By: Donna Schachter
Outlining Your Book
I know. I can see some of you out there rolling your eyes at the title of this installment. Outlining. Plotting. Plodding. Taking all the fun out of the writing process.
Then there are those of you who are rolling up your sleeves, doing high-fives, and enjoying yourself before you ever get down to work.
For the former, I hope I can alter your perception of how outlining can benefit you and your writing. For the latter, perhaps I can add a new dimension to your process.
First, let me share a confession with you: when I wrote my first mystery novel, I didn’t have a clue. I joined NaNoWriMo, determined to write 50,000 in a month. I sat down on November 11th and started writing. I spent two chapters developing my main character, telling her complete backstory, and sharing a prequel story to boot—just so readers “got her”.
About three chapters from the end—or what should have been the end—I realized I didn’t know whodunit, or why. I had no suspects, no red herrings, no nothing except characters I loved or hated, depending on who they were, and a town I felt like I’d grown up in.
So I had to spend time, in the last five days of NaNoWriMo, when I should have been writing, to go back, write in the suspects, the clues, the motive, amp up the crooks, until I figured out who and why. Only then could I go back and finish the novel. Which I did, writing more than 7,500 on November 30th to complete the goal and get the badge.
I learned a huge lesson with that book: if I don’t know where I’m starting (not two chapters of backstory and prequel), and I don’t know where I’m ending (whodunit and why), and I don’t know how I got there (red herrings and suspects), how can I expect to complete the journey?
So let’s talk about Outlining.
What Outlining Is
- outlining is a long or short summary of the story – you choose
- outlining includes character descriptions, motivations, goals, and obstacles
- a great start to your synopsis, which an agent or editor will ask for
- a chronological record of how the story goes
- a place to make note of foreshadowing points, secrets withheld, information learned
What Outlining Isn’t
- a carved-in-stone document
- a road map with every single twist and turn
- a verbatim reciting of the story
- dialogue record
- a way to steal your joy of writing
- the only possible way to tell the story
- the concrete way you’re going to tell this story
Hopefully, the list above will have settled some of your concerns. An outline can be as simple as one sentence (or part of a sentence) about each scene in each chapter. Maybe you’re not even sure where the chapter breaks should be. That’s okay. Write down each scene as you envision it, then decide later where the breaks are.
How to Develop an Outline
There are many ways to develop an outline. Here are a few that I’ve used in the past and the one I use now.
- Index cards – for those who don’t write their story chronologically, write a sentence or two on an index card for each scene. This lets you go back and rearrange the scenes without being hindered by paper or cutting-and-pasting on your computer
- Chart – most stories are crafted either on the Three-Act structure or the very similar Normal World—Inciting Incident 1—Decision—Inciting Incident 2—Decision—Inciting Incident 3—Decision—Point of No Return—Climax—Resolution structure. Simply jot a few words about each scene in the squares. If you’d like a blank copy of the chart I have used in the past, email me at: donna AT livebytheword DOT com and I’ll send it to you.
- Sticky Notes – works much the same as Index Cards, but you put them on a white board or window or wall and move them around to make your story flow as you want it to.
- Four colored pen technique – on a sheet of paper, down the side of the page, list the number of chapters you anticipate your book will contain, for example 20 chapters. Then make 4 columns across: Plot, Emotional Arc, Spiritual, Romance (if there is any, and face it, most books have some amount of romance). I like to use Green ink for Plot; Black for Emotion; Blue for Spiritual; and Red for Romance. Write a few words or sentence about what happens in each scene/chapter, then it’s easy to check that you have every element covered in every scene and chapter.
- Write (or type) the key elements in the story in a single document, with one paragraph per scene, deciding later where to make your chapter breaks. This lets you see the story in four or five pages, sets up your synopsis, is easy to change if your story veers off plan, and throws a spotlight on holes in your plot, emotional arc, spiritual thread, or romance. This is the system I currently use, because I got tired of having to re-read the book to compile a synopsis.
A Few Links
Needless to say, there are as many other ways to develop an outline as there are authors, so I’m including links to a number I found online. I can’t attest to their effectiveness or ease of use, but am providing for information only.
How to Outline Your Novel in 5 Steps: Master Novel Template
How do you Write an Outline for a Novel? 7 Easy Steps
How to Outline a Novel with Template
How to Outline a Novel (with Template) from Squibler
Book Outline (with chapter by chapter template)
How to Write an Outline for a Romance Novel
7 Steps for Creating a Flexible Outline for Any Story
Did you miss previous installations of Producing a Novel?
Generating—and Testing—Ideas for Fiction and Non-Fiction Books – Part 1
Genre and Markets – Part 2
Building Believable Characters – Part 3
Character Sketches and Backstory – Part 4
Hooking Your Readers – Part 5
Character and Story Arc – Part 6
Donna Schlachter lives in Denver with husband Patrick. As a hybrid author, she writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 30 times in novellas and full-length novels. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Writers on the Rock, Sisters In Crime, Pikes Peak Writers, and Christian Authors Network; facilitates a critique group; and teaches writing classes online and in person. Donna also ghostwrites, edits, and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, and travels extensively for both. Donna is represented by Terrie Wolf of AKA Literary Management.