Novel Writing Tips – Idea Selection and Outlining

It Starts With One Word

Last week I discussed idea generation. Today, we’ll put some of those ideas to use by hashing out some quick outlines to evaluate them for awesomeness.

Bust out your notebook, evernote, or tape recorder full of ideas to write about. (If you haven’t got one, then check out last weeks post here). Today, we’re going to talk about some methods to evaluate, evolve, and choose ideas for your next story or novel.

Decide what you want to write first.

Okay, so this might sound a little weird, but if you just want to hammer out a quick piece of flash fiction, perhaps as a break from working on a novel, then it makes no sense to start outlining your next novel. Or maybe it does, if you have a separate notebook for hashed-out outlines. Might not be a bad idea.

For the purposes of this blog post, however, we’re going to use story length as an evaluation mechanism for ideas. If you have a couple weeks to fill, a short story or novella draft might be in order. Ready to start on your next book? Then pick an idea that’s novel worthy. Just need something quick and short to work on for the day? Flash fiction is a perfect way to use some of your crazy ideas by sticking them in the typewriter test tube and seeing what you can do with them.

You also may want to decide on a genre before choosing an idea. I’m not sure about you, but I know when I’m in the mood to write horror, sci-fic, fantasy, or fun stuff, and my story topics can usually be tied pretty easily into a genre. Even if they aren’t, by choosing a preferred genre first, you can scan your idea list for appetizing ways to enhance a story that you are already thinking about (such as a sequel).

You also want to reserve some time for doing all of this. If you are like me, and have a particularly padded idea notebook, then it can take a little time to go fishing through it. Every so often I find some ideas in there that I’ve already started on, and I cross them off, or jot a note next to them.

Once you know how much time you have to devote to a new story, and any other general ideas on what you “feel” like writing about, you are ready to hunt for some ideas in your notebook.

Let the Hunt Begin!

Flip through your notes (or play your recorded ideas). I like having a separate piece of paper handy, or a file open on the computer. Scan through each idea, and think about how it relates to the category and time you have. If you are scheduling a few pieces of flash fiction, then “a brief history of the world” might not be such a good idea. Likewise, “an ant steals eggs from the next ant-hill” may not be novel material. Obviously, however, you can stretch or shrink an idea to whatever format you like.

As a safety net, if you are going to need more than two characters to make the story work, then it isn’t a good choice for a flash piece. Simpler stories will be hard to stretch into novels or series. It’s easier to stretch a story then it is to shrink one. So if there’s a simple idea that you like, jot it down. If you are going for super short, avoid really involved topic ideas.

The same kind of thing applies to genre. Think about each idea in the context of the kind of story you are looking to write. Every book contains elements of all genre categories. Once again, the longer the story, the more adaptable you can make your idea hunt. If you want to write a space opera, you can squeeze just about anything into it. Religion, politics, discovery of a new insect, mundane things, crazy things, etc. If you are trying for a romance book, then it might be best to avoid a mad scientist who likes crossbreeding grasshoppers and rats. Then again, maybe you can make that work.

The reason I say to select some general topics before you begin the hunt, is because it allows you to look at each kind of story idea within a narrow focus, and your brain will start churning up new ideas as you sift through the chum. This is what you want. Just because you are prepping for a simple outline, doesn’t mean that you can’t keep brainstorming. You should. If you are gearing up for the next novel, then the more ideas that you can attempt to fit into your story, the better.

Make some mini outlines for your captured ideas

Okay, you should have a good list going for possible things to write about, and if you know your genre and target story length, then you can start making what I call mini outlines. You are focused on keeping things very, very simple. Go through each idea, and jot down a beginning, middle, and end. For instance, let’s say you select the idea, “what if there’s a restaurant that cooks people to dispose of them for the mob?” Your BME might be something like: new load of bodies comes in, one of them isn’t dead, would be hamburger tries to escape, they succeed. You notice that I made four parts for that three part division? Screw the rules, just jot down what you see as one POSSIBLE avenue to take the story. Then move to the next part.

