Good news, this isn’t the same boring outline process that you had to do in high school. Remember how worthless those notes could be?
This is your story, and if you want to tell it well, it’s time to put on your big girl pants and stop pantsing stories. Sometimes it works, but more often, characters get stuck in these residual loops that they struggle to get out of.
Why pantsing isn’t the best way to write a novel.
In the eternal realm of writer hot topics lies the infamous pantsing vs plotting argument. And it’s odd that so many writers would disagree on that, but let me clear up why you might want to write by the seat of your pants vs structuring out your story ahead of time.
- No waiting to start.
- Stories are more spontaneous and fun
- You get to live the story as you tell it
- Some nonsense about being a free spirit
There are cases where pantsing works. It’s hard to look at The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy without thinking that Doug was ad-libbing the whole story, all five books for that matter. So there most definitely is a place for it in writing craft.
The sad truth though is that while fun at first, pantsing poses some pretty serious problems midway through the book. Without a pre-defined direction for the main character, things tend to start unraveling during what should be a buildup of tension leading to a climax. They fall apart under their own fun.
So while it might look like the shiny red button on The Heart of Gold that activates the infinite improbability drive, it’s not always the best way to get where you want to go.
Outlines don’t have to be boring
I think the biggest reservation that new novelists have on the outlining front is the intimidation they feel to follow a methodical or institutional approach to writing. They see it as some authoritarian dictatorship to rebel against rather than the wonderful tool it is.
So let’s clear the air.
First, nobody is going to be grading your outline…unless you are writing a non-fiction book on a commission, but that’s another story for another time. You’re the only one who sees it. Still want to be a rebel? Write your outline any way that you like.
I’ve done dozens of novel outlines, a dozen different ways.
You could fall back on the ABC 123 stuff that you learned in school, but I don’t recommend that, unless you can make sense of it for writing a novel.
Rather, think of outlining as pantsing your story at breakneck speed. You can spit out the whole plot in one night as the thoughts come to you, without all that tedious mucking about in typing and verbiage. (I must be on a Douglas Adams theme tonight or something)
In fact, on a couple occasions I did exactly this. I wrote out a plot in third person of everything that happens to my main character from the start of the story to an end, like watching a movie in fast forward.
And it works. A good fountain pen, lots of coffee, and about five pages later, and I had a story that I could go back and block edit to ensure all the bits and pieces made sense together as a whole. I love this style of outline as it frees up the creative process.
At the end, just go through and turn every couple of sentences into a scene. Perhaps each paragraph into a chapter. Done, son! That kind of outline keeps your drafting process focused, so you can actually finish the first draft without worry of getting “stuck.”
There are other ways to outline. Fishbones, bubble plots, coming up with fancy chapter titles that sum up what needs to happen in each, or even doing a chapter by chapter playbook with a paragraph or two in each heading.
For more institutional outlines, you could always draft up a basic story art. One phrase for each major plot point, placed in order. That’s something to go off of.
Stop thinking of outlines as work, and start thinking of them as an intense brainstorming session where you look at your entire future book as a whole. Then you can start the drafting process, and the outline will be your compass. Each writing session is an attempt to get to the next thing in your outline.
Want a somewhat more specific outline guide? Read on.
Novel Outline Template
I could make a PDF Novel Outline Worksheet for you to download, but this is such a simple thing that it really isn’t necessary. This is what you do.
First, you need a main character. And by this, I don’t mean sifting through baby name books for three hours and calling it work. I mean pick a character with some basic needed attributes and move on. Guy? Gal? Gay? Straight? Transvestite? Whatever. Give them a name like Bob or Jill if you don’t already have something in mind, and move on.
Now they need a purpose. What does your main character really want? What is the challenge they will face? What do they need to do? What motivates them?
Don’t hang up on middle initials and favorite foods, cut right to the chase. What drives your character’s soul? That’s what your book is about, and don’t you forget it. 😛
Write down a little blurb about your character in this context on top of a blank sheet of paper.
Next, the plot. This is the forces of evil keeping your character from getting what they want. Is a murder at school stopping them from getting a date? Did a water spout suck up your fish-character and drop them off somewhere unfamiliar and they only want to get home? Did the shit just hit the fan for real and your character needs to bug out of the city immediately? Is the spaceship about to crash into an unknown planet?
This is the meat. This is the story. This is the cool thing that’s going to show up on the back cover, as well as your literary query letter when you are shopping agents. Make it spectacular. If you can, sum it up in one sentence, 25 words or less, and staple it to the wall at your writing station.
At the end of your paper, put the conclusion. Danny gets the girl after solving the murder, the fish ends up getting eaten, bug-out boy finds out that life in the woods sucks and dies of starvation, the spaceship ends up crashing into a black hole instead and ends up on the other side of the universe. Whatever. It’s your story. Make it tragic, comedic, heart-warming, heart-worming (har har), or inspirational.
Now you have the three big things that make a story. High five!
Time to rewrite it and add some bullet points. A little more background about the character, hopefully stuff that shows why they are the perfect person for this story. They should have some quality that makes them especially suitable to combat the planned conflict.
Also, between the conflict and conclusion there should be some really epic final battle of some sort. A threshold that the character must cross to go from conflict to conclusion.
Likewise, between the character and the conflict, there should be something that sucks them into the conflict, against their will if at all possible, or better something so compelling that they simply can’t decline the offer, no matter how much they’d rather Netflix and chill. This is called an inciting incident, and it’s usually the first line on the blurb. This is your elevator pitch.
Seconds before Earth is demolished to make way for a galactic freeway, Arthur Dent is plucked off the planet by his friend Ford Prefect, a researcher for the revised edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who, for the last fifteen years, has been posing as an out-of-work actor.
Personally I’d change the last bit to “who turns out to be an alien from Betelgeuse.” But that’s just me. Something like that anyway.
Make it provocative, and revise it later.
For now though, that should be a roadmap for you. Follow the above advice to map out some more specific plot points (things that happen in your story) so that you have a nice path from start to finish, and then try to follow it the best you can.
You’re characters WILL try to deviate, and that’s okay. But knowing where they need to be headed in the long run is so much better than wondering about in the woods starving to death, and then going crazy and chasing a couch down the side of a hill. Okay, now I’ve gone to far, but hopefully you get the point.
In case you didn’t:
WRITE A BLOODY OUTLINE! FOR THE SAKE OF BABY YODA.