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How to Outline a Novel

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 a general plot—the bones, no more. By outlining, you can avoid writing plots, characters, and descriptions that lead to dead ends, which wastes time and kills your story before it takes the first steps.

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

What is the story about?

Who are all the key players?

Who are the minor characters?

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

How does your story end? If you don’t know how the story will end, your words will wander aimlessly all over the page, the story lost in transit. That doesn’t mean you need to know all the specifics of an ending—just have a general idea. You’ll probably change the ending somewhat during the editing stage and tweak it even more afterward. Like a person, 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 distinguishes between outlining and structuring the novel, while many writing mentors don’t, confusing writers who are grappling 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 its best shape and form,” she says. (Weiland, “How to Outline a Novel”)

Many authors don’t enjoy taking a template approach to novel writing, preferring to fly by the seat of their pants instead. Commonly called “pantsers,” they fear a framework will stifle their creativity. Yet just as many writers, known as “plotters,” prefer having a framework because they struggle to transform their ideas into books otherwise.

Other writers are pantsers and plotters, which is how I describe myself. But I lean more towards the plotters because I can write a book much faster when it has bones. If stumped by one story feature, I choose another from the framework and don’t waste time.

Once you have your big idea, main characters, conflict, and setting in mind, start searching for 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 character walks with a limp, don’t place him in a scene where he runs 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:

· 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 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, examine 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 later, I use my detailed notes to cross check for plot holes. Without these files, I couldn’t keep the facts straight, especially once the story has become more complex.

If you’re creating a world with fantastical, supernatural, or futuristic elements, it’s important to keep a file on this imaginary world or plot holes might dominate your book. For instance, if your world includes a furry creature with an enormous head that walks on its hands but then is spotted running across the field on its feet, well . . . you get my point. Although readers will allow for minor mistakes—after all, nobody would enjoy fantasy if they couldn’t suspend their beliefs for a while—they’ll be unforgiving if finding too many glaring plot holes. 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 seen in her dreams? And when? What happens next? In a contemporary romance, how do the main characters, both single, end up married to each other when they dislike one other at the beginning of the book (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, why not have your main characters like each other when they first meet, break up after discovering they have little in common, and get together by happenstance in the end?

Move the plot forward by drawing from goals of your protagonist and antagonist. In Hello, my name is Emily, my protagonist is fed up with her adoptive mother; she thinks if she finds her biological mother, whom she has never met, her life will get better. Desperate, she trusts an Internet predator to help her. Although her friend Alex warns her that cyberspace is full of creeps, she runs off to meet the Internet stranger in secret. Imagine what happens next.

You can also develop the story further by examining the characters’ motives. Murder mysteries are full of villains who try to hide their initial offences 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 you don't need to write your outline 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.

Next week: How to Structure Your Novel


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