quotient, it essentially states that there are four elements that a story can have:
- Milieu (concerning the world)
- Idea (concerning information)
- Character (concerning your characters)
- Events (concerning the plot).
By including each of these elements in your story (and yes, each one is optional) you are making a promise to your reader that you will fulfill that element later on.
If you have an interesting world to explore (any epic fantasy), you’re promising to actually explore it by the end of your story.
If you pose a question to your readers (Who killed this man?) you’re implying that you’ll later provide a satisfying answer.
If you introduce a character with problems (I hate my dad!) you must address those problems at some point.
If you introduce a conflict (Godzilla is attacking the city!) that conflict must be resolved.
Just to be clear, this doesn’t mean every single thing that comes up in a story needs to have a satisfying conclusion. It’s all relative to its importance to the overall story (aka how much time we spend on the topic). If a character says in passing that they have a bad relationship with their dad, we don’t necessarily need to address that. It can just be a part of their character. However, if that’s a fundamental element of the story or that person that comes up again and again, never addressing the topic in some way would leave the reader feeling like they missed something.
And that doesn’t mean it needs to be a happy resolution either. Sure they may visit their dad, sort out their history and live happily ever after, but just as valid would be that the character decides they’re never going to resolve their conflict with their father and choose to face the consequences of that decision, whatever they are (and in that case you’ll likely want to show the resulting impact of that decision on the character).
The ultimate outcome of any arc entirely depends on what best services the story. The key here is that you want to make sure you’re actually addressing the things that are important to the story in some way.
Any arc, whether it be concerning the world, ideas, characters or plot, that is not addressed by the end of your story will result in unsatisfied readers.
If I had to give just one tip on outlining, it would be this one. Always, always, always close your arcs. You don’t have to outright answer every question you raise, and your characters don’t have to succeed in their struggles. What you DO have to do is address those things in a satisfying way for the reader.
My outlining method plays with this concept, and helps me ensure that I fulfill all my promises that I establish in my story.
My Amazingly Flawless Outlining Method TM
My method is just too complicated to explain through text so I’m going to make a video about it at some point and link it here. For now you’ll just have to sit in anticipation… Sorry.
Here are some general tips that you’ll want to account for in your outlining process:
Fill gaps in your narrative and make sure everything flows from one scene to another. Find the missing piece between plot points that ties them together. If your character is a happy-go-lucky fellow in one scene and a crazy murderer in the next… well you’re probably going to need a scene somewhere in there that explains the sudden decline of your character.
Don’t be afraid to deviate from your outline. While outlining, you’ll sometimes get an idea that doesn’t fit in the plot you’ve laid out so far for your story. This is normal. Your outline will almost certainly be changing around drastically as you plan things out, so if a new idea makes your story better overall, don’t be afraid to shift things around a bit. Make sure to account for those changes in the rest of the story though! You don’t want any loose ends, an unnatural flow, or unfulfilled promises.
If something doesn’t fit in your story just let it go. I know how hard it can be to cut a scene that you love but if it starts breaking more promises than it fixes, or if you have to switch too many other good scenes to make this one fit, it’ll just end up hurting you in the long run. At the same time…
DON’T ERASE/DELETE CUT PLOT POINTS! While something may not fit now, as your story changes, you might find out that something you once cut now works in a different place in the story. Don’t let ideas go to waste. They might even be useful for other stories you may write. I like to keep a notepad with all my cut content near me when I outline, as a potential source of ideas.
Start at the end and work backwards. Not everyone likes this method, but when I outline, the first thing I like to do is figure out how my stories will end. From there I figure out what caused this final event, then what caused the event that caused the final event… This helps make sure that each element feels like a natural result of the previous one, and results in a planned and satisfying ending.
Each scene must have a purpose. A big action scene makes for a good hook, but gets boring quick unless we are given a reason to care. Ask yourself what you’re trying to achieve with each scene you write. Maybe you want to get an emotional reaction from your readers, show development in your characters, or advance your plot. Usually you want your scene to serve multiple purposes (this tends to make them more interesting), but you always need at least one reason to have the scene.
Consider merging scenes together to make them more interesting. If you need to have a discussion between characters and also need to get your characters from point A to point B, why not have them talk along the way instead of dragging it out for two scenes? Merging parallelizable scenes together helps streamline your story, and fills dead space that would otherwise be boring to read.
Similarly, make your scenes dynamic. If all your scenes consist of a group of characters standing around and talking, your readers will get bored. Don’t be afraid to mix things up. Have that discussion between characters happen while out for a walk in the woods, or running from goblins, or waiting for an important phone call, or jumping out of an exploding plane. That said, if ALL your scenes are set in a speeding train, that could be just as boring for the reader. Variety is key and keeps things fresh for your audience.
