The Novel Outline: Yea or Nay?

Writing Confessions

Hi, my name is M.E. and I am a novel outliner.

 

There. I said it. I love outlining. I think it’s fantastic. There’s a teeny tiny part of me that envies the fly-by-nights of the world who can craft elaborate and thrilling novels straight from brain to paper, but I am not one of them. I’m a planner who loves to wing it. Yeah, I know. Every writer with whom  I’ve ever had the privilege of talking about outlining has had his or her own method, which I think is awesome! I like it when there’s more than one way to do something and still be successful, and outlining definitely falls into that category. My method (as it stands today) is as follows:

Step #1 – The Road Trip

Once I’ve decided on an idea and fleshed it out enough to have some concept of what it is, I begin to outline in the same way I might plan a road trip: I determine my final destination, the basic path, and any highlights/hotspots I don’t want to miss along the way. That’s my initial map. That whole “write the ending first” wisdom? Yeah, I love doing that. It makes me feel all sneaky (which, let’s face it, I am) and helps keep the story momentum moving forward even when I get a little bit stuck. Flat tire? Drive into a ditch? Get lost on a back road? You get the idea.

 

Step #2 – The Itinerary

And then I get all nitty-gritty with it. I make sure all those hotspots and highlights fall in the right places on the basic path. I’m a big fan of the three-act structure and try to keep it in the back of my mind as I work. I also have a passion for myth, so the hero’s journey is influential for me, though I don’t shoehorn it in (I like to think my stories will follow the mythic structure on their own and in their own ways…I can be all organic like that). At this point I’m working on a step-by-step outline. I’m trying to get the shape of things chronologically. I realize I may (read: will) switch it up in drafting and/or revision, but this part is crucial for my own understanding of the story as a whole. This happens, then this happens, then this happens, etc. My goal is to have a scene list, in some kind of rough order, by the time I finish this step.

 

Step #3 – The Detours

This step is probably totally optional for a lot of writers. However, I sometimes struggle with remembering that subplots are really important. Yeah, I know. I’m getting better at it, but since I know it’s a weakness for me, I now take time up front to map out my subplots and where they fit in the overall structure (Itinerary). I also make sure to plug the subplot scenes into my previous scene list if I missed doing so on the first go round. Baby steps.

 

Step #4 – The Groupies

Finally, I attempt to group all my scenes into chapter-like chunks. Scrivener is amazing for this part. The main point of this step is to help me assess the length of my story. If you don’t have enough scenes to fill the number of chapters you know you need for a full-length novel, it’s good to know that right at the beginning. Or, if you’re like me, and you have WAY TOO MANY scenes for one book and realize you’re actually working on two (or seven)…well, that’s handy to know, too. I like to make as many big picture adjustments and decisions as I can before setting pen to paper or fingertips to keys.

 

Step #5 – The Drive

Fix a cuppa, settle in at your desk, and get writing! One of my favorite things about outlining is that once I start writing, I usually don’t have to stop. The process of writing an outline helps me know what research I need or what world-building has to happen, so I seldom get stuck in the middle of drafting, which is great! This is the long drive, wind in your hair part of the process…enjoy it!

 

Disclaimer: My outline changes as I draft EVERY TIME. Like, the end novel is never the same as the one I began with, but that’s the beauty of it. It’s easy to think of an outline as a cage instead of a map, and I hope it’s clear that I don’t use mine that way. Yes, the final destination remains the same, but even the best laid plans are subject to whim, fate, and stubborn heroines. 

3 Comments

Leave a Reply