by N. Strauss
A novel outline is a plan for a novel. If you're outlining for yourself and not for an editor, then the good news is there are no rights or wrongs. You can type up your outline with Roman numerals, or you can paint it on the carpet in lipstick if that works for you. Every author has their own system.
One of the great things about a novel outline is that it lets you test ideas before you commit to them. It lets make sure your novel will work BEFORE you start writing.
Sometimes, you'll discover that your novel idea isn't going to work. For example:
If you discover one of these problems, you can either find a way to fix it, or move on to the next idea. Either way, figuring it out ahead of time can save you a lot of time and heartache.
Other benefits of a novel outline:
There are authors who never outline at all. They just sit down and write. But then they usually rewrite the whole book again afterwards. Instead of planning their novels, they prefer to write a lot of drafts, discovering new aspects of the story each time.
This is a fine approach, but keep in mind that the less planning you put in ahead of time, the more rewriting you will likely need to do.
Here's an easy approach you can try. (Remember, there's no RIGHT way to make a novel outline—this is just one option!)
Before you start your actual novel outline, spend some time brainstorming freely, letting your imagination run, generating ideas and writing them down. Carry a notebook around with you.
When you feel that you're getting ready to move beyond the brainstorming phase, then write down answers to these questions:
For each of the main events in the list you've just made, imagine a scene or scenes. Think about:
Every scene should have a purpose. It should either move the character forward or backward toward or away from their goal or solving the novel's central problem (novels are more exciting if you play with the reader’s emotions by moving the character back and forth a bit), or else it should deepen the reader's understanding of the characters or situation in the novel.
Make a list of scene ideas, summarizing each one in just a few words. For example:
Write a one-sentence summary of novel's main plot idea. You can imagine that you're writing the blurb for the book jacket. This summary should include a character or characters and an important problem or goal. If you find that you can't boil down the plot to a single sentence, then your idea probably isn't focused enough yet, and you should keep working on it.
(Tip: Save this 1-sentence – can use be helpful later when it comes time to pitch your novel to agents and editors!)
Look at the scene ideas you planned in Step 3. Are they in the right order? What other scenes are needed to tell the story of your character's battle with the problem or their work toward the goal? Fill in the missing pieces. Take out any scenes that don't belong.
Put everything into the best order for telling the story. This is your novel outline! Use it to help you, but don't hesitate to keep changing and improving it as you write. The story might take you in unexpected directions, so stay open to surprises!
You can write each scene idea on a separate index card. Then play around with the order, adding new cards and removing cards that don't belong.
Once you've got a sequence you're happy with, take a photo of the cards arranged in order, and/or number the cards to save your work. If you have enough space, you might like to pin the cards to a cork board or tape them to the wall for easy reference you're working.
Mind-mapping is a great brainstorming technique, especially at the early stages of planning a novel. Here's an example of a mind map.
There's no right or wrong way to make mind map. One approach is to write a word in the center of a page, then surround it by words and phrases that are related to it. Use lines to show how ideas are connected. You can use colors and pictures to add dimension to your visual map.
Charts and graphs
Some authors create timelines and charts of their plots, or specific plot elements. For example, here's a hand-drawn graph J.K. Rowling used for one of her novels.
Many writers create profiles of the main characters they're going to write about. They take notes on a character's physical appearance and personal history, their good and bad qualities, likes and dislikes, habits, interests, hopes and fears.
You can collect pictures to help you imagine the people and places you will be writing about. You can go through magazines and do a "casting" for your characters. You can create a scrapbook if you like. Or you can search for pictures online (for example, doing image searches on Flickr.com and Google), then use Pinterest.com to create a virtual scrapbook. You can also draw your own pictures. J.K. Rowling drew sketches of the characters in her Harry Potter novels. Many writers draw maps and floorplans of the places they'll be writing about.
Many writers like to keep a notebook where they write down ideas, descriptive details, scraps of dialogue, etc., as they come to mind.
There are many software options with tools for outlining your novel and mapping different aspects of your story such as timelines, character relationships, subplots, etc. One advantage of using software is it makes it easy to keep all of your planning in one place and to search for what you need.
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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