Whether you’re a panster or a plotter, you will need to have an idea of your story’s plot, why your characters are on their journeys, and what will happen when everything comes together at the end. A novel outline can help you organize your big ideas so that you can be sure you actually have a story in play before you start your rough draft.
This article will provide you with tips to start outlining your novel so that you can find the focal point of your story, hit all the plot highlights, and introduce engaging characters who grab our attention from beginning to end—all before you begin your first draft.
Let’s hop to it!
What is a Novel Outline?
First off, let me say I am not a fan of the term “outline” but because that’s the word writers understand, that’s the word I use to kick off the conversation. For my own purposes, I use the term “Discovery” because that’s exactly how my process unfolds. I discover my characters, their reasons for their journeys, the cause and effect of their actions and behaviors, the lessons they need to learn, and how they go about snagging their story goals.
The other reason I prefer “Discovery” is that it helps me stay unattached to my initial ideas—so, fewer Little Darlings. I understand at the outset that initial ideas are easy ideas and therefore seen-before ideas. If I want to write something surprising, I have to discover deeper. This may take a few rounds.
Most writers understand an outline to be a process by which they break down their big story idea into smaller, bite-sized pieces before they actually write the first draft.
For some, outlining can seem as though it takes all the fun out of writing because the map of the story is pieced together through questions and answers rather than organic flow.
For others, outlining is an efficient methodology that allows the writer to see the threads, turning points, and possible plot holes before the story is pulled together, thereby allowing the writer room to shift things around as needed, saving them oodles of revision time.
Introducing How I Begin an Outline
There is value to outlining in the sense that it keeps writers on track with their main story conflict so that they know where the story is headed and whether they’re on “the same page” as their characters’ needs and wants. That’s what I like about outlining, or plotting. It’s way too easy to lose track of everything going on.
But because I think in pictures, I have a much easier time finding the flow of story through organic writing (some might know this as pantsing). My process of Discovery is a blending of organic flow and efficient story questions so that I can make the most of both processes.
My first rule of thumb is that I never say no to any ideas that come my way when I’m in the Discovery stage. However, I will highlight them or organize them under categories just so it’s easy to find individual ideas within the brain dump that occurs with organic flow.
My second rule of thumb is that I always end a writing session with “what if” questions based off of any organic writing that I do. This way, I know what aspects of my organic writing need more fleshing out or have zipped away into the Cosmos.
I always start with the big-picture elements:
What is my story about? Who are my characters? What is my setting? Why are my characters on this journey? What’s the genre? What kind of mood or tone do I want to go with? What about my story will be meaningful to my readers?
The answers to these questions start off super-vague, and I address them often throughout Discovery.
Write a Premise Statement
I have a blog post on this topic HERE, so I’ll only mention in this article that a premise statement helps you nail your story focus. This is critical when you’re shaping the framework of your story.
Aim for one sentence that conveys the main character, setting, and central conflict. One of my writing friends mentioned that she was told to try to get her premise down to 10 words or less. Eek!
I think trying to whittle your logline that much before you have written your rough draft isn’t necessary. You likely don’t know enough about your story at this early juncture to be able to describe your book in 10 words or less, so don’t sweat it. Maybe after you’ve written a draft or two, for fun in the sun, you could try to do it. If you do, let me know how it goes!
Main Character’s Journey
Explore your main character’s inner and outer journey to begin seeding the path she will take from beginning to end.
- What is your character’s story goal?
- What obstacles get in the way?
- List 3 big events where your character must make a difficult choice.
- What is at stake with either choice?
- What is the Current World?
- What is the New World?
- What big moment (Inciting Incident) launches your character from her Current World to her New World?
- Can she say NO to the Inciting Incident? If your answer is YES, then you need to either:
- raise the stakes
- add a secondary event that gives your MC no chance of refusal
- Give your character a main flaw.
- What is your character’s ghost?
- What is the Lie your character believes?
- What will your character risk? What won’t she risk?
- What is your character’s Truth?
- Does your character see her Truth by the end of the book and how does this affect her arc?
You can use the above questions for any character who has a POV role in your story.
Reread anything you’ve come up with and then pepper each idea with “what if” questions.
- What if Character A does this instead?
- What if the story opens here?
- What if Character B finds out the truth earlier?
- What if the Antagonist has this secret?
I mean, the “what if” questions are totally dependent on what you’re writing. The objective is to not be afraid to DISCOVER deeper. You’re not committed to anything at this point, so take advantage of your creative freedom.
Time and space are your setting, and while you should have a clear sense of where and when your story takes place, be careful about hooking into details too early. If those details are the kind that lock you into an event that hasn’t yet been shown as pivotal to your story, then you run the risk of creating aspects to your world that doen’t fit your characters’ goals.
At this early stage it’s good to be clear on the purpose and mission of your setting, but be fluid with the details, how your setting will work from chapter to chapter.
POV & Tense
Decide on your point of view and your tense before you begin your rough draft to save you major revision headaches later. If you’re on the fence with which viewpoint or tense to use, then pick a scene and write it once in first-person and then rewrite the same scene in third-person. For tense, write the same scene once in present tense and once in past tense.
- which style did you enjoy the most?
- which one flowed better?
- keeping genre and reader expectations in mind, do your choices make sense or are you taking some risks? Totally cool if you’re taking some risks, but be sure you’re doing so with quality writing in mind. When in doubt, get some feedback!
Some people like to incorporate scenes into their outlines, and while I hesitate to go all in with detail during Discovery, I admit scenes can be a wonderful way to bust through any creative blocks you might be having because they’re so much fun to write
One way to double-check your scenes for whether they fulfill the mission of your story is to ask the following questions:
- What is your character’s goal?
- What is your character’s motive?
- What is the obstacle that impedes your character?
If you come across a scene that doesn’t turn (that remains flat), just flag it during your Discovery phase. You may be able to find ways to strengthen it when you learn more about your story, or it may be that this scene works better as narrative.
Some writers prefer their theme to arise organically, while others purposefully weave it into the story. Either way, you want your theme to be understated and not preachy.
To find your theme, look to your main character’s Lie. The lesson he needs to learn will give you clues to help you come up with a theme that feels natural to the story.
I wouldn’t worry too much about developing the theme in your Discovery stage so much as just being aware of its potential. When you start constructing scenes and pulling everything together, the theme will take shape naturally. Through revision you can expand or compress as needed.
If your characters aren’t faced with tough decisions that carry consequences, then your story is low in conflict. Every page needs to have some level of tension—every page. Now, this doesn’t mean you have to have cars exploding on each page. It does mean that your characters need to be dealing with more than just one obstacle throughout the story.
- Character versus Character
- Character versus Self
- Character versus Place
- Character versus Time
- Character versus Community
- Character versus Family
- Character versus Universe
- Character versus World
All of those conflicts are more powerful when they’re linked to other conflicts. So if you’ve got a scene where your character is arguing with his best friend, there is opportunity to bring in the conflict of Character versus Self, or Character versus Community.
This is by no means my entire Discovery process. Next time I’ll talk about how I extend my Discovery from ideas to concepts so that I can be sure I’m not just writing a bunch of short stories or vignettes with no central storyline.
Do you like to outline or are you a “wing it” kind of writer? Let me know in the comments!