Authors have various methods when it comes to writing a novel. Some are Pantsers, or those who write by the seat of their pants rather than starting with an outline (reportedly, Stephen King is a Pantser). Others are Outliners.
Outliners start with the idea for the book, characters, plot, antagonists, and conclusion, and write it out (sometimes the old-school way, on notecards or sticky notes), then fill in the scenes with more detail.
Outlining a novel needn’t be difficult. In fact, the more complicated the story, the more an outline can help the writer, if only to keep characters, plot, and subplots straight. Author Rick Wood—interestingly, another horror writer—has a very involved writing process with corkboard, index cards, bits of colored string tying characters and plots together…I’ve never seen a plot hole in any of his books.
What is an Outline?
As noted on the Masterclass website: “A novel outline is a document that includes important planning information about your novel’s structure, plot, characters, scenes, and more. It is the skeleton of your novel.
“An outline can be anything from a one-page written document to a comprehensive visual mindmap…If you have the space, you can write your sentences on index cards and post them on a wall to make it easier to view and manipulate the parts.”
Benefits of Creating an Outline
The benefits of creating an outline are many. Avoiding plot holes and keeping characters straight are two logistical benefits. Then there’s the benefit to the writer; writing something out helps solidify it in your mind, as well as helping you remember fine points. It frees you up to think of even more interesting things to write. Sometimes a writer will have a scene in their head and they can see it so clearly, but when conveying it to the reader they skip details, forgetting that the reader can’t see what’s in the writer’s mind. Having it literally spelled out in front of you helps you write your novel more fully.
Drawbacks of Creating an Outline
Some will say there are no drawbacks to creating an outline. However, successful author Jerry Jenkins is a Pantser, preferring to let the story flow. He indicates that writing an outline and feeling forced to stick to it would curtail his creativity. “But I write as a process of discovery, so I just want to get at it. The serendipity that results motivates me, enthuses me, sometimes thrills me.”
Three Tips for Outlining Your Novel
Reedsy, always an excellent source of information, recommends three specific steps to help you outline your novel.
Step 1: Setting the stage
Without groundwork, your scenes (and story) will collapse in on itself. That’s why you first need to set the stage for your novel outline.
- The importance of premise: In a nutshell, the premise is your book’s central idea.
- Cast the characters: Since they’re going to make or break the book, you should have a good idea of who they are before you start outlining—how they got to this point in life, how they think, their desires and goals.
Step 2: Organizing the scenes
- How will your scenes advance and build upon your premise?
- How will a scene reveal your characters? How will it further the character development?
- How do your scenes fit into your narrative arc?
Step 3: Troubleshooting your story outline
- An idea is left hanging in a scene
- Two scenes need a bridge
- A scene is redundant or gratuitous
- A wild plot hole appears
What to do Once it’s Done
Once your outline is done, it’s time to fill in the details, or if you’re thinking in the skeleton analogy, it’s time to put meat (scenes, character development, elements such as weather and sensory information) on the bones (premise, characters, plot). Some great advice from Emmanuel Nataf of Lit Reactor is: “Leave room to move things around. Give your outline space to breathe. You don’t need to have every single scene locked in to maximize an outline’s potential.”
Following advice from my own English Lit teacher in college (“The three most important steps in writing your novel are 1. Revision, 2. Revision, and 3. Revision”), Emmanuel offers:
Experiment, experiment, experiment. An outline is a fluid, flexible being. One of the most important things to remember when you sit down to outline is that nothing you put down is set in stone. You can move scenes around and adjust your “stress points” as you see fit, and at any point in time…That’s the beauty of the outline: you can tinker with it as much as you want until you see a solid path forward.
Roz Morris of IngramSpark shares this wisdom with writers using an outline to write their novel. “The outline can be as strict or as loose as you want. You might fix the events of the beginning, middle, and end. Or you might want to be more inspirational or off-beat with character arcs, pictures, moods—anything you don’t want to forget.
“Ultimately, the outline is your personal safe space, where you can interpret, experiment and—hopefully—surprise yourself a little too.”
You may want to have a professional editor review your outline before you continue with your writing, or wait until the first draft is complete and then send it in. With today’s technology you can do everything online, and your editor can use MS Word’s Track Changes feature and comments in the margin to help you improve the content of your manuscript, putting your best writing forward to readers (and avoiding bad online reviews). One of the more established online editing services is www.FirstEditing.com, with both fiction and nonfiction editors standing by to help you with your novel. Ask for a free sample edit today!