You have an idea, but you need to see how it pans out. You are a planner, not a pantser, and you want to make sure you know where you’re headed before you start down the path. If that sound like you, you’ve probably made many – many – outlines in the past. If that sounds like an insane stranger you wouldn’t trust with small children, well, you could still benefit from a bit of outlining. No matter where you fall on this spectrum, we have a few tips to help you get the most out of your novel planning.
Begin with the Basics
You’ve heard people say “start at the beginning,” but that might not be the best approach when plotting your novel. Frankly, beginnings are hard. The best way to start is often to get to the bones of your story. Who are you writing about, what do they want, and what is preventing them from achieving their aims? This is the core of every single novel. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a mystery thriller or a piece of literary fiction. Everything comes down to those three questions.
Focus on the Action
What happens? What movement does each interaction propel? This is the basis of your outline, or at least it should be. Although character development is incredibly important, remember that novels must move, and your outline should be more like a roadmap of where your characters are going than what they are feeling. Adding character development notes and creating thematic links from the get-go is a great idea, but they may shift. Zero in on the action first. It gives you a road to follow.
Remember the Shape of a Story
You know what classical Greek dramas and Tom Clancy novels have in common? They have the same shape. Essentially all stories feature an introduction, rising action, a climax, falling action, and a conclusion. When you don’t know what happens next, figure out what the next step of the story should be according to this model. It isn’t foolproof, but it won’t lead you very far astray.
When the Plot Stalls, Talk to Your Characters
The writer of this article is a big believer in character driven narratives. When things go sideways, have a chat with your characters. Reacquaint yourself with their individual personalities, fears, and dreams. Remember why they are in their current predicament. After all, sometimes the way backis the way forward.
Never Forget: Outlines Can Change
Stories change a lot. If you don’t expect to spend endless hours redrafting, you are deluding yourself. The good aspect of all those revision is that you are not bound to early decisions. This includes your outline. Your final novel may look nothing like your outline, and that is perfectly fine.
Take a Break
Outlining may be a valuable tool, but only if you don’t allow it to consume you. Procrastination, every writer’s greatest enemy, comes in many innocent-looking forms. That includes secondary writing tasks like outlining. Ultimately, no matter how wonderful your outline becomes, it will never be a full novel. Writing the novel takes separate labor. It takes time, effort, and care. And you have to put down your beloved outline in order to do it.
Outlines give you the chance to explore many potential storylines in a relatively short time. Use them as a tool of inspiration and a shortcut to stronger content. A good roadmap will keep you on task!