Approaches to outlining a novel are sometimes bemoaned by authors who decry how such an orderly approach can work against the rather addictive journey of discovery (surprise!) allowed by pantsing through a plot. After the high of flying by the seat of one’s writing pants often comes the dreadful lows of massive rewrites. Other novelists swear by the usefulness of outlining, and such approaches are as varied as there are novelists who write them. Such is the simultaneous glory and agony of any process. You might as well give at least a couple of the outlining techniques listed in this roundup post a try. Doing so will give you more tools in your writer’s toolbelt and likely lead to increased drafting efficiency with practice.
This year, I will be covering a revision exercise on photography and writing, punctuating dialogue, rendering thoughts, using past perfect, and bringing setting to life. Feel free to explore Word Bank’s archive of writing posts. In particular, you may find How to Get the Writing Done of interest.
Approaches to Outlining a Novel
Once upon a time, I wrote a novel. I struggled mightily during the process, and it was largely because I had no idea how the story should end. I thought if I just kept writing, the ending would come to me eventually. It didn’t. This was probably because I didn’t really understand what was motivating my main characters. Yeah, it’s safe to say it was a hot mess! That novel now sits tucked away in a folder on my computer. I’ve since gone on to consider whether or not I have it in me to write a memoir, and some of the approaches given below can be applied to writing about one’s life consider the best memoirs often read like novels. Being an extremely organized person who has always felt I am a better editor than writer, I now know any longer creative works I produce will require a detailed outline to see me through.
Plot isn’t complicated. If a story doesn’t follow some manner of a three-act structure, it might be more akin to a vignette or a character sketch. Have fun trying these on for size. I know I will!
The 30-Minute Outline
If you’re exclaiming, “Yuck! I hate outlining! It’s sooooo stupid and sooooo time consuming!” Never fear, plotting out the main points of one’s book doesn’t have to be overly involved. It just needs to be detailed enough to see if the story works or needs tweaking. Start off by writing a one-sentence summary (5 min.) and then expand that to a handful of sentences that explore the three-act structure (10 min). Next, write one sentence on the main characters (5 min). Finally go back and expand each sentence written for the three-act portion into a full paragraph (10 min.). Read more here.
For writers with an aversion to heavy structure, this approach covers the basics to help keep the big picture organized without the fear of becoming too predictable. First, an event has to occur that presents the main character with a problem to solve or a need to fulfill. Second, attempts must be made to fix that problem or alleviate that need while varying degrees of failure are thrown into the mix. Third, resolution is achieved when the problem or need in question is brought to some level of closure. The level of detail can vary greatly, and genre expectations should kept be in mind. Read more here.
This familiar format results in a satisfying story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. The first act comprises roughly 25% of the story and consists of exposition to set the scene and an inciting incident that introduces the primary conflict when the main character makes their first significant choice. The second act contains rising action that consists of 50% of the story and can be broken into reactions, a midpoint shift, and further upping of the stakes. The third act entails the remaining 25% of the story when a new plan emerges that leads to the climax before events wrap up with some degree of resolution and denouement. Read more here.
Michael Hague’s Six Stage Plot Structure
Hague’s framework hangs upon the notion of turning points. These points remain the same no matter the type of story and they also occur at the same point of a story regardless of its length. The first stage is the initial setup that leads an opportunity at the 10% mark. The second stage introduces the new situation that leads to a change in plans at the 25% point. The third stage covers what progress is being made, and this leads to the point of no return at the halfway mark. The fourth stage introduces more complications and even higher stakes where a major setback is going to occur 75% of the way into the plot. The fifth stage represents the final push that leads to the climax somewhere around 90-99% of the story being done. Finally, the sixth stage shows the aftermath and a glimpse into how the character goes on. Read more here.
Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat Beat Sheet
Like Hague’s technique mentioned above, Snyder’s was originally applied to screenplays, but both can be readily applied to fiction. This approach bears much in common with the three-act structure (surprise!) with the turning points referred to as beats. A screenplay has less wiggle room than a novel, but the beats will still be fairly precise. The story begins with the first act and includes an opening image and set up with the theme often being explicitly stated. A catalyst sets events in motion, and the main character debates with themself to decide what needs to be done.
The first half of the second act entails another choice being made referred to as the “break into two.” Some so-called fun and games will transpire and any B Story subplots start shaping up as the midpoint false victory or defeat takes place. The second half of the second act cover the bad guys closing in, a sense of all being lost, a dark night of the soul where protagonist does some soul searching to find a solution to the problem. Act three commences with “break into three” when the main character knows what must be done, which leads to the finale or climax where the antagonist is defeated. A final image then cues the audience in on where the protagonist is now. Read more here.
Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method
Ingermanson is a former software architect, so his method for writing novels stems from his background. He notes creativity can’t be taught, but that learning how to manage it can be. This plot design process entails ten steps. Step one involves taking an hour to write a sentence summary of the novel. Step two then takes another hour to expand that sentence into a paragraph. Step three entails taking an hour to write a one-page summary of each major character. Step four takes each sentence of the novel summary paragraph and devotes several hours to bumping each one into a full paragraph. Step five covers character descriptions, allotting one page for major characters and half a page for minor ones. This is a synopses that tells the story from each POV.
In step six, one week is devoted to lengthening the one-page plot summary into a four-page synopsis. Step seven covers a week where detailed character charts are created. Step eight shapes the four-page synopsis into a list one-line scenes over the course of a week or so (Ingermanson’s comments about the tendency to fear spreadsheets is priceless) The ninth step is stated as being optional, and it takes each one-line scene into multiple paragraphs to describe the scene. Finally, at step ten, it’s time to let the draft rip! Some writers end up tripling their writing speed this way. Software has also been created to assist in this approach. Read more here.
Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey
The hero going on an adventure is the basic myth format that has existed for centuries, and much of the three-act structure matches up with this approach as well. The opening scene establishes the hero’s ordinary world and shows an element of uncertainty. A call to adventure occurs, but the protagonist first refuses, and this reveals a flaw or weakness. A meeting with a mentor then takes place, and a threshold is crossed for the journey to begin. The hero then undergoes trials and tests with allies and enemies as dealing with the big issue approaches. The hero’s greatest fear is faced in the ordeal, and a reward appears for facing death. On the road back, the hero is ready to get home, but often is being chased. The resurrection tests the hero once more and results in coming out clean on the other side. At this point, the hero either go home or keep adventuring. By returning with the elixir, the hero has been transformed. Read more here.
This list is by no means exhaustive, plus the way various approaches to outlining a novel are applied can make a difference as well. Some writers like to work with notecards that can be shuffled around, others like sticking boatloads of post-its on the wall, and yet others scribble story ideas in notebooks. Any outline can be performed digitally as well in programs like Word, Scrivener, or OneNote. The glory and agony of any process lies precisely in its nature of not being a one-size-fits-all endeavor. An outlining process provides a structure that takes on the flavor the writer give it as they make it their own. While I could never outline using Post-its, I can readily use electronic note cards in Scrivener. I don’t like stacks of “real stuff” to keep track of. And yet, I prefer to jot ideas down in a notebook as opposed in a software program. I would rather die (yes die!) than write a story out in longhand.
Writers are certainly a quirky lot when it comes to how they get the writing done.
What other approaches to outlining a novel have you tried? What method work best for you?
Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2018. Posts may contain affiliate links. Image credit: Book Spines Vintage.