Novel Outline Tips: How Successful Authors Plan Their Outlines

This is Part 2 of our article on writing a novel outline. Click here to go to Part 1.

Today, I want to continue talking about novel outlines. And I want to introduce you to my mother, who often contributes to Creative Writing Now.

My mother's name is Linda Leopold Strauss. She loves to read and spend time with her grandchildren, is a great cook and an amateur photographer and generally a lovely person. Years ago, my mother became interested in writing children's books. She wrote number of picture book manuscripts which didn't end up being published as books, but as magazine stories. Then she decided to write a middle-grade novel.

But there was a problem...

"I had episodic ideas, but didn't feel that any of them was strong enough to make a story," she explains. "I realized I needed to have a plot and a structure -- I couldn't just have an interesting episode. An interesting episode isn't a story, and it certainly isn't a novel."

If she was going to invest the time to write a novel, she wanted to be sure she could get to the end.

So my mother got a bunch of middle-grade novels from the library and studied their structure. "I mapped them out, the subplots, the hooks," she says.

Once she understood how the novels were put together, she was able to make her own outline. The result was her first published book, THE ALEXANDRA INGREDIENT, which was published by Crown in 1988.

Ways to outline

Before making an outline, my mother takes notes on ideas for scenes. Then she plays with the order of the scenes to come up with the final outline.

Here examples of a few of her notes for her novel, REALLY, TRULY, EVERYTHING'S FINE (published by Marshall Cavendish in 2004). The basic idea for this novel is how a middle-school-aged girl copes with the fact that her father has been arrested for stealing artwork.

Examples of scene ideas:

- Visit to dad (bus ride?)
- Runaway scene.
- Before runaway scene: Mom breaks her arm?
- Tornado warning at climax scene?
- Kids tell G’ma Dad’s moved out.
- Should family move? Is that an option? Stay, to be near Dad? Fury at this!"

Her notes also include snippets of dialogue, timelines, as well as ideas for setting, characters, and descriptions. There's a total of 81 pages of these notes, which she sorted through when making her outline, using some of the ideas and discarding others until she had a working plan.

Here's what some other authors do:

- Ken Follett and Amanda Hocking both write multiple drafts of their *outlines*.

- John Grisham makes lengthy novel outlines which consist of 2-paragraph summaries of each chapter. He says that he spends more time outlining his books than writing them! He says: "The more time I spend on the outline, the easier it is to write the book.”

- JK Rowling planned her Harry Potter books with hand-drawn charts which map the different plot points chapter by chapter.

You can see photographs of one of Rowling's charts, as well as other well-known authors' outlines here.

Using an outline

Not all novelists like to outline. It's not a requirement. But an outline gives you security.

You never have to wonder what to write. You don't have to worry about running out of ideas.

And once you have a solid outline, the writing will normally go faster and more easily.

When you sit down to write, you can take the next plot point on your outline and let your imagination run with it, daydreaming the scene, playing it in your mind like a movie. Then write down what you see and hear, what the characters say, what everything looks and sounds and smells like.

As you do that, new ideas will occur to you, ideas that weren't in your original outline. That's great! Explore them! You're not locked in to the outline. It's just there in case you need it.

That's important to remember: the outline is NOT a limitation. You can always add things that aren't in the outline (or ignore things that are).

Imagine a path through the wilderness. As you're crossing that wilderness, you might wander off the path wade in a stream or pick berries that are growing nearby. But as long as you keep the path in sight, you always know where you're headed.

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