Start a book with a heavier focus on your characters. Most readers get way more attached to characters than they do to the world or the plot itself. Starting your story with a ton of exposition will just bore and potentially scare away your readers. Hook them in with amazing characters and then they’ll actually be interested in learning more later on.
Each section of your story should be self contained. Don’t force the reader to remember something that happened fifty pages ago, because they probably won’t unless it was significant to the story. As much as possible you want to tell people important info right when they need it, so they don’t forget. Wait as late as possible to make it an exciting reveal. If you absolutely have to rehash old information, find an interesting way to remind the reader.
The events that occur in a story are important but what matters more is their effect on the characters. What does it mean to your main character that the king was assassinated? If the characters aren’t invested in something, there’s a good chance the reader won’t be either. (Remember, readers get attached to characters!) As much as possible, focus on the things that affect your characters. The more characters are directly impacted by and involved in the story, the more the reader will be drawn in.
Always remember your purpose. Review the section on your story’s purpose if you haven’t already, but essentially your purpose is what you want your story to achieve. Each plot point you insert into your story should serve/reinforce or at least not detract from your purpose(s). I like to have my purposes big and bold at the top of my outline as a constant reminder to myself.
Similarly, spend more time on scenes that reinforce the story’s purpose. If you’re primarily writing a character story, have more scenes that allow us to get to know the characters. If you want to make a suspenseful thriller story, add more scenes whose purpose is to build tension.
- Consider the “Yes but…” or “No and…” method. The purpose of this method is to maintain conflict throughout your story and keep a causal chain of events. In every scene ask yourself, do your characters succeed in what they’re trying to do? Your answer should be one of the following:
- Yes, but now there’s another problem we’ll have to deal with in the next scene!
- No, and now the problem is even worse!
Make sure the story is always moving forward. If an arc (character, plot or otherwise) stagnates for too long your reader will get bored. Have your characters grow (for better or worse), progress the plot, and add new levels to the conflict. By constantly having things move, you’ll have the reader always wondering what will happen next. If you absolutely can’t progress an open arc, open and close smaller, related arcs in the meantime or consider starting the arc later in the story, closer to where it can be immediately progressed.
- Make your arcs last an appropriate amount of time. Figure out how important each arc is to the main arc of the story. The more essential the story element, the longer it should take to resolve. If your main character’s entire motivation is driven by revenge, closing that arc too early by letting them, in the second chapter, kill the guy who murdered their sensei, will lead to a stagnation of the character. That was their entire motivation for the story! What are they supposed to do now? On the flip side, if your main arc is about a good guy who needs to stop a bad guy before the world is destroyed, you probably shouldn’t stretch their decision about what to eat for breakfast out over the whole story (unless you can somehow tie that decision into the main arc of the story). Of course your characters are allowed to be more than one dimensional, having multiple sources of motivation and multiple arcs within them, but usually there’s an underlying theme that affects your characters and/or plot that should carry throughout the story. The usual rule of thumb is that the main arc of the story is the first one to be introduced, and last one to be resolved, with smaller arcs opening and closing in between it to keep things interesting.
(As a side note, you can intentionally redirect your arcs as a trick to subvert your audience’s expectations. The whole “you killed my master/wife now I’m going to kill you” plot is boring and overdone, but if the main character gets their revenge right away, and the rest of the plot is them coming to terms with that and learning how to live with the result, or that the main character dies trying to get revenge and the story shifts to be from the villain’s perspective… well that’s a twist I personally find interesting. Just make sure you don’t waver too far from your initial arc / promise.)
- Establish a status quo early on in your story. The inciting incident of a story is when things go from normal to abnormal. If you jump straight into the plot, the reader won’t have time to ground themselves in the world. This is especially important for fantasy stories that distance themselves from the world we know. We need to know what everyday life is like for your world and characters before we can fully understand how the inciting incident actually changes things.
Table of Contents
Before You Start
- It All Starts With An Idea
- Thought Dumping
- World Building
- Writing Scenes
- Breaking Scenes Down
- Choosing A Title
- Writer's Block
Hiring A Team
- Sorting Out Your Budget
- Writing A Solicitation
- Where To Find Your Team
- What Makes A Good Partner
- General Tips
- Standard Black vs Rich Black
- Choosing A Font
- Font Types
- When To Bold Text
- Sound Effects
- Getting Print Ready Files
- Offset vs Digital Printers
- Why Page Count Matters
- Book Formats And Binding Types
- How Many Copies To Print
- Tips For Saving Money
- Printer Comparison Table