Tag Archives: Outlining Your Novel

Outlining in 10 Steps

I’ve always been able to hold the broadest of outlines in my head. I always knew what the story was, who the characters were, what the goal was, what would happen at the climax and how the book would end. I’d also write in-depth character backgrounds and then I’d put the story in their hands and the characters would tell me how to get to the climax and reach the story goal.

This method of sort-of-plotting and writing by the seat of my pants worked well enough writing fantasy stories. But I wondered what I’d do if I had to provide an outline for a novel or a series. I also wanted to write a mystery/crime novel. Mystery conventions include planting solid clues and red herrings, and developing a credible outline of events. Flying by the seat of my pants, wasn’t going to accomplish this. I had to learn how to outline.

After studying and reading about outlining for mysteries, I created a system which works for me no matter what genre I write in. It’s a mash-up of many bits of wisdom and has its own gaps. The first few points can be done in any order.

1) Know the story goal and the consequences of not meeting the story goal. Keep the stakes high. For example, Zex must steal back the magic cooking pot from the ogre because leprechauns are dying because the gold which sustains them.

2) Build the world. The world determines what your character can/can’t do and the rules which must be followed or broken.

3) Understand the genre requirements and the type of story you are telling. Is it a fantasy (elements of magic or the fantastic) which is told using the Hero’s Journey story arc?  Is it a rags to riches, folk tale, thriller, revenge, forbidden love, or crime story? In a fantasy, you’ll need to know how the magic system works and the cost of using magic. In a mystery, you need to know the crime scene, the victim, the perpetrator, and those involved with the victim before you can outline.

4) Create character backgrounds because that will inform their motivations and will determine how they act and react.

5) Figure out your theme – you’re writing the story because you have something to say about the human condition. That something is what you are passionate about. Theme can be as simple as good versus evil or as complex as exploring how people deal with death. Once you’ve thought about the previously mentioned items in this list, take a moment to reflect on what the theme or point of your story is about. This is important because it affects how the story is outlined and written.

6) Assign each character a position or stance on the theme. Some will be for it. Some against. All to varying degrees. For example, let’s use the theme of the ends justify the means for our story with Zex the leprechaun. You must decide if he agrees, disagrees, or believes some variation (sometimes it is necessary) of this theme. All characters (or groups) should have differing views on the matter because that is a source for conflict and tension.

7) Note the beginning, the turning point, the climax, and the end of the story. These are the goal posts you are aiming for. If you are using the three, four or five act structures, or a story telling structure such as the Hero’s Journey, note the events which meet the key requirements for that structure. This should include genre story telling requirements.

8) Broadly fill in the gaps. For mystery, I chart everyone’s motivations and their relationships with the victim. I note the crime scene details then I plot the events leading to the crime scene, and where everyone was when the crime happened. I know who the perpetrator is and how that person will be caught. Then I plot the cat-and-mouse game of clues and red herrings. When writing fantasy, I employ a similar method because the protagonist’s journey is about a problem needing to be solved.

9) Fill in the details by creating scenes. If you’re a pantser, please don’t panic, this method I’m about to share still leaves lots of room for the imagination. I use this system to outline a few scenes at a time (not the entire novel). The broader outline (points 7 and 8) keeps me focussed on the theme while this one allows for tension, conflict, and action on the scene level. I call this the “And Then” method and I must credit author Mahrie G. Reid for showing it to me.

And then something happens. And the character feels ….

For example: And then Zex tripped over an invisible rope and fell into a trap. He panics over his silliness for watching the butterfly rather than focussing on the task. And then the ogre hovers on the rim of he pit, telling Zex that he will be cooked in the magic pot for the ogre’s dinner. Zex feels frightened. And then, Zex swallows his fright and forces himself to outsmart the ogre. He feels emboldened.

Or for a romantic fantasy: And then when Josh rips off his shirt, Kimberley sees the slash of the dragon’s claw across his back. At once, Kimberley feels her heart flutter and she feels faint at the sight of blood. And then Kimberley vomits and feels embarrassed.

10) Now, it’s time to write the story. I write the first few scenes, and then I go back and use the “And then…” method to plot out the next few scenes.

As you write the story, the outline will change. How things happen will change. That is normal and shows that the characters, the plot, and the conflicts are dynamic. Using some form of outlining has the benefit of faster writing, less major revision, and it will help you write the dreaded synopsis because the key elements of the story are determined.


Plotting by Character Arcs Instead of Outlines

Plotting. Plodding. There’s a reason those words look and sound similar. Sometimes, plotting a novel can take all the fun out of actually writing the thing. With every move and event preordained, what’s left to surprise the writer while writing?

If prewriting is getting you down, I offer you an alternative: prewriting by way of character arcs.

If prewriting isn’t getting you down and you’re hardcore geeking out over it, I still recommend these books by K.M. Weiland: Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel.

Character arc. What is it? Simply, it’s the journey the character takes in a story. Expanding further, there are three types of common character arcs, according to K.M. Weiland’s Creating Character Arcs: Positive (what we usually see in movies, books, and television, also known as the hero character arc), Flat (wherein the character does not change but has the wisdom of what is right throughout the entire story, an example being the main character’s teacher or mentor), and Negative (this could be an antagonist’s character arc, or a character arc in which the character destroys others and themselves as well).

Let’s say you’d like to write a Positive Character Arc for NaNoWriMo. What does that look like? Let’s go through K.M. Weiland’s Positive Character Arc structure.

