Sunday, September 16, 2007

Novel Outlining 101

Concept: To create a weblog post that presents a simple method of outlining a novel.

Plan: Demonstrate the method by using it to outline the post, then use the outline to write the post itself.

Prologue: Outlining Demo
Part One: Introduction to Novel Outlining, Definitions, Purpose
Part Two: Examples of Outlined Scenes, Chapters and Parts
Part Three: Common problems, Suggested Resolutions, Finale
Epilogue: Links to other posts and articles on novel outlining at PBW and elsewhere

I. Novel Outlining

A novel outline is a story plan, written in the abbreviated form of a traditional outline with headings and subheadings. We're often taught how to outline a novel in school when we learn how to write book reports. To borrow a theme from Jennifer Crusie's latest novel, the easiest way to think of it is as a story to-do list.

An outline is valuable in a couple of ways: it creates a map of your novel, so you know where you're going when you write. Depending on how detailed the outline is, it can also be the foundation or first draft of your synopsis.

An outline need not be lengthy or contain all the details of your story. It can be as simple as Peter De Vries suggested: a beginning, a muddle, and an end.

II. Outline Examples

The beginning of this post is the outline I wrote of it. It's the sort of outline I personally prefer: simple, concise, orderly, or just the facts, ma'am. Let's haul out John and Marcia and put some of their story into outline form:

Angel's Darkness by Temperance Rising -- Section Outline

I. Novel Part One

   A. Chapter One: Introduce John, Marcia, demon thief and mystic diamond at Halloween party.

   B. Chapter Two: John and Marcia prevent thief from retrieving diamond.

   C. Chapter Three: John's investigation of theft, diamond and Marcia reveal unholy demonic plan.

   D. Chapter Four: John and Marcia discover the truth about each other's half-blood, which should make them immortal enemies.

   E. Chapter Five: The thief forces John and Marcia to go on the run with the diamond.

Now all of the above are just main chapter points, or the gist of what happens in each chapter. There are no details of how we meet John, Marcia and the thief, or how John and Marcia keep the diamond from the thief, or in what way they discover they were born to be immortal enemies. For that, we do a chapter outline:

Angel's Darkness by Temperance Rising -- Chapter Outline

I. Chapter One

   A. Scene One: John and Marcia meet and have a quickie at the half-blood Halloween party.

   B. Scene Two: A demon thief plants a soul-stealing diamond on Marcia to smuggle it out of the house.

   C. Scene Three: John pursues Marcia and the diamond, and catches up with her at her house, where the demon is waiting.

   D. Scene Four: John senses evil, convinces Marcia to have coffee with him, and Marcia's house explodes.

Each of the above points outlines a scene in Chapter One. We have more details now of what happens while we're being introduced to John, Marcia, demon thief and mystic diamond at Halloween party. This may be as detailed as you want to get with your outline, or you can take it to the next level, which is the scene outline:

Angel's Darkness by Temperance Rising -- Scene Outline

I. Scene One

   A. John arrives at his friend Bruce's home for the annual half-blood Halloween party. There in the foyer he bumps into a beautiful human librarian named Marcia.

   B. Marcia doesn't know anyone at the party but Bruce, who is busy, so John takes her to get some refreshments and chats with her over the punchbowl.

   C. Marcia drinks a cup of punch which she and John don't know is spiked with half-blood aphrodisiac, and loses all of her inhibitions.

   D. John takes advantage of an adult version of Seven Minutes in Heaven to protect Marcia from the punch-spiker, and ends up having sex with her in Bruce's coat closet.

Now, you can put them all together, and you have a comprehensive outline:

Angel's Darkness by Temperance Rising

I. Novel Part One

  A. Chapter One: Introduce John, Marcia, demon thief and mystic diamond at Halloween party.

    1. Scene One: John and Marcia meet and have a quickie at the half-blood Halloween party.

      a. John arrives at his friend Bruce's home for the annual half-blood Halloween party. There in the foyer he bumps into a beautiful human librarian named Marcia.

III. Keeping It Simple and Useful

When you go to the grocery store, and you look at your shopping list, you see things like eggs, milk, bread, butter, and so forth. You don't see buy eggs because my honey likes them on Sunday or buy bread for sandwiches for the kids' lunches, my toast in the morning and grilled cheese on Thursday. You don't need that information to effectively shop, and you already know it. Plus you might change your mind and decide to use all the eggs to make potato salad, or take the bread down to the lake and feed it to the ducks.

It's the same thing with an outline. You just need a list of things that need to happen in the story. How much detail you get into is up to you, but I would keep it as simple as possible, so if you do decide to change something, you can without a major hassle.

If you're still not sure how you want to outline your novel, try outlining a novel you love by another writer. As with writing a synopsis, it's usually easier to practice on someone else's work, because the emotional attachment is different and probably not as intense.

