In the last post I listed outlining as #9. Why do so many people on the Internet recommend that you outline your story? What is the best way to go about it?
I also mentioned in my last post that I did not outline Liquid Death before I wrote the first draft. I inevitably ended up with a confusing mess by the end. I don’t regret writing it that way, as I learned many things in the process and it helped me as a young, inexperienced writer (I’m still young and relatively inexperienced, but eh). However, once you have written one or two books, you realize you can save yourself a lot of time and hair-pulling if you plan your story from beginning to end before you write it. Incredible, right? I know I’m blowing your mind right now. Perhaps some fresh air might help. Go take a walk and come back when you are composed. You’ll need a clear head to absorb what’s coming next…
In how many ways can outlining be helpful? Let’s count:
- It can help you save time in the writing and editing stages.
- It can reduce the number of times you experience “writer’s block.”
- It forces you to think of an ending before you start (the usefulness of which was explained in my last post).
- It can help you muddle through the middle section of your book.
- It gives you a chance to write your story badly even before you type out the first draft.
Are you convinced yet? Doesn’t matter. If you would prefer not to outline, that is perfectly fine.
But you aren’t here because you never plan to outline unless you enjoy wasting your time (I know I do). So how should you do it then? On paper? With a word processor? Spreadsheet? Story board??? You can outline however you want. I typically outline my novels in a special notebook I keep next to my laptop. For Gray Haze, however, I decided that writing by hand was too slow for me and opted to outline using Powerpoint. The advantage is that I could finish it much faster and add pictures that helped me visualize the characters and scenery. The disadvantage (to me) is that I dislike switching between programs on my computer and would prefer glancing at the notebook beside me while I write. The point is: experiment until you find a method that works for you.
Moving on, then. What is my process? How do I sit down and come up with an outline for an entire novel? How much detail do I add? Do I leave enough room for error so I can change it later if necessary?
Step 1: Think of a story idea that you like enough to spend hours and hours drawing it out into a full-length novel.
Step 2: Who are your characters? Write profiles for each major character, including information about their family members, their favorite color, or whatever else you deem essential for your story. Plan an end goal for each character, such as where you want them to be by the end of the book. Describe their personalities and weaknesses. What purpose do they serve? I also add extra trivia about each character just for fun. (A post about “character profiles” will be published on Sept. 26th. “Follow” this blog to receive a notification when it is posted.) Word of caution: you don’t need to get so caught up in this step that you procrastinate moving on to step 3. It can be fun to dwell on the fictional people you create, but you need to chill out if you want to accomplish anything.
Step 3: Start with chapter one. Which character will you introduce first? What are they doing at the beginning? How will it hook the reader? Plan each chapter like a mini story with a beginning, middle, and ending. What questions should you raise in the beginning? As you progress in your outline, keep those questions in your mind and figure out where would be the best place to answer them and raise new ones. The answers to those questions may spring up organically as you proceed. This is why outlining is so useful, because otherwise it might take months of writing your book before you realize there was something you missed or a question you neglected to answer. Outlining is a short-cut and tool you can use to iron out the kinks in your plot before you even start writing it.
- Add as much detail as you can think of, but always leave room for future modifications. You will certainly come across a snag while writing your outline (or even your novel). It is important that you provide just enough information that you know what to write next, while leaving a little wiggle room so as not to hamper your creativity in your first draft. Plus, this is an outline. Keep that in mind.
- Outline each chapter almost like you are outlining an essay. How does it begin? What happens next? Where does that lead? Also end each chapter with a cliffhanger that will compel the readers to flip the page.
- If you find yourself stuck in the middle of your outline, wondering where you are going with it, refer back to your character profiles. If you know vaguely where you would like them to end up, conjure a devastating event that will excite you enough to spark your creativity again and also propel your character(s) toward their destiny. This event could be a character death, a natural disaster, a betrayal, an injury, etc. If you have already outlined their weakness, this is the time to harshly exploit them.
- “Tell” rather than “show” in your outline. Just state everything that happens as succinctly as possible. Don’t worry about the quality of your writing. No one needs to see it.
- If it helps, plot out scenes you want to include before beginning your outline, and insert them as you go.
- Keep your outline after you finish your novel if you plan to write a sequel. You can use it as an easy reference as needed.
Here is a sample of my outline for Gray Haze:
This is more detailed than most of the bullet-points in my outline since it is the opening scene. Is the stranger really only going to order hard-boiled eggs? *shrugs* I might change it. I might change a few other details as well. But how easy will this be to write? Very. Now all I have to do is expand it with description and dialogue. Boom. It practically writes itself. 😉
Still have more questions about the outlining process? Anything I missed? Comment below, use the contact page, or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. 🙂
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