The difference between a short story or flash piece and a novel, is that a novel will take several of these BME ideas and attempt to weave them into a cohesive story, where as a short story may only use one or two, and a flash piece will be restricted to one main theme. On the other hand, you can select several ideas to write flash stories from, and do a bundle of them at once, or at least in a short time period, then edit and publish as a batch.

Speaking of themes, this is probably something you should be thinking about while you are sifting through these ideas.

So how do you know which idea to make the main focus? Which one was the easiest to come up with a compelling plot for? Which one are you feeling attached to after going through the list? Generally a few will stand out from twenty or thirty ideas, at leas when I do this, and those are the ones that I run with. I’ll choose a favorite, and say, “Okay, that’s my story, now which of these other ideas can I mix with it?” Keep track of the ones that you would like to use for your new story.

From outline idea to actual outline.

This is actually the easy part. Break down your story (the main idea, or your favorite of the short-outlines) into a general sequence. If you have a name idea for the main character, jot it down. Same goes for a “working title.” If not, just use “MC” and “New Story” for now.

The overall arc of most stories is essentially the same. You can leave off the first bit for now, but leave some room to fill it in. That’s reserved for hooking the reader by introducing them to a compelling character. But your character is going to be based on what kind of story you are writing, so if you don’t already know exactly who they need to be right now, don’t worry about it. The story will tell you what you need to know about them.

Start with the conflict. Create a problem for the main character that they have to overcome. This can be a little annoyance or a big issue. You might make a small list of problems you see them encountering. The biggest issue they will face is going to be your primary conflict, but often times in a story, it’s a much smaller conflict that leads the main character to discover the “real” conflict of the story. Jane might be struggling with a break-up, and in an attempt to hide from her ex, she meets a new friend who is a witch, and gets tied up in a much richer conflict that reveals her ex to actually be a minion of dark magic, bla bla bla. Get carried away, go nuts. Just like a first draft, everything in an initial outline can be changed and adapted, so toss in all of your good ideas, and most of the bad ones, too.

Outlining can be a brainstorming process in itself, but in the end, you should have general idea of how the story will flow from start to finish. Go back over the ideas you selected, and see if there is anything that you can weave into this story as a side-plot.

By the time you are done, you will have a page (or several) that are cluttered with so many ideas, you’ll wonder how you ever thought brainstorming was hard. You’re ready for the next step.

Distillation of Story Arc from First Outline

The next step, and my personal favorite, is to take this mass of crap that you have created, and rewrite it into a story. Pick out the most compelling conflict from what you have written down. At this point, you might come to terms for a theme on the story that is in line with the conflict, or perhaps parallels it. If you do, then jot down the theme at the top. Divide the paper into three sections, or perhaps prepare three pages. This is done so that you can divide everything up into beginning, middle, and end.

It’s okay to not know the name of your main character yet, but choose a name like Jane or Bob and run with it. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “start with the ending,” or some variation. Now is the time to put that philosophy into practice. The ending is going to determine if your story is a comedy or a tragedy. For the record, these words are old screenplay speake for determining if the main character achieves their goal or not. All stories can be divided into one of these categories or the other.

Jot down the ending. Bob wins the final battle and saves the universe, Jane finds Mr. Right, Sally gets her puppy. The ending of your story should include the final struggle, the outcome, and the wrap-up. Incorporate the theme if you have it.

Next, go to the middle. Put down the details of the main conflict, and in general how it should flow. Break the main conflict up into a series of smaller “battles” or trials that the main character must endure in order to win or lose in the end.

