I’ve been seeing a lot of questions lately on how to outline and plan your novel, so I decided to do an early blog post about it. Some of you may wonder why you should even bother with outlining, but there are lots of good reasons to plan ahead. First and most importantly, it absolutely destroys writer’s block because you know exactly what needs to happen in your story. Second, it gives your story structure which will only make it stronger. And finally, it saves you a lot of pain and time in rewrites since you won’t write yourself into any corners.
What you’ll need (to follow my method): index cards, a writing utensil, paper clips or rubber bands (for organization), and a story idea.
First I’d like to say that for most of my life I was a diehard pantser (one who flies by the seat of their pants when writing). I couldn’t even fathom making an outline and never knew what was going to happen in the next scene let alone at the end. And if I did know, I just kept all my ideas bouncing around in my head. My method was chaos and most times no method at all. And I never finished a story. The stories would all lose steam and peter out. That is, until I started outlining. Now I’m forever reformed.
So how do we plan ahead? I’ll break down my personal method step-by-step for you, so grab your index cards and let’s get started.
First you want to get a good idea of what your general story is. I borrow the beginning of my process from the snowflake method. The first thing to do is write a one-line synopsis of your book. This is your sixty second pitch. Do not include character names. Try for fifteen words or less. Show what’s at stake for your character and what their trying to achieve. Learn from reading other one-line blurbs on the backs of books or online to help perfect your pitch. This pitch will also come in handy when people ask you the dreaded “What’s your novel about” question. After this step, you’ll finally have something to say.
Next expand your pitch to a paragraph or five sentences. Snowflake calls for three disasters, or crises points, plus the ending. And this should be describing the plot. This is more for your use in figuring out the story, but can be used when querying if the agent wants to know the exact plot of your story.
Then it’s time to develop character sketches for each main character (characters that drive the story forward). You want to include character motivations, desires, flaws, weaknesses, etc. to make them well-rounded and relatable. To a lesser extent, make a quick sketch for minor characters, still giving them goals and flaws.
Now is where the fun begins, the scene list. You can start by just jotting down scenes you’ll include in order, but this is where I prefer index cards. For each scene, grab an index card. Write one sentence detailing the action that happens (Tom meets Daisy). Then write a sentence for the conflict or tension that action creates (Jenny gets jealous and bullies Daisy). Do this for each scene. Now lay each card out and shuffle them around. Which order provides the most excitement while still making sense chronologically? Where are there holes and what can happen to fill them in? Where is tension lacking? Am I following a certain structure? The great thing about index cards is they’re easy to add or take away as your story emerges and super easy to shuffle around to get the perfect order.
When thinking about structure, I like to follow the fichtean curve. We start with the inciting incident. Then we have two to three crises moments that follow in succession building up to the conflict. Finally we have the climax and then the falling action which leads to resolution. Having crises moments that lead up to the conflict ensures your readers will be hooked and your pacing will be fast and exciting.
Using index cards will show you where you need to shore up your plot and fill plot holes, decide on your order of events, and help you when you actually sit down to write the scene. Now that you have a working scene list to guide you, you’re ready to write that first draft. One bonus step for your scene list would be to list the goals for each scene (show relationship between Tom and Jen, foreshadowing the ending, introduce plot device, etc.). Now you know exactly where you want to go in each scene.
I promise the planning beforehand will save you heartache and trouble when you start writing and especially in revisions. You’ll also be able to focus on higher order concerns like adding theme, adding foreshadowing, and adding other connections between the beginning, middle, and end. Also, feel free to jot any story ideas you get on your index cards. Use paper clips or rubber bands to organize similar ideas together. And really have fun with the planning process. I love the feeling I get when I have new ideas and figure out my plot. Using your scene list, you can even skip around when writing scenes to keep writer’s block away and come back to troublesome scenes later. There are tons of benefits to this method of planning.
How do you usually outline? Do you have any tips that I left out? Comment below and happy planning!