There are some authors who outline every single detail of a novel before they get started on a single word of the novel itself. Then there are the ones who don’t plan a single thing, preferring to make it up as they go. I used to be one of the latter, but the more novels I write the more I rely on outlines; they’re a great tool to avoid writing yourself into a hole, and they allow you to peer into the direction of your novel (in case you need to change course or want to add some foreshadowing).
So, first off I want to talk about what an outline means to me. An outline is anywhere from one or two sentences to an entire paragraph for each chapter, explaining what I want to happen and what key points the reader should get from it. If I go into more detail than that I find I have a hard time writing the chapter because so much is already decided. Even if it means stopping myself, I usually try to draw the line at a paragraph.
Once I have an idea about the main plot of my novel I’ll write a simple outline for the first ten chapters, leave it alone for a day or two, and then revisit and revise as necessary. Once I’m confident that the outline will result in a good story I’ll start writing. Then about two chapters in, I revisit the outline again and evaluate whether it still makes sense given the details or anything that might have changed in the act of writing the novel itself.
Throughout the writing process I’ll return to my original outline, adding chapters when I get close to the end of what I’ve planned. Typically, the least amount of ‘buffer’ that I like to work with—that is, chapters I have outlined that remain unwritten—is about five. If the outline gets too close to my progress in the novel I risk losing a lot of advantages.
At the halfway point of writing a novel, I find that the outline becomes much easier to work with. By that point I hopefully have an end in mind, and all that’s necessary is to forge a path from the current situation to the finale. Of course, adding in surprises still takes time and effort, but less than at the start of the novel (when I’m essentially travelling in uncharted territory).
In many ways, that’s how I like to think of an outline. An outline is your map for the novel; you may want to revise it from time to time, but its value is indisputable. You can also write the whole outline from the start if you’d like; I know some authors who do that, and while it might have a significant effect on the writing process the end result tends to be about the same.
When working on an outline, it can be difficult to know where to go next. One technique I like to use is to divide my novel into sections or ‘phases’ based upon important plot moments.
For example, say I’m writing a mystery. Phase I might be the Call, in which events happen setting up the mystery. I could outline these events in a similar way to how I plot out the end of a novel, by connecting where the characters are to where they need to go. In Phase II, they would know about the mystery but need to figure out that someone was behind it all. Again, I could outline the progression to this realization. And so on and so on, until I reached the end.
Of course, this is only the perspective of one author. Outlining tends to be a personal experience. As I said at the start of this post, many authors don’t outline at all. Over time, you’ll discover what type of outlining and what level of detail works best for you. The key is to give it a try; if you find it helps with your writing, keep at it. If it only serves to add unnecessary tedium, you don’t have to do it. There’s no rule that says you must outline your novel, but if you choose to I hope this helps.
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