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How to Outline Your Novel

Published by monica on Thursday, January 24, 2013

Photo credit by Paul Watson

Contrary to common opinion, the writer’s most arduous task is not the placing of punctuation, correct grammar, or the fear of using too many commas in a given sentence (parenthesis overkill is also a concern). The hardest part about writing is writing. It sounds simple and to the uninitiated seems like an easy job. But the true terror in writing is the blank screen. This is especially a problem in the world of novels due to the excessive page count looming far off in the distance. The issue is not one blank page, but hundreds (possibly thousands if the author is feeling ambitious).

In the world of the panic-stricken and writer’s block-infected, one word is key: outline. Diving into writing a novel without an outline is like diving into a pool with no water. Without substance the subject is just going to fall flat.

The first thing to keep in mind when writing an outline is character. Who is the main character? What is the main character’s motivation? All good stories have a protagonist with a goal and the obstacles that will presumably stop the protagonist from reaching said goal. Start by making a chart, list, graph, or note card with some ideas and backstory about the main character and what they want. Repeat this process for the obstacles.

Obviously the novel must have a solid plot. Chances are the story is based around a specific idea or situation. Make a timeline that combines the story arc with the character arc, making notations for specific scenes or plot twists. Professional screenwriting partners Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci actually draw a large clock on a white board and break down the story by the day, hour, minute, etc. This works just as well for novels and is a great tool to avoid confusion and maintain plot momentum.

Divide the story into chapters. Though it may seem easier to let the words flow onto the page, letting the chapter breaks land where they may, this practice can be a bad habit for the inexperienced writer. Plan out where each chapter will begin and end with specific regards to character, plot, and action (dividing the book into parts might also be wise depending on the content and style). Some of the details may change once the actual writing process begins and more interesting ideas are born, but it is better to attack with a plan than to attempt a structure-less novel.

Lastly, make an idea summary sheet. An idea summary sheet should include the genre of the novel and a description of how the plot reflects that genre. List the protagonist, antagonist, and a couple of key characters complete with their goals, backstory, and personality traits. Describe the setting (or settings) and how it relates to the story. Note the time frame in which the story takes place. In detail, describe the main dramatic situation, the obstacles within the plot, and the resolution. Knowing how the story ends before commencing the writing process is absolutely essential (this is actually the only aspect of plot Stephen King likes to figure out prior to writing, he makes a pretty solid argument for free forming a novel in his guide On Writing).

Many authors claim that the outline is actually harder to write than the language of the novel itself. The good news? Once the outline is finished the task of writing is a breeze.

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