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How to Outline a Novel

Write Right

Outlining makes the daunting task of writing a novel much less difficult. It’s where you create a story from beginning to end by letting your imagination roam freely. It’s fun, creative, and one of the best aspects of fiction writing.

Without worrying about the scene-by-scene specifics, you develop the general idea of a plot, and afterward, you have a skeleton, no more. No flesh, just bones. By outlining, you can avoid writing plots, characters, and descriptions that lead to dead ends, which not only waste your time but kill your story before it gets a chance to take baby steps.

To form the skeleton of a book, continue to ask yourself key questions such as:

What is the story about?

Who are all the main players?

Who are the minor characters?

With the big idea in mind, consider all possible subplots. How might these intersect with the main conflict and themes? Don’t spend time on a subplot that doesn’t connect with your main message in some way. Although it could represent some of your best prose, if it serves no purpose in the story, it’s like having a body part with no function.

How does your story end? If you don’t have an idea of how the story will end, your words will wander aimlessly all over the page, burying the storyline. That doesn’t mean you need to know all the specifics of the ending—just have a general idea. Besides, you’ll probably change the ending a lot during the editing stage and tweak it even more afterward. Like human beings, your book is a work in progress. Think about what obstacles might arise between the protagonist and your end point, for these will become the bare bones of scenes and subplots.

In her blog Helping Writers Become Authors, author Katie Weiland makes a distinction between outlining and structuring the novel, whereas many writing mentors don’t, which can confuse writers who are grabbling with how to write a novel. “Outlining is a process in which you brainstorm your entire story. Structuring is a technique by which you employ accepted theories of storytelling to give your story it’s best shape and form,” she says. (K. M. Weiland, “How to Outline a Novel”)

Many authors forego taking a template approach to novel writing, preferring to fly by the seat of their pants. These people, who are commonly called “pantsers,” fear a framework will stifle their creativity. Yet just as many other writers, widely known as “plotters,” need a framework because they struggle to transform their ideas into books otherwise.

Some writers are pantsers and plotters, which is just how I describe myself. Though, lately I’ve been leaning more towards the plotters than the pantsers because I can finish a book much faster when it has a skeleton. If stumped by one aspect of my book, I choose another from my framework to work on and not waste time.

Once you have your big idea, main characters, conflict, and setting in mind, start identifying possible plot holes.

What’s a plot hole? It’s a gap or inconsistency in a storyline that specifically contradicts the flow of logic established in the plot. For instance, if your male lead walks with a limp, don’t place him in a scene where he runs in a marathon and crosses the finish line first. By doing so, you’ve dug a plot hole. How did he get the limp? What’s his backstory? Answer germane questions to create a credible character with whom your readers will bond.

Plot holes include the following:

  • Illogical events. (i.e., as noted above)

  • Impossible events (i.e., a character sails across the Atlantic Ocean in a day)

  • Contradictions (i.e., the hero is loving in one scene and unaccountably cruel in the next)

  • Unresolved storyline (i.e., a subplot is introduced but leads nowhere)

  • Continuity errors (i.e., a character mixes up the specifics of a murder plot he has orchestrated or overheard).

How do you find plot holes? The more you develop the storyline before writing, the better chance you can identify plot holes early. While brainstorming, spend a lot of time examining the logic in the plot. Are your characters’ actions true to their beliefs and personalities? Does your conflict have meaningful consequences? Are your subplots connected to your main plot?

When outlining a book, I set up several electronic files, each belonging to a specific story element—plot (and subplots), themes, characters, conflict, setting, and research. At first, I add, subtract, or change information often because it doesn’t fit with the storyline, and then later, I use my detailed notes to cross check for plot holes. Without these files, I’d have trouble keeping the facts straight, especially once the story has become more complex.

When writing genres involving fantastical, supernatural, or futuristic elements, it’s important to keep a file about your imaginary world or your book could be riddled with plot holes. For instance, if this world includes a furry creature with a large head that walks on its hands but then is spotted running across the doons on its feet, well . . . you get my point. Although readers will allow minor mistakes—after all, nobody would enjoy fantasy if they couldn’t suspend their beliefs for a while—they’ll be unforgiving when finding too many glaring plot holes. And they’ll toss the book aside!

Ask yourself the questions that you’ll need to answer by the end of the book. In a paranormal fantasy, for example, how does the earthly character meet the heavenly character she has been seeing in her dreams? And when? What happens next? In a contemporary romance, how do the main characters, both single, end up marrying each other when they obviously dislike one other at the beginning of the book (which is a common thread in this genre)?

When you’re answering these questions, jot down the predicable steps that lead to the outcomes but then craft alternative steps, so your story won’t seem trite! In a contemporary romance, for instance, have your main characters like each other initially, break up after discovering they have little in common, and get together by happenstance in the end.

Move your plot forward by drawing from the goals of your protagonist and antagonist. In Hello, my name is Emily, one of my young adult titles, the protagonist is desperate to find her biological mother because she’s mad at her adoptive mother; as a result, she trusts an Internet predator who has come up with all the right answers. Although her friend Alex has warned her cyberspace is full of creeps, she runs off to meet the Internet stranger secretly. Imagine what happens next.

You can also develop the storyline further by examining the characters’ motives. Murder mysteries are full of villains who try to hide their initial crimes by committing more crimes.

“The most important thing to realize about story outlines,” Katie Weiland told me, “is that they are not the old Roman numeral outlines we remember from high school. They’re not about making a listing of things that should happen in your story. They’re about discovering your story and organizing it, so you will then have an accurate roadmap to follow when writing your first draft. It’s also important to realize your outline will never be written in stone. You will have done your best to create the “right” story in your outline, but if you come up with a better idea down the line, never feel you don’t have the freedom to explore it.”

Above all, have fun while outlining your novel, for structuring your story involves much more work!

Write Right Task 6

Letting your mind roam, outline your novel from beginning to end.

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