Sunday, October 26, 2008

Speed the Outline

I've had a couple of folks who are going to be participating in NaNoWriMo ask me to put together the shortest/least time-consuming method of outlining a novel concept.

Honestly, it's just about impossible to come up with a one-size-fits-all-genres template. I know, I've tried. Every genre is different, and you need to be aware of the general expectations for stories in that genre (even if you plan to ignore them, at least know what they are.)

Every writer's process varies, too. Some, like me, usually start with a vivid character. Others have a strong plot idea. Then there are begin-with-setting writers who fall in love with a location; the go-with-way-cool technology writers, and even writers who come up with a brilliant ending and work backward from there. Nor should I leave out the writers who simply feel something nameless in the back of their head, open a blank document page and start writing.

So that's the upfront disclaimer -- this is surely not going to work for everyone. Try it out as is or rework it to suit your particular writing and/or story needs (not everyone will have three suplots, for example, you may need more or less.) Also, this is just for the writer's personal use; I don't recommend sending this to an editor or using it for anything but writing the story or maybe as notes for the writer to consult during a verbal/phone pitch.

Since most of you are familiar with my novel crash test dummies, John and Marcia, I'm going to use their story as an example to fill in this template.

Ten Point Novel Concept Outline

Who: Marcia (half-angel librarian); John (half-demon cop); Demon thief (unnamed)

What: must work together to defeat demon diamond thief, avert Armageddon

When/Where: Modern time, Metro San Francisco

Why: Thief intends to use mystic diamond to open the gates of Hell, bring the inhabitants to the mortal world and destroy mankind.

Primary plot line: John and Marcia team up to protect diamond, defeat demon thief.

Subplot #1: John and Marcia were created to battle each other but fall in love.

Subplot #2: Demon thief falls in love with Marcia, wants to kill John

Subplot #3: John's demon father and Marcia's angel mother try to separate them.

Major Twist: The thief is the demon side of John's personality (they're the same person.) Neither are aware they share the same body.

Resolution: John and Marcia each must choose to sacrifice their inhuman powers to save the world.

Once you have these ten points outlined, you have a very general overview of your story. I think these are the basic decisions you have to make before you write (as long as that doesn't throw a monkey wrench at your muse's head.)

If you'd like to print out the blank template, I've posted it, the completed example and the links listed below over on Scribd here. *Note 9/3/10: Since instituted an access fee scam to charge people for downloading e-books, including those I have provided for free for the last ten years, I have removed my free library from their site, and no longer use or recommend using their service. My free reads may be read online or downloaded for free from Google Docs; go to my freebies and free reads page for the links. See my post about this scam here.

Related Links:

Outline Your Novel in Thirty Minutes by Alicia Rasley

Outlining: Clarifying & Accelerating Understanding & Organization by Dr. Robert S. Houghton.

PBW's Novel Outlining 101


  1. This is an excellent post! Really quite great - I hadn't thought of this, and as I'm in the preliminaries for the next book, this will be invaluable!

    Many thanks!

  2. Lynn--it's been a while since I've said this, but you totally rock. The amount of support and encouragement you give to writers is nothing short of amazing.

    Thank you for all you do.

  3. This came just when I needed it! Thank you!

  4. Thanks, this is great. November 1 is going to get here entirely too soon (wish me luck). :)

  5. Lynn,
    Thank you!!! Before I read this post I was totally bouncing around in thought about where to start, what it's going to be about, etc. I'm still of coursebouncing yet not so dramatically as before...this helps to ground me!
    darbyscloset at yahoo dot com

  6. Thanks for sharing the basics of the outline. This definitely helps with that.

  7. Great post. I've printed your template and plan to get to work outlining. I've never done NaNoWriMo, but I'm seriously considering it this year. Posts like this help as its another tool in the arsenal. Thanks!

  8. This was very helpful!! usually when I write a novel, I get a general idea and just write my thoughts upon paper. I try not to over think it. But then again this is a great way for me to stay focused.

  9. Anonymous12:46 AM

    off topic...we need more john and marcia.

    on NaNo here, but it looks like I'm doign 70 days of sweat, and I've got several books lined up....oye. I hate outlines.

  10. Anonymous3:10 AM

    Thank you. Some interesting ideas, I might try this out myself. I've never been much of a pre-planner or organizer, and maybe that's why I've never gotten a novel completely written.

  11. Thank you for this handy outline. I followed your earlier advice and wrote up a synopsis (though it was very brief) and with this outline, I've managed to round out my story a bit more. I'm going to go back and work up a stronger synopsis, because I'm dying to start writing my Nano novel and I still have another three days to wait!


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