Then, go to the beginning. Focus on the main character here. Who are they, what do they want, and what is the ignition source that pulls them into the main conflict. The secret to a hooking a reader is all tied up in the main character. They should be believable, relatable, and likable in some way or another. Even if the reader doesn’t like them, they should be interesting enough that someone would want to read about them, and that you would want to write about them. This is your character, and in the end, you are going to be spending some time with them, so make them interesting. They can’t be perfect, or pure evil, or even a model citizen. They need some good points and some flaws. Ideally, their strengths should propel them into the conflict with some sense of hope, that they will win in the end. Their weaknesses should be aligned with the forces against them. Don’t worry if you can’t do this perfectly. Remember, it’s just an outline, and there will be plenty of refining for your story to go through.

Fill in some details

Your outline is a map, a guide, a compass. Don’t try turning it into a book. You only want to put down the main bullet points. In a perfect world, you will have a list of plot items that will turn into individual chapters. Most of these will likely be in the middle section of your outline, and I’m considering revision of my outline process to make the middle bigger and more detailed, and keeping the intro and conclusion short and sweet. The more detail you can drop in, particularly in the middle of the story, the better.

When you start drafting, you will know how to introduce the main character, because you can focus on the details about your main character that are important to the overall story arc. You will know what the main conflict is, and how to drive the character toward it. For my own work, the middle is always the toughest part to knock out in the first draft, and the story can run a bit stagnant. That’s why I’m harping on the middle with my outline process. If you’ve been writing for a while, adapt your outline to fit your strengths and weaknesses.

Even if you don’t end up with a list of good chapter topics, your roadmap will guide you from plot point to plot point until you get to the final battle. This is ideal, because you will always know which direction the main character needs to be steered, and you can drop the right plot devices when needed to keep them moving in a general direction.

It’s normally at this point that people start bringing up story-arc definitions and story formats. Stuff like nested plot points, rising action, falling action, climax, etc. I say don’t worry about all of that garbage. I mean, sure, there’s a general format that most stories follow, but as long as you have done your homework on the outline, you will drop into a similar format easily. Personally, I believe nested storytelling to be a stupid idea for side-plots, but that’s me. As you are writing, you’ve already set up your story to build and build toward the final battle.

So dump the formulaic approach and think about one formula only:

Keep the reader engaged!

That should be your only rule, and guiding principle. If you are getting bored in the writing process, then your reader will likely be bored, too. Speed up the plot, or up the stakes. If you are zipping through, and the number of detail points is overwhelming you, then the pacing will end up being fast. Give the main character a little break in those spots. Just make sure that the story is always getting more interesting, or more personal, or more of whatever it needs to keep the reader engaged. They will resonate with the main character for a reason. They’ll stay because of the story. So take whatever you used to hook them, and keep building on it.

Don’t blow up too early. In some suspense novels, a big bang at the beginning works, but in general, you should meter out the special effects in a crescendo toward the climax. Think of a story like a drug addiction. At first, the reader wants to be entertained but somewhat safe. As you feed them more and more story, they become addicted, and you can get away with a lot more, but to feed their new addiction, you are going to have to deliver come climax time, and then drop them back into reality at the end.

Some of us are better with certain parts of a story more than others. “Telly” writers can make kick-ass action scenes, as long as they aren’t overly wordy. “Poetic” writers can evoke strong, specific emotions in the reader. “Literary” writers can weave theme and topic through a story quite effectively. There’s also a skill to varying sentence length and comma or period usage to mess with the reader’s breathing patterns. All of these skills are useful, so if you have a strength, then focus on having several areas to showcase it. Work on your weak points, too, but try to sprinkle those weaknesses evenly.

This is going a bit beyond the scope of an outline, so I’m going to cut it off here. You should be more than ready to crank out a first draft. If not, revise the outline a bit more, do some research on anything you are unsure of, so that you can write about it effectively, and then hit go. My book, “Finish the Damn Book!” might help you get through that first draft.

Thanks for stopping in. How are you liking these new posts? Is there something specific that you want me to talk about in a future post, or anything you would like to add to this one? Drop your ideas in a comment. I love comments.

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Author: spottedgeckgo

Writer. Making my living on my pen, and working to turn a raw chunk of land into a future homestead.

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