The novel outline is the road map of your story. In it you pour out your creative genius, your plot twists and turns, the central conflicts, the world of your story, the characters and more. It helps you create the world of your story, before you even translate your ideas to the written page in detail. It’s a very useful tool, particularly for new or first-time novelists.
But there are many famous “pantsers” out there that don’t use outlines, including Stephen King. But he’s also a very successful author and knows what works for him. Those that plot, known as “plotters”, include Ernest Hemingway and J. K. Rowling. And yes, they’ve had just as much success as Stephen King.
So which route should you choose? Well, it’s not essential to have an outline, but it can be both important and useful. We’ll outline some of these reasons in this blog. And we firmly believe an outline is important if you’re a new or first-time novelist.
What is a novel outline?
A novel outline is the skeleton of your novel. It contains information about the structure, plot, characters, settings, and scenes that will feature in your full story.
Outlines are different for everyone, and you are welcome to be creative and different, or just stick to tried-and-true methods.
Some writers use a one-page written document or even a storyboard with images or ideas on index cards or on the wall. Others describe each scene in detail, outlining the characters and key plot points. And there are many options in between.
Is it possible to start writing without an outline?
Outlining your novel is not essential, but there are many very good reasons you should do so. As we stated above, pantsers like writing from the seat of their pants as they feel that is true inspiration and using an outline can stilt their creativity.
Stephen King said, “Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.” He even said in his book, On Writing, that he can tell which books have been outlined because they seem stale. But he also agrees J. K. Rowling is a good writer.
However, King does think through his plot and characters, so it’s not like he starts with a blank page, it’s just that he likes to leave the ending open until he gets there.
Other writers believe outlines may make their writing seem formulaic and that they are writing from plot points that will present as unnatural or more about showing than telling.
If you feel that might happen in your work, perhaps a simple plot is all you need to get you started.
Value of an outline
There are many good reasons for using a novel outline. Let’s look at some of these.
Keep writer’s block at bay
If you have an outline for your novel, use it the next time you get stuck in a rut, or are not sure how to continue. The ideas, plot, character notes and other details you have planned should help you move on.
While a novel outline is not exactly a first draft of your work, it is similar and will give you a huge headstart on your work. You will therefore be able to reduce the amount of writing, drafts and rewriting it needs, as much of your story structure will already be planned. You don’t have to go back and do a lot of rearranging if you already have a plan in mind.
If you outline your novel, it will highlight areas that might be problematic, such as plot holes, weak characters and setting issues. Flesh out some of these details first, or think through them, and it will help you when you get to writing about this segment.
Develop a strong story
A good story includes compelling and believable characters, clear story goals with an incredible plot and fine setting elements that transport you into the locations. By planning your outline first, you can tackle some of these areas before you even start writing.
Keeps the big picture in mind
If you have any issues while you’re writing, the outline will remind you where the story is meant to be going. Writers can get distracted from the purpose of their tale, that is where the story is meant to go, and how character arcs play out. Glancing back at their outline from time to time can keep all of this on track, and you’re also less likely to write yourself into a corner.
It’s important to remember that there is no rule that says you have to stick to your outline once you’ve written it. You can leave some endings open and see where the characters and inspiration lead you. You might even add more characters or different scenes to what you had originally planned.
But there are a lot of benefits to outlining your novel first and it will help give you a sense of direction and purpose in your writing.
To help you on your writing journey while you’re considering the outline of a novel, you may wish to read our blogs Advice for First Time Novel Writers and Writing a Novel: 5 Things You Must Know for further information.