  1. Exposition – The Lie Your Character Believes
    • Where does your character start the novel, internally speaking? Is everything perfect, utopian? Does everything suck? Does the character simply believe everything is perfect (aka the character is lying to themselves)? Set up a characteristic moment for your reader that displays your character’s…eh, character. Set them up in a fairly normal situation or normal day. And also, organize your character’s internal storm: what does the character want? Now, what does the character need?
  2. Exposition – Your Character’s Past
    • Weiland calls this the character’s ghost. What happened to your character to make them believe that they need what they want and ignore what they truly need? Why does the character need to change?
  3.  Act One
    • Set up your character’s life in this act. Make sure their motivation(s) is clear. What is he after? What does she want?
    • First Plot Point – something happens here that expands your character’s mind and vision. “The point of no return.”
  4. Act Two, Part One
    • Adventure! That’s what your character will be doing here. Fumbling around, trying to figure things out, and definitely failing.
  5. Midpoint
    • My favorite part in a story; the character’s realization. Maybe he’s in over his head. Maybe she realizes there’s a lot more than meets the eye. It’s the turning point not only in your story, but in your character’s thinking and possibly motivation.
  6. Act Two, Part Two
    • This is the part where your character starts taking control. What does your character need to do to take charge?
  7. The Third Plot Point
    • Your character’s low moment. What happened? Is morale down, did they lose something as big as a battle? The character can no longer evade the truth, they must look at it in the eye and accept it.
  8. Act Three
    • The ramp up before the climax! Intensity, speed! Thrusters on full! In one word, your character is: determined.
  9. Climax
    • Weiland describes the climax as the reason for the story. This is where your character realizes the truth was worth the heartache and pain along the way. The reason for the journey.
  10. The Resolution
    • Now you can show the character living the truth instead of living in the lie they first believed at the beginning of the journey.

Instead of writing your story around what happens, with this method, you’re writing your story around what your character does to push the plot. I personally find these stories more engaging than stories where events happen to the character. I like to see the main character in control, messing up, making amends, and patching things up on their own.

I’d like to take a final moment to remind you that there is no wrong or right way to pre-write. The way that works for you IS the best way, whether that means a big, juicy outline, a short outline, pages and pages of character arcs, or jumping right in. In the end, we all must eventually jump in and write.

4 Things Every Pantser Needs to Know to Write a Great First Draft

NanoWrimo is coming. Or, you have two weeks of vacation and you want to write that novel. Or, you have a deadline looming for the next book. Sometimes, you just want to get that first draft done so you can work on the revisions. Or, you have a great idea for a book and need the glue to put it together.

Whatever the case, there is a way to write a decent first draft quickly. Here are four things to help write your first draft well without a lot of outlining. While some like to outline in great detail I find that it doesn’t always work very well for me. But, like it or not, we all do some form of outlining even if it’s just in our heads.

The first three you’ll think are no brainers, but the fourth? It’s the secret glue to making a story come together and stick … and it’s more important than you think … and sometimes this fourth point is actually your number one consideration!

1) Follow a basic story arc.
Whether it’s the hero’s journey, or knowing the beginning, middle and end with two or three try/fail cycles thrown in, know the basic story structure for your genre. It what’s readers and publishers expect you, as a professional writer/author to know and follow. So learn it and use it.

2) Know your protagonist and the world your protagonist functions in.
There are a lot of great posts on this site about creating great characters and what motivates them. Know your protagonist well because that will inform how he responds and reacts in situations and what motivates him to take on the challenge the villain presents and how he will respond to that challenge.

3) Know your villain and what motivates him.
You may not appear on the pages as often as the protagonist but you still need to know the villain in as much depth as the protagonist. The villain motivates the protagonist, is who the protagonist reacts against, and sets the obstacles. In a murder mystery, the author needs to know the crime scene, the victim and the criminal in a s much (or more) detail than the protagonist before writing the first draft. I’ve come to believe, that in every genre we all need to have similar cache of knowledge to write a good first draft.

And now for the secret glue that holds all this together …

4) Theme
Yup. Theme.

Most authors don’t try to figure this out until they’ve completed their novel. Not understanding your theme ahead of time, creates massive revisions, and characters who don’t always have depth and who don’t have distinct voices.

Theme is about making a universal truth personal. It is taking a larger truth such as good prevails over evil, love conquers all, David can beat Goliath, and so on, and making it a central stake in the protagonist’s world.

Theme is the idea which all characters from the villain, the protagonist and the supporting characters will either try to prove or disprove. Theme informs motivations for each character as they will either be, to varying degrees, for, against or ambivalent to the idea. Because of their attitude or belief with regards to the theme, characters will either support, hinder, or be decidedly unhelpful. Most importantly, they will have different voices.

With theme, characters will always move the story forward, illuminate the point you the writer are trying to make in telling the story and theme and they will broaden the scope of the issue thus making the story richer for the reader. Every character’s desire to either prove or disprove the theme forms the central conflict.

You are thinking that if you’ve followed steps 2 and 3 and you know your protagonist and villain, that you have your central conflict. You are right. But your writing will be more informed if you are aware of the conflict and what it means or what the principle surrounding it is. That is theme. It is the deepest motivation, the desire, the earnest yearnings and dreams your characters have. It is what makes the prize or the goal so valuable. Once you’ve got his nailed, then you develop the rest of the cast to illuminate the theme and the conflict.

Conversely, if you have an idea and don’t know where or how to start the story, think about the theme and what universal truth or belief you want to write about, Then, create the host of characters who show different sides of the struggle.

Finally, knowing the theme also gives purpose to character transformation. The protagonist has to change, for if he or she is ambivalent, there is no story. Basically, the protagonist knows what he wants to accomplish and must overcome internal and external obstacles to get the prize. Theme gives your character a reason to grow and change.

In short, know your theme. Choose characters who will represent different sides, who have different opinions, and you will have a lot of options for conflict, a lot of different voices.

So my fellow pantsers, if you are aware of these four things, you’re well on your way to writing a truly spectacular first draft!