3 Ways to Outline Your Novel

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An outline is the draft before the first draft. It’s a roadmap of coming attractions, helpful guides, and key landmarks. Because no two people write exactly the same way, no two authors use the exact same outlining process. Maybe you like lists, or timelines, or big paragraphs outlining the details of coming scenes. Whatever your individual style, consider these three outlining techniques to help you beat writers’ block and challenge yourself creatively.

Outline by Events

Probably the most popular way to outline a novel is through action. Someone goes somewhere. This happens. That happens. They go somewhere else. It’s straightforward, and many writers use this method to keep their story’s direction and timeline clear as they write. If you have multiple characters in different locations, organizing your novel by events and timing can save you many headaches during not only your first draft, but in revisions as well.

This method’s primary drawback is its predictability. Staying interested and motivated as your write the first draft is a great challenge. If you can already see a condensed version of your first draft on paper, actually writing the novel may feel repetitive.

Outline by Characters

I’ve said it before, you’ve heard it before, and we all know it’s true, but I’m going to say it again anyway: characters drive the story. Their development and motivation make or break even the most epic plots. See the final two seasons of Game of Thrones for a practical example.

In this outlining style, you don’t focus on what is happening but rather why it’s happening. Maybe you know you want a certain character to begin as a hero and end as a villain. That kind of massive transformation requires many small steps and shifting values throughout the story. Figure out who wants what and outline how their desires and motivations change. To make this outlining style really work, outline with several characters at once, showing how each one changes compared to the others.

With this outline in hand, you get to really throw around those fun writing tricks like, “What’s the worst thing that could happen now?” without compromising your outline. The events are all changeable. Character evolution and drive top all.

Outlining by characters is tricky, but it also helps keep your imagination and intellect involved as you write your first draft. If you want to try something different, get easily bored halfway through the first draft, or identity more with characters than events, this is a great style.

Outline by Acts

There are entire articles on act-based plot structures (even on this blog!), and they probably influence your outlines even if you focus on events or characters. Most stories follow this structure: introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, conclusion. There are mini acts buried in those generalized chunks – particularly in the introduction and rising action, which comprise the bulk of the story.

Outlining by act uses traditional story arch acts as a checklist. This idea/event/character goes here. These lead to this. Then the thing over here happens. You can literally use this as a fill-in-the-blank outlining process. It’s easy, but it’s limiting.

Ready to get planning? There is no wrong way to outline. Seriously. No one will ever see it. Feel free to blend techniques, swap styles to cope with tricky or complicated schemes and events, or just changing things up when you get bored. So long as you finish your first draft, you made a successful outline!

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