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7 Steps to Outlining Your Novel

“First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!” Ray Bradbury

Over the past five years, which is actually when I started writing fiction, I have grappled with the question of whether I’m a plotter or a pantser. You know, the plotter being the writer who is keen to develop the entire plotline, laying points on a graph, identifying the ‘inciting incident’ and all the ‘energetic markers’ and where they appear, above or below the plot line; and the pantser being the writer who writes by the seat of his or her pants.

I definitely pantsed my way through my first novel and then got stuck mid-way through my second and the only way I could get unstuck was to complete a chapter outline. Not necessarily a plotter move, but somewhere in the middle.
My favourite - supposedly JK Rowling's outline for Order of the Phoenix

So here I sit, happily in the middle, swaying from one side to the other, as needed. When preparing for my recent Paradise Writers’ Retreat, I decided to do a workshop on outlining and to share a happy medium method I have cobbled together, based on my own experience and tons of resources and references I have combed through by authors much further along in their journeys than I and to whom I regularly turn for writerly advice.

When you sit down to contemplate how your book is going to pan out, whether it’s a novel or a memoir, you can look at it from several different structural formulas and no one method is right… or wrong.

Story Trumps Structure vs. The Plot Whisperer

Two of my favourite writing books are diametrically opposed. Steven James’s StoryTrumps Structure touts ‘organic writing’ and Martha Alderson’s The Plot Whisperer strongly recommends to not start writing before completing a comprehensively developed plot line… yet both books sit on my desk with sticky notes, underlines and highlights awaiting my return.

Whatever approach is more comfortable, it’s a good to get your ideas down so you have a road map to follow.

But… how much detail to include in an outline or the preference to create a full-blown plot map, is totally up to you to decide.

For those who prefer to write organically, E.L. Doctorow says,

“It's like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

According to C.S. Lakin (Live, Write,Thrive), one of the most important things to keep in mind (whether you’re writing a novel or a memoir) is the four primary pillars of novel construction:

  • A concept with a kicker
  • A protagonist with a goal
  • Conflict with high stakes
  • A theme with a heart
Of course, all while keeping in mind the narrative forces that keep a story alive and interesting - Causality, Believability, Expectations, Continuity, Fluidity (or pacing), Polish, Dilemmas (moral quandaries) and Meaning. 

So, taking all I’ve learned so far, here is my handy-dandy checklist that I ‘loosely’ follow (I still believe I am what James calls an ‘organic’ writer but know that the way my mind is or isn’t working these days, I definitely need some solid notes):

7 Steps to a Solid Outline

1. Choose your genre
Whether a romance, mystery, urban fantasy or erotica, the genre you’re writing in will give some basic idea of how the storyline will go. There will also be some common features that readers who love that genre have come to expect (typical settings, character types, events, situations, plot devices, themes, tone, mood).

The best stories combine elements of different genres like ‘Historical Mysteries’ or ‘Scientific Westerns.’

2. Develop your concept/theme(s)
What is the basic idea of your story? What is the main theme that is carried throughout the story?

3. Decide Point of View (POV)/Narrative Perspective
1st person – ‘I’
2nd person – ‘You’
3rd person – ‘He/she’

Narrative perspective:
- Omniscient: narrator is objective, all knowing, and not a character in the story world. 
- Limited: story is told from the main character's point of view. The reader only knows what the main character knows and sees and cannot know the thoughts and feelings of other characters, except where they can be noted by the main character from personal observations or knowledge shared by others (not always reliable). 

- Minor Character Narrator: story is being told by a character in the story world (not the main character) who plays no significant role in the events but observes sometimes from afar. 

- Multiple: story switches between more than one character's point of view.
4. Create the Setting
Where/when does the story take place? Build your world, whether it’s real or imaginary. Describe how people get around and interact. What is the environment/terrain like? What is the tone of the story (attitude) and the mood (atmosphere)? The genre will give some indication of these.

5. Describe your Protagonist
Who is the main character?
What is the PROBLEM she faces? (story-worthy vs. surface)
What is her goal, objective?
What does she want?
Why does she set out on her QUEST?

6. Identify the Main Conflict
What is inciting incident? What happens that changes everything?
How does CONFLICT (internal or external) interfere in the QUEST?

And, finally…

7. Do a Chapter Outline
Write one or two lines describing what happens in each chapter (the main scene). Consider the following questions:

  • What would this character naturally do in this situation?
  • How can I make things worse?
  • How can I end this in a way that’s unexpected yet inevitable?
Get these steps done, record them using whatever method works for you... sticky notes on the wall, index cards on a bulletin board, a spread sheet, table or using a cool software program like Scrivener (which I've just recently started to learn). Once you’ve gone through these seven steps, I guarantee you’ll be ready to sit down and write your book. The words will just flow!

What has your experience with outlining been? I’d love to hear from you.

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S.P Bragg said…
I really shouldn't be saying this but personally I hate outlines. They take all the fun out of writing lol. I want to put my characters on the ground, roughly knowing what they will probably do and then see where they go. But after looking at your outline, I see there is still plenty of room to see where THEY want to go, rather than me telling them. Thumbs up from me :)
Anne OConnell said…
Thanks S.P. I feel the same way! For me, a 'loose' outline gives me the freedom to make changes as I go (especially when a character demands it) but it also makes sure that any ideas I have bubbling away in my brain get down on paper so I don't forget. Some get used and some don't but the basics pretty much remain the same and help keep me on track.

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