So– you want to write a book, but you don’t know quite where to start? Or, perhaps you have a concept, but you want to flesh it out a little before you write your first draft?
Having an outline before you start drafting is one of the best ways to ensure you don’t end up giving up partway through.
Why should you outline your novel?
Before you outline, it’s important to think about which approach is right for you. Some reasons you might want to make an outline are:
Helps Prevent Writer’s Block
If you are susceptible to getting stuck on your story, having an outline lets you know exactly where you’re heading. This makes it much easier to keep writing, even if you aren’t feeling as inspired.
Avoid plot holes
Writing out a storyline prior to starting will allow you to spot any major plot holes or snags, before you arrived at them. This will make drafting run much more smoothly, as you will be able to focus more on developing the characters, and less on whether the story makes sense.
Avoid the slow middle
The ‘muddle’ of the middle is a real struggle for a lot of writers; having an outline ready when you start drafting allows you to clarify the middle and take out any needless scenes that might cause it to drag.
Why might you not want to outline your novel?
In this post, I’m going to focus on tips for plotters, but this method doesn’t work for everyone. Here are some reasons it might not work for you:
You’re a discovery writer
Discovery writers thrive off have little/ no outline, as this aids their creativity and writing flow. If this is the case for you, having a strong outline at the beginning may feel too rigid, and could cause the story to not flow as freely.
It can take some time to craft
Depending on how extensive you want your outline to be, this process can take a while. It’s important to ensure that you really love your story, as it may be difficult to stay interested when you’re not actively writing it for quite a while.
It’s difficult to stick to the outline
Most writers experience this at some point or other- the characters don’t want to follow the actions you’ve set out for them, or it just doesn’t feel right for them to do so. A little straying from the outline is fine, but if it comes to a point where you’re throwing it away altogether, maybe you can save time next time by making no/ a smaller outline.
What goes into an outline?
All authors outline differently, and no one outline is the ‘perfect’ prototype. But, there are some key things that you should include in your outline:
- A brief (or more extensive) storyline outlining each scene.
- Character description- this could be a character profile, Pinterest inspiration, or even a Spotify playlist.
- World-building– this will look different depending on genre, whether you’re writing a standalone/ series and personal preference. World-building includes geography, history, politics, magic system.
What will my outline look like?
Many authors like to craft a story bible for their standalone/ series. This can be physical (e.g. a ring-binder) or digital (e.g. on Scrivener/ Campfire). This is a great way to keep all information about your story in one place (including any points of foreshadowing or subplots you might lay along the way).
How to craft your outline:
So you have a ring-binder/ notebook (physical or online), and you’re ready to get going…
Figure out the premise
The first thing you need for any story is an idea; maybe this is just one line of dialogue, perhaps you have the whole first half plotted in your mind. However this looks for you, take 5 minutes to ‘brain dump’- write every idea you have onto some scrap paper. It doesn’t matter if it’s a complete mess right now, just make sure you get down every idea that could link to your novel.
Will your story will be set in the past or future? In our world or an alternate world? Do the people look like us or are there different creatures? After these initial questions, make some deeper notes on setting- the geography of your world, history, government and politics, magic system (if applicable), technology (this especially applies to sci-fi).
When you have an initial view of the world, zoom in on the specific settings the story will revolve around (usually about 3 or 4 places). If it helps you to visualise, try drawing a rough map of each of these places, with the key points and landmarks annotated.
Write out a character profile for each of your main characters- depending on how extensive you want your outline, this could include physical description, background, hobbies, likes/ dislikes, hopes/ fears. Even if you’re only creating minimal character profiles, it’s important to think about these questions: what are the characters’ wants/ needs? What are the characters’ motivations and how will they have changed by the end of the novel? What are the stakes for the characters?
Try to craft a clear voice for each character- a great way to practise this is to insert all the characters in a situation, with only dialogue. If you can’t tell which character is speaking, you might need to work on their individual voices.
Construct a storyline
How extensive this is will look different for everyone, but it’s helpful to have at least a short outline of each scene.
Jot down scene ideas
Take out post-it notes or a notepad and note down any scene ideas you have. When you have roughly 30-50 scene ideas (depending on how long your novel will be), split them roughly into beginning, middle and end.
Narrow them down
Open up a word document or notebook, and split the document into beginning, middle and end. Take each scene idea, and further develop it in the document (this could include what takes place, who is involved, and what the characters accomplish by the end of the scene). If a scene doesn’t seem to fit in order or doesn’t feel right for the story, change it up a little or take it out altogether.
The finishing touches
Now each of the scene has a general outline, you can add in changes to characters’ environments, conflict and tension, and any subplots you want to include. Read through your storyline to ensure pacing is even, and that goalposts are in the proper places.
That’s the last thing to go in the ring binder. But we’re not done! I then create a Pinterest board, with inspo for each character (some vague ideas of how I want them to look, and also their interests), the setting and the time period. And then we’re done!!
How long should it take to craft an outline?
This really depends on how quickly you write, how much time yo have to write and how much is going into your outline- it could be just a few days, more extensive outlines could take 3-4 weeks.
Are you in the process of outlining your story? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or you can connect with me directly on any of my social medias.