Outlining a novel is becoming your story's architect, and drawing up plans for what will be built. Before you break ground on your project, make sure you've got the blue prints you need to make it a solid construct.

Related Links

On Novel Outlining by damongarr

Organize Your Novel by S.L. Bartlett

PBW's Plotting with Purpose virtual workshop and The Revised Novel Notebook

Writer's Digest Novel Idea Summary Sheet

47 comments:

  1. bran fan1:31 PM

    This is an almost exact replica of how I outline. Most of my friends are seat-of-the-pants writers and find my outlines silly. Not so! I adore and respect my outlines because they work for me. Good outline leads to finished book leads to revisions leads to good book. It all starts with a good outline. It's nice to know that I'm not silly, or at least, I'm not the only one.

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  2. I've only been working on my first serious project for the past month or so. I have an outline vaguely like what you're showing, but I'm having trouble knowing how and when to split things into scenes and chapters. I don't know how to explain, precisely.
    To use John and Marcia as an example, how did you decide that the demon thief planting the diamond is a second scene rather than part of the first? Could the closet part of the first scene been a scene of its own? Is it a matter of word count, or something else that I'm not getting. (I know it's not Friday, but your post today made me realize I am totally clueless about scene and chapter division.)
    Thank you for being you! :)

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  3. I outline a bit differently, but can't show you because the domain I had the article on is down. :(

    I don't even think chapters until the rough draft is done--THEN I break it up. So my outlines are divided by some other characteristic that works: locations, victims (mysteries), etc... I also don't use the A, B, C stuff, but Subplot 1, 2, 3, and character names to help me keep all my plots (which I've developed on a plotting form that I also can't share because the domain is down) straight.

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  4. Outlines, shmoutlines. I want to know what this is:

    "John takes advantage of an adult version of Seven Minutes in Heaven"

    LOL.

    A most excellent post--maybe it will cure me of my outline-o-phobia. (Too many papers in high school and college with too many index cards. *shudder*)

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  5. bran fan wrote: Most of my friends are seat-of-the-pants writers and find my outlines silly.

    That's a shame, because they should at least respect your process, even if they don't get it. Personally I don't know how the pantsers get anything decent written, but I accept that their brains work differently than mine.

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  6. fiona wrote: I've only been working on my first serious project for the past month or so. I have an outline vaguely like what you're showing, but I'm having trouble knowing how and when to split things into scenes and chapters. I don't know how to explain, precisely.

    I know what you mean. Those are story decisions you have to make, and they can seem very tough at first.

    To use John and Marcia as an example, how did you decide that the demon thief planting the diamond is a second scene rather than part of the first?

    I like to start my stories with what I consider the catalyst moment, or the event that sets everything else in the novel into motion. In John & Marcia's case, John is the diamond thief as well as the hero, although I won't reveal that until the end of the story. If I wrote a complete outline of the novel, I would identify the thief as a separate entity until I get to the point when that plot twist is revealed.

    Could the closet part of the first scene been a scene of its own?

    Sure it could, but as I was thinking about the story, I felt it would have more impact on the reader as the wrap-up of scene one. Last thing you expect when two people meet for the first time is for them to be doing it five minutes later in a coat closet. :)

    Is it a matter of word count, or something else that I'm not getting. (I know it's not Friday, but your post today made me realize I am totally clueless about scene and chapter division.)

    No problem, Fiona. I think what you might be doing is looking more at wordcount and length for your divisions and not enough at what is logical or feels right for the story.

    When you start planning a chapter, try to visualize what is going to happen during that period of time in the story. Your scenes within the chapter are just like scenes in a movie. Ask yourself who should be there, and how long, and what happens while they're together. Look for the point when the scene should come to a close -- it should be immediately after you've accomplished the reason you've brought these characters to the screen for this part of the story -- and then plan to segue there into the next scene.

    You can practice by watching a couple of your favorite movies, but this time watch for structure. Pay attention to how the scenes start, how long they play out, and where they end. Try to imagine the scenes as they would be if they began five minutes later, were cut in half, or ended five minutes early, and what you'd lose if that was how they were written.

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  7. Domynoe wrote: I don't even think chapters until the rough draft is done--THEN I break it up. So my outlines are divided by some other characteristic that works: locations, victims (mysteries), etc... I also don't use the A, B, C stuff, but Subplot 1, 2, 3, and character names to help me keep all my plots (which I've developed on a plotting form that I also can't share because the domain is down) straight.

    That sounds like a neat alternative, and it would probably work for people who aren't crazy about formal outlining.

