How to Outline a Novel in 7 Easy Steps
One of the scariest moments for a writer a novel is looking at a blank page. The tyranny of the blank page as it is called. As a writer, you will need to overcome it. You can turn up every day and wait for inspiration to strike you. This also works. There is also another way. As a creativity coach, Julia Cameron says, “Creativity is always a leap of faith. You’re faced with a blank page, blank easel, or an empty stage.” One of the ways you can make that leap of faith is to outline your novel.
Some writers can turn in solid first drafts without an outline. In three days, Irish author John Boyne finished the first draft of his famous book, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Other writers need something a little more structured that is an outline. An outline gives you some idea of what is going to happen next. Even if you change the outline while writing the novel, it gives you a foothold to start with.
Kinds of Writers
There are three kinds of writers: one who writes without a plan and plans the writing. The writer who writes without a plan is called a “pansters” because they literally “fly by the seat of their pants.” The writer who has a plan is called a “plotter” because they make an outline first. Famous “pansters” include Margaret Atwood, George R.R. Martin, and Stephen King. In contrast, the famous “plotters” are J. K. Rowling, Joseph Heller, and Ernest Hemingway.
The third kind of writer is a hybrid of the first two. They start writing as a panster and then need an outline to proceed further. Look at your own writing habits and decide which category you belong to.
What Is an Outline?
An outline is not the story structure. The story structure is the bell curve or the pyramid. (Fig.1 and 2) You can choose either. It tells you how to plot your story following a broad structure. You can use it for all your stories.
Now, the outline is more than the structure of the story. The structure of the story focuses on the events that make up your story. An outline is a plan that includes the novel’s structure, plot, characters, scenes, and backstories. It includes other details that have occurred to you before you start working on the story. It’s a road map that you will follow when you start writing.
An outline can be a brief synopsis, a one-page document, or a comprehensive mind map with a visual representation showing the links between characters and events. Some writers use index cards; some prefer mind maps; some others might use post-its—more about these in a bit. The technique is as per your preference. There is no one right way to outline a novel just as there is not only one right way to write it.
The Importance of the Outline
If you are a panster, you might ask why you need a novel outline at all. After all, you are doing just as fine without it. Some might even think of outlines as blocking your free-flowing Creativity. You’d want to finish writing in one full burst or several full bursts. And the outline might get in the way. You might even think like panster Stephen King who says, “Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.”
If you are a plotter, you already believe in some form of an outline. For you, an outline is an essential first step to writing the novel. J. K. Rowling described her outlining method as: “I always have a basic plot outline, but I like to leave some things to be decided while I write.”
There are several advantages to starting a novel with an outline. They are:
- It gives you a bird’s eye view or the big picture view of your novel.
- It helps to stay on track with the story.
- It’s a method to arrange scenes so that you know which scene can be used where.
- It gives a clear picture of character arcs.
- It can guide you when you are blocked.
- It makes the middle of the novel clear, thereby avoiding the dreaded “middle muddle.”
- It is a map that tells you where you are exactly going.
Just like everything else in life, there are some drawbacks to outlining.
- It can create a stiff narrative.
- It can feel mechanical if it is followed closely and inflexibly.
- It can lead to characters making choices convenient for the plot rather than being authentic to themselves. This might make characters seem contrived as a result.
However, the advantages of having an outline far outweigh the disadvantages. And if you can keep an eye out for the drawbacks and avoid them as much as possible, outlining can be your good friend, philosopher and guide on your writing journey. American journalist, author, and a self-confessed plotter James J. Kilpatrick said,
The crafts of writing and carpentry are deceptively simple. The carpenter has to begin with a plan; the writer must begin with a thought. There must be at least the germ of an idea. Before the first board is nailed to the second board or the first word connected to the second word, there has to be some clear notion of where we expect to be when we have finished nailing or writing.
If you are convinced about the importance of the outline, you now have a choice of several methods to follow.Here are a few popular ones.
- The Synopsis Outline: A synopsis of the story’s major points—plot, character, conflict, climax, themes, etc.—outlined in one or two pages. Many authors find this outlining method gives them enough flexibility and the right amount of structure.
- The Mind Map Method: If you take the synopsis of the story and visually represent it, that’s the mind map outlining method. Plot, character, conflict, climax, themes, and even chapters can be diagrammed so that you get a glimpse of the whole novel at one go.
- The Detailed Outline: An outline that summarizes each chapter and sometimes each scene as well. It has all the details that you have thought of up to that point.
- The Snowflake Method: Author Randy Ingermanson created the Snowflake Method, which has become rather popular. According to him, you need to build your novel step by step. You need to start with a deep theme and then, in ten steps, develop the complexity of plot, story, character, conflict, and closure.
- The Bookend Method: In this method, your outline consists of the start and end points—the bookends—of the story.You should know where you want to start and where you want to end the story. For the rest of it, you can use a discovery draft, which is a draft in which you literally discover your story.
- The Skeleton Outline: A bare bones outline in which lists only the important key plot points. In this outlining method, arrange the big-ticket plot points in the way you would like. It’s a roadmap that has only the important stops. You can call it a table of contents for your novel.
- The Beat Sheet Outline: An outline that divides the story into beginning, middle, and end. Then it further subdivides them into 15 ‘beats’ or plot points. These beats have a specific function in your story.
- The Character-Focused Outline: An outline in which characters, arcs, and plot points are more important than other elements of the story. This is excellent when you want to focus on the character in genres such as fictional biographies.
- The Eight Sequence Structure: Usually used in screenwriting, this outlining method has been adapted to modern fiction. It uses a sequence of scenes as the building block for the novel. Each sequence has about 5 to 8 scenes that take the story forward and develop character as well.
