8 ways to outline a novel - Robbie Blair
How to outline your novel (video) - Jenna Moreci
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 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.
Plotting vs Pantsing
There are two extremes when it comes to outlining:
- Plotting absolutely everything out before you write and
- Flying by the seat of your pants (hence the name pantsing) by winging it
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 it’s benefits.
- Easier to fulfill your promises (more on this later)
- Stronger ending
- 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. We often see these outcomes as unavoidable but this doesn’t have to be the case!
What if I told you there was a way to gain the benefits from both approaches?
Well, first let me tell you about…
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.
Any arc, whether it be concerning the world, ideas, characters or plot, that is not completed by the end of your story will result in unsatisfied readers.
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:
Fulfill your promises. 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. Check the previous section on the M.I.C.E. quotient if you haven’t done so yet.
Fill gaps in your narrative. 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 in the middle to explain the decline of your character.
Don’t be afraid to deviate from your outline. You’ll sometimes get an idea that that doesn’t fit in your story so far. 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 you can always just try to shift things around a bit. Make sure to account for it in the rest of the story though! You don’t want any loose ends 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. DON’T ERASE CUT IDEAS COMPLETELY! Things may change with your story and something you cut might work later on. 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. 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.
Each scene must have a purpose. Ask yourself what you’re trying to achieve? Maybe you want to get an emotional reaction from your readers, a change in your character or a development in your plot. Usually you want your scene to serve multiple purposes but you always need at least one.
Start a book with a heavier focus on your characters. Readers can waaaay more easily get attached to specific characters than the world or the plot itself. Starting your story with a ton of exposition will just deter your readers. Hook them in with amazing characters and then they’ll actually be interested in learning more.
Each section should be self contained. Don’t force the reader to remember something that happened previously in 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. If the characters aren’t invested in the plot, the reader probably won’t be either (because readers get attached to characters!). As much as possible, give the plot lasting effects on your characters.
Always remember your purpose. Review the section on your stories 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.
- 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.
- 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. 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.
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Table of Contents
- It All Starts With An Idea
- Thought Dumping
- World Building
- Writing Scenes
- Breaking Scenes Down
- Choosing A Title
- Writer's Block
- 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