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  8. LJ wrote: Outlines, shmoutlines. I want to know what this is: "John takes advantage of an adult version of Seven Minutes in Heaven"

    Seven Minutes in Heaven was a party game our mothers never wanted us to play when we were teens. It's a bit like spin the bottle, only you go into a closet with a boy to smooch (or whatever else you'd like to do) for exactly seven minutes.

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  9. ROFL, Lynn--tells you how sheltered I was as a teenager! Though 'spin the bottle' I was familiar with.

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  10. Thank you. I truly needed this reminder as I'm trying to outline book two of the series.:) I swear if you could explain world-building in as plain of terms as you just described outlining, I'd kiss you. *wg*

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  11. Much relief. This is similar to what I do....

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  12. Marcia! Marcia! Marcia!

    (Somebody had to. :) )

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  13. here via NaNo link :)

    great post :) I bookmarked it and will love and cherish :) finally I know how to go areound making an outline for my novel. never actually did that :)

    thanks for posting :)

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  14. My own niche (ironic) isn't broad genre. Most genre writing is really quite bad, and ye, I don't do this outlining (as per the aforementioned niche.)

    But I did stumble upon this blog quite by accident and I remember reading the first installment of the Darkyn. Nice enough.

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    1. I'm very glad you don't do this outlining, and also that you can come up with such elegant, helpful criticism as 'nice enough'. Dick.

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  15. i know this is a really old post, but i just wanted to hop on and say thanks SO much for putting together the novel notebook. it's such an awesome resource. thank you, thank you.

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  16. I think I will use this as a strategy to finally get me STARTED. I've tried "seat-of-the-pants" writing with short stories, and it is getting me NOWHERE. I am not being productive.

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  17. I have tried writing short-stories and novels without outlining them and it has not worked out for me. I use to do without a problem when I was younger but some how I lost that ability and now it seems as if I need to do outlines. Thanks for the information this is what I needed. It is simple and right to the point.

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  18. I've done seat of the pants writing. It's challenging and fun to do, but it is sometimes easy to wander off the plot, and end up with wasted work.

    I do like this post and I'm taking some notes. Sometimes working without an outline, I've made my writings a bit shorter than I intended (like half as long because I let things in the story rush too fast.)

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  19. Beth R. of Whitehall, PA11:08 AM

    I like to take the best of both worlds when I write. I write my first draft blindly and I just go. Then, I rip it apart and make my outlines. That helps me to create the story I want without limits but then have a bit of guidance when working on my second draft until completion.

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  20. This is a pretty cool blog post.

    For many years I was a "seat-of-the-pants" writer. Or perhaps I should say that I'm just now thinking that I'd like to try creating an outline first. A couple of days ago an idea came to me as soon as I woke up. Then, after giving the idea more thought, I decided to write it out, to try outlining the story (even though I'd never done an outline before). As I outlined, ideas started coming to me. Those ideas gave birth to others. Some of the ideas caused me to do some brief impromptu online research (which will likely be done in more depth later), and, obviously, the research led to even more ideas. Although I wasn't doing a chapter or scene outline as you've described here, I was still pleasantly surprised at how quickly the idea grew and developed, as well as how much the characters developed in drawing up the haphazard outline that I had created.

    I've had several pieces of non-fiction published (mostly articles), but no fiction... yet. I have, however, received almost nothing but handwritten rejections for my short stories. I just wrote (in "seat-of-the-pants" fashion) a short fantasy novel (about 60,000 words) in roughly 45 days. When I finished it, I saw lots of promise in the story, but I also saw lots and lots and lots of work ahead of me because of inconsistencies that an outline could easily have prevented. This never really bothered me before, and I don't know why, especially since this is the third novel that I've completed.

    If you don't mind, I'd like to link to your blog. I maintain several blogs myself, but the blog devoted to my writing (and to books that I'm reading) is townshende.blogspot.com (this blog is about to get a major makeover).

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  21. Thank you! I had completed page 28 of my novel when I stopped. I literally did not know how to continue forward. I had heard of the outline method but didn't know how to put one together. This method is perfect! In one night I was able to flesh out all the chapters. I now have 28 chapters, and ever the underlining morality of the story I want to tell. :)

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  22. Anonymous5:45 PM

    This helped me soooo much! Before, I just had a general plan, very vague, and I would write. But, now, I really do need to outline, and add in details.

    Thanks a lot :)

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  23. Anonymous11:27 PM

    I don't know how old this blog is but it has helped me. Hopefully it will never be taken down. So many of us need it.

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  24. Anonymous, this post is pretty old (3 years +), but I am not planning to take it down. Even if I gave up blogging, I'd keep my archives available here or posted somewhere on the internet.

    That said, you never know what might happen, so please feel free to make a copy of the post for your personal use.

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  25. Thanks for posting it. I have always wondered how writers do their outlines and as a beginner writer this is important information to me. So I'm going to learn this outline so I can outline my own novel and any writing project. Thanks.