Just as choosing to outline your novel is a choice, choosing which outline to follow is also your choice. If you do choose an outlining method, find one that works for you. You might have to experiment a bit to find the perfect fit.
How to Outline a Novel
Now let’s look at one way to craft an outline for your novel. In seven easy steps, you can have an outline ready.
1. Draft the Premise of Your Novel
The premise is the backbone of your story. You need to ask a few questions to figure this premise out.
- Who is the protagonist?
- What does your protagonist want?
- How do they plan to get what they want?
- What obstacles stop the protagonist from getting what they want?
- Who or what opposes the protagonist?
- Who or what helps the protagonist?
- What is the central conflict?
- How does the protagonist change from the beginning to the end?
- What is the central theme?
After you work out the answers to these questions, frame a one-paragraph summary.
Alternatively, you can summarize your story in a single sentence. It answers the question, “What is your story about?”In marketing, it is called the elevator pitch. Once you have it, you can use it for the marketing and promotion of your novel after you have written the final draft. You might have to come back and change the premise in case your story changes during the outline or the writing.
2. Determine the Setting
The time and the place, the when and the where your story, is the setting. This is as important as your characters. Your readers have to have a feel of the place and the time as much as why the character does what he/she does.
The setting depends on the genre as well. No matter what the genre is, you will need to do some research for it. Is your story set in Punjab during the 1947 Partition? Is your story set in a space station in the future? Is your story about five boys stuck in a deserted island off the coast of Australia in the 1960s? Each of these potential novel ideas would need you to research the time and the place you choose. Find as much information as you need.
Even if you choose your own childhood (something that you alone are an expert at) as the base for your novel, you might still need to research the period’s socio-political background.
Imagine the setting in your mind and use descriptive language to express it. Descriptive language is language that showswhat you can see, hear, taste, smell, and touch.
3. Decide thePlot Structure
So you know your premise and your setting. Now you need to figure out what framework or the structure of your story is. There are a few popular plot structures from which you can choose:
- The 3-Act Story structure
- The Hero’s Journey
- The Fichtean Curve
- In Media Res
- The 7-Point Story Structure
- James Scott Bell’s Two Pillars of a Novel Structure
- Dean Koontz’s classic story structure
4. Develop Characters
After deciding on the plot structure, you need to think about your characters. You need to put in enough thought about developing the characters. Character propels the plot. Not always but most of the time. You need to work on knowing your characters very well. Ask questions which will lead you to know about your characters.
- Who is the protagonist?
- Who is the antagonist?
- Who are the secondary characters?
- What is the relationship between the protagonist and antagonist, protagonist and second characters, and antagonist and secondary characters?
- If you met a character of your novel in a dark street in the middle of the night, what would your character say?
You can also use the Q and A method. Interview your characters, ask them personal questions, and respond to you in their own words. From this, you can create detailed backstories of each character.Your reader will not read these backstories, but they will inform the way your character imagines, behaves, and acts.
5. Construct the Plot
Now that you know who your characters are, you will need to detail your plot. A plot is nothing but the series of events which make up your novel. The plot is what makes the reader turn the page or stop reading. While reading a book have you ever thought, ‘where is this going?’ That is because of a plotting problem. You’ll want to avoid any of that in your book. So you need to flesh out the beginning, middle, and the end of the novel. Plotter J.K. Rowling is said to have known the end of the seventh book before she even began writing the first Harry Potter.
You will also need to choose a plot type. According to Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots, there are nine basic plot types:
- Overcoming the monster: The protagonist defeats the villain/monster to rescue a community and save whoever has been kept captive.
- Rags to riches: The protagonist overcomes human and sometimes supernatural obstacles to go from having nothing to having everything.
- The quest: The protagonist goes on a journey to achieve a big prize located far away.
- Voyage and return: The protagonist goes to a far off land, which is at first strange but becomes fun and enchanting.
- Comedy: The protagonist lives in a community where relationships between people have a shadow of confusion and uncertainty. This confusion becomes worse until the plot unravels the truth. It usually ends in marriage for the protagonist.
- Tragedy: Like the comedy, the protagonist lives in a community where relationships between people have a shadow of confusion and uncertainty. Here too the confusion worsens. Unlike the comedy, the confusion is never cleared, leading to an unhappy outcome.
- Rebirth: The protagonist is trapped in a situation because of the antagonist until another character frees him/her from this living hell.
- Mystery: The protagonist is the outsider who tries to uncover a dreadful event through reasoning and logic.
- Rebellion against ‘The One’: The protagonist rebels against a larger than life entity against all the odds and wins or loses.
6. Organize the scenes
Now your outline has achieved some shape. You will have a good idea about the scenes and where they should be slotted. Put down as much information as you have at this time.This is not the proper writing process so don’t worry about how messy it appears.
You can organize the scenes using one or more of these methods:
- Core Scenes First: Draft the important scenes first around which your story turns. These are the core scenes of your plot, and everything else will be placed around them.
- Chronological: If you are a linear thinker, then use the chronological method going from the first to the last scene.
- The Snowflake Method: You can use this method for developing scenes as well. You need to build the scenes in a granular way.
7. Summarize the chapters
Write a short and brief summary of each chapter listing the events that happen in each of them. This will be very easy to do since you would have done all the hard work earlier.
At the end of this process, the outline of your novel is ready. All you have to do is roll up your sleeves and get going on the actual writing part. Now, if someone were to ask you about outlining a novel, you would be able to explain what it is, its importance, the outlining methods, and how to outline a novel.