Outlining a Novel is a Personal Experience. What's Yours?

One of the main reasons I go to writing conventions is to talk to other writers about how they outline. I ask every presenter during panel discussions and bring up the subject of outlining during lunch and cocktails. Maybe I'm a bit obsessed. But I find the wildly different answers from writers both enlightening and frustrating.

There is no single 'right way' to outline. Every writer has their own tricks to laying down the foundations of a book.

A casual observer might say that there are two thought camps to outlining: those who do it and those who don't. Some call this the plotter versus the pansters (as in seat-of-the-pants) theory. But of course that is oversimplifying things. There are many hues of variation between one extreme and the other. Some pansters might create general outlines and only leave the individual scenes up for free-writing. Plotters come in many colors too. Those who create elaborate, detailed schedules of every scene, POV, and character to those who prefer to outline in a single narrative summary.

I was always a panster, probably because I wrote mostly short fiction and could keep all the plot points in my head. When I put aside my third draft of a novel because of irredeemable plot holes, I decided it was time to trade camps and learn how to outline.

That's when my frustration really began. I wanted someone to tell me, "Here. This is how you outline your novel. Now sit down and do it." Of course, like in real life, no one was going to hold my hand to that extant.

Instead, when I asked the question, "How do you outline," I received hundreds of different answers, each one valid for that particular author and each with the caveat, "You have to take what works for you and discard the rest."

That was just the problem. I didn't know what worked for me. Yet.

At this point, I should give a shout out to two talented authors who did help me answer that question. One is James Scott Bell with his book Plot & Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot That Grips Readers from Start to Finish and the other is K.M. Weiland with Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success. Both of these books helped me focus my thoughts and streamline my unwieldy story into a coherent plot.  Like the others, both Weiland and Bell advocate taking what suggestions work best for me. And after a few tries, I'm finally learning what is best for me. For instance, Weiland likes to write her initial notes by hand in notebook, then transcribe them onto the computer. This was exactly the kind of hands-on advice I was looking for, especially since she took me right through her note-taking process.

However, my own attempt at this failed miserably. You see, I often have pain in my hands and fingers which is exacerbated by writing with a pen for long periods of time. So my notes were barely legible and the process was painful and not inspiring.

Simple fix: I make my initial notes on a computer. It works better for me. I'm learning.

Since I am so interested in how others outline, I thought I'd share my process here with you. This is by no means a complete dissertation on the art of outlining. I'll leave that to the masters who have come before me and expressed themselves so well. But maybe it will inspire some other writer lost in the fog of plotting. I would invite you to share your outlining insights in the comments below, so we can all take what is useful for us.

How I Outline

1. I write a one page narrative that gives a basic shape to the story. For this, I use a pared down version of the Snowflake Method, which begins with one potent line and builds exponentially from there.

2. I spend some time in "What if" land. This is where I question every motive and action made by the characters. This often points out gaps in the story or suggests new turns in the plot.

3. I highlight the 2 main scenes that will hinge the book. These are the doorways that the character must go through. Doorway one is the point of no return. This is the action or decision that propels the character into the story. The second is the action or decision that ignites the climax of the story.

4. I fill in the blanks. How do I get from doorway 1 to doorway 2? Here I use small blocks of text that highlight key scenes in a chronological order. I'm not worrying about chapters yet. Only scenes.

5. I write. Outlining doesn't stop here though. Before I start each chapter I decide which scenes it should include and where the best cut off point would be, to leave the reader wanting to turn more pages. Then I take that small chunk of outline and expand it into a full page. Here I lay down specifics. If it's a fight scene, I trace each character's movements. If it's a dialogue scene, who is saying what and for what reason? Even internal monologues can get this treatment. What info needs to come out here? What are the key motivations of each character in the scene? What is the conflict that moves the scene? I call it my floor plan because it's like those footsteps painted on the floor for dance lessons.

This last bit of outlining is new to me, an innovation that I added after trying many other ways of outlining. It works for me and here's why:

  • With a clear floor plan, I can be free to write creatively, knowing that I won't forget important plot points.
  • Staring at a blank screen can be daunting. The floorpan reassures me that I have some place to go. In fact, I often end a writing session by creating the floor plan for the next day. That way, I feel confident to get right into it as soon as I turn on my computer (after I get distracted by Facebook, my adorable pets, the need for coffee, etc. But that's another blog post.)

6. I create a story logbook. This happens after I have a complete first draft. The logbook contains all the world building in my story, including settings, characters and environments. I do this so that I won’t forget pertinent details as I revise. A logbook becomes particularly important for series of books.

So that's it. Does it work? For me, yes. Feel free to share your outlining successes or failures (those are just as important) in the comments below. For more ideas on building a logbook for your novel or series, check out my revision handbook, Revise to Write, Edit Your Novel, Get Published and Become a Better Writer. 

Kim McDougall is the author of the Hidden Coven series and Revise to Write, Edit Your Novel, Get Published and Become a Better Writer.  She is also a publishing coach and book designer at Castelane, For the Prose. 

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