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  26. The best of outlines in general is that you aren't actually writing yet. You're planning what you will write when you get around to it. It is productive procrastination.

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  27. Came here because I was looking for notes on outlining novels. Glad I found it. :)

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  28. Anonymous1:05 PM

    Add me to the list of those being thankful for this well defined easy to understand outline method that I stumbled upon this day, 2-25-12, 4 1/2 years after post.

    Three novels of mine have crashed and burned at 45k words, I need to outline so I'm taking this example and running with it. Thanks!

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  29. I totally agree with all of the above...I have been considering writing a book, and I want it to be successful. This is a good way to get the necessary info that I was looking for on now to write an outline.

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  30. Anonymous4:28 PM

    Thank you!
    I wrote a short story (or something--idk, it was about 15,000 words) without a plot. I wrote about four pages and didn't go back for about three months--than I finished it in about two weeks, but...it was hard, and I got stuck a lot. Now I'm outlining my next project (I have NO idea how long it'll be...I think I'll let the book decide, ha ha), and I'm ALREADY having fun!
    Thank you!!!!!

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  31. Mick author of Knowing Daniel8:24 AM

    I wasted a lot of time as a pants writer which caused numerous rewrites. I join the grateful ranks of other writers who use your methods. One thing I'd like to add: Many publishers require outlines to be sent as part of their author guidelines and I probably could have sold the book earlier if I had used one. I'll use your great suggestions on my new book.

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  32. Anonymous1:28 AM

    I start my outlining as... First my whole story idea as it comes to me. Then I begin to break that down into outlines. Those I break dowm more into chapters then finally outlined into scenes per chapter.

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  33. FavorChild11:36 AM

    This is so easy to understand. Although I know writing a novel is no simple task, seeing your outline style makes it a little less daunting. Thanks for posting!

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  34. I have been trying to write a novel since I was 7, now I'm almost 17 and have still been unsuccessful. I've always thought that outlines were too much trouble and what's the point but that was after being told to DRAW an outline by my 6th grade library teacher. Thank you so much for this post!! I'm going to start outlining! SQUEE!

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  35. Thank you so much. I have literally just started a novel. This post has been amazingly helpful and is exactly what I needed in this moment. Again I can't say thank you enough. I will be re-blogging this on my own blog! Again I just can't say how thankful I am. Can't wait to find my way through your archives.

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  36. Anonymous12:00 AM

    I found this webpage almost 5 years to the date after it was written - and I love it! Thank you for sharing these ideas. You are a gem!

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  37. Dazzsa8:26 AM

    I will admit that after writing 6 novels I thought I'd give this whole outline thing a try. Big mistake! Not only has it slowed me down, but it has caused my output to be so stifled that I am drastically behind on my latest novel. So I threw the outline away, and am on track to finish my second and final draft over the next few weeks.

    Outlines work for some, but for people like myself they are a really bad idea and will not help no matter what. But how do I keep track of all the stuff in my novel? Easy, I have a notebook for ever novel, which I jot down all that happens after I've written it, and so I just refer back to the notebook when I'm not sure about something.

    Average time to completed novel is three months, that's draft, final and revisions requested by my editor/publisher. I publish a couple novels a year, and earn enough to not have to work other than on the novels.

    BTW, my last three novels have earned me a major amount of money, and there is an option of the first two by a major film producer. We'll see what happens, but my way is working for me, and outlines may work for others.

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    Replies
    1. In all things writing you have to do what works for you. Thanks for sharing your results. :)

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  38. Thanks for the info. I need that.

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  39. Well, here I am, five years after this was originally posted, and I'm saving it to my computer. I abhor outlines, but I can see how desperately I need them. I'm now 100-ish pages into draft 2 of my first novel and have so drastically changed gears that I'm not sure where I'm going anymore. Now is the point where I learn to love outlines. :-/

    Thanks for this!

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  40. Still a fan of the outline. It's the only way I can organize my thoughts.

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  41. Thank you so much. This is incredibly helpful. <3

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  42. This is very helpful! Thank you so much :-)

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  43. Anonymous11:45 PM

    I have to agree with Brad in that many of us were educated utilizing outlines, my high school was big on them and I depended on them in college. Now I use them in many aspects of my life. I respect Brad for knowing this works for him, and so should others. That being said, I think and encourage new authors to utilize outlines for their maiden voyage. Most writers can go without after that. I am on my second and have not used one this time. Whether it is the subject matter or mindset but I cannot use one this time.

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  44. after writing non-fiction, mostly technical papers and theses for most of my life I would never consider any writing project without an outline, thanks for a very interesting and helpful read

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  45. This is definitely an "aha!" post. Thank you so much for sharing the solution to a big challenge to my writing.

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