Famed horror writer Stephen King famously told The Wall Street Journal, “The thing is, I don’t outline, I don’t have whole plots in my head in advance.” It’s clearly worked for him with more than 60 titles to his name, and many are bestsellers and movies.
However, the well-known writer of The Firm and The Client, Michael Crichton, has a different approach altogether. He makes notes on cards and when they have filled a shoebox, he arranges them to plot out the story.
What does Harry Potter creator, J. K. Rowling, do? Well, she writes rough outlines, by hand, with words crossed out and lots of amendments. She uses 10 columns to outline her subplots, characters, and other broader details and has even released copies of them on her website.
Everyone seems to use a different approach, so what should you do? As you may have already guessed, all approaches work and it might be best to just find what suits you. The magic formula for writing fiction is the one that works for you.
Outline or not outline
If you have the talent of Stephen King and intuitively know how to develop your characters, their goals and motivations, locate a scene, and hit key plot points, you might be able to wing it just like him. But Stephen King also admitted one of his favourite books is one he wrote an outline for.
So, with the caveat that there is no one answer to this, it is probably best for most new writers to develop a more formulaic approach when they first get going, with the understanding they can revise, change, and be as creative as they like in this process. And by the time they get to their second or third novel (we hope), the original approach may no longer be the one they enjoy, that works, or is even that productive. But you do have to start somewhere.
An outline can be as detailed or skeletal as the writer wants. As long as it expresses a consistent message or premise to the reader about the characters, the situation they find themselves in, the journey they are undertaking, the conflicts and tension they must overcome, and the outcome they want or are headed for, it’s on the right track. It will also help clear matters up in the writer’s head about where they want to go.
There are different ways to plot an outline. One way to start can be to develop a synopsis of the overall story, simply using the details above and writing ideas down that can range anything from a paragraph or two, to a page or more.
Other writers use the headings below to flesh out the key elements of the story, or even develop their own, just like J. K. Rowling. Or like Rowling, they break down the novel into events, scenes, and chapters, and outline the elements they want to highlight in every scene.
Once you’ve got a skeletal outline, you can either flesh it out providing dialogue, writing in more description, and outlining settings more, or just get started on your draft. You’re ready to go.
There are many story writing elements you can utilise in your fiction writing, but we like to group them into three main headings of plot, characters, and settings. These are the building blocks of your novel. For more on how to write and edit these story elements, read our blog.
A novel needs to take place somewhere, so in an outline a writer should think about where the locations might be. Try to think about them more than just the backdrop for your actors. Consider the elements like weather, geography, the seasons, and any finer elements that could bring that world to life. For example, if the novel is set on a farm, you might want to consider what harvest or animals will feature. You might want to even map out the fields and house so you understand where scenes will take place and how characters will move around.
The plot is the actual story, or rather, the chain of events that make up the story. This narrative arc is not random. The events should connect together and lead your story forward, building on the last elements, reaching points of climax, conclusion and resolution. The five key scenes in a story arc help you structure it in such a way to captivate and keep the reader’s attention. These scenes include the inciting incident, plot point one, the middle, plot point two, and the climax. To read more about them, read about the story arc.
Characters are an excellent way of developing a story, and some writers prefer to think about them first when tackling their outlines. As a start, consider who your key protagonists will be and their key traits, such as age, name, appearance, role and motivation.
Then ask yourself, what will happen to them in the story? How will they react to the events around them? What is their goal? Who will have the point of view in each scene or throughout the story? How are they going to develop as a character and change as the story develops?
Some writers even go through each scene and consider the point of view of each of the major characters, even if it’s not something that is verbalised or written down in the story. Every character should have inherent goals and motivations, and be seeking to and/or achieving particular milestones throughout the plot.
Goals are a key element in any storyline, as both the plot and the characters should be working towards something. It may not need to be defined or outlined until the end (if you’re writing a mystery or whodunnit), but there should be a sense of movement, desire, internal motivations, plus the reactions to them. Here are some key elements to consider in working goals into your outline and story.
Goal – all characters in the plot must have something they either want or want to avoid, and this must be clear to readers. They may want to win the heart of a particular girl or boy, to beat an opponent in a war or tournament, finish medical school or just get through the week, escape a monster or a Martian, or just live their life in peace. Goals don’t have to be super creative, they just have to be real and clearly defined. And everything that happens in the story should have an impact on the characters’ internal goals.
Conflict/Tension – it is always good to have someone (an arch nemesis or competitor) or something (unusual events, unlucky circumstances) stopping the protagonist from reaching their goal, at least for a while. This isn’t just about spinning the story out for the reader, it is true to life. And tension and conflict make for great stories, so don’t be too nice to your characters or make the storyline too easy. Goals that are reached to easily are a little boring for readers, so you may add in complications that prevent them from reaching it too easily or too soon.
Emotional or physical response – when the character(s) is seeking to achieve their goal, they may reach hurdles, important milestones, face dilemmas where they have to make a choice, or even finally achieve their goal. Whatever point they are at in the story, the reader should understand their plight, appreciate the dilemma they face, and feel drawn into their plight. In other words, we need to understand and feel their emotions. All story is emotion after all. You simply rinse and repeat until they achieve this goal, if that is the intention of your plot.
As you work on your outline, you may find themes subconsciously develop that take you off on a tangent. You may find characters develop traits you hadn’t considered, and have a life of their own. Ideas about weather or settings might come, or you find you’ve launched into pages of dialogue already and don’t quite know where to put them.
Our advice? Go with it, as you can always come back to the formula later. And you might have pages of ideas and details you can use in this story, or the next, or the one after … However, if you get too far from the central theme, it might then be time to go back to your outline, the building basics, and start again. Or, at some point, get advice from a professional editor.
CONCLUSION: IS THERE A FORMULA OR NOT?
This article may seem a bit convoluted with many swings and roundabouts. The reality is the answer is both yes and no. Like all skills, writers need to hone them. They should find what works for them, and what doesn’t, then refine it. That is usually learnt through practice, but just remember, a formulaic approach isn’t boring, it simply has form.