Outlining your novel is a fantastic way to start. It can be incredibly helpful for people who are detail oriented and like to plan, but can be also nerve-wracking and intimidating to create the perfect outline if you haven’t done it before or if you’re more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer.
I’ve always been more of a discovery writer and didn’t do much in the way of planning. I’d figure it out as the story unfolded, but as I’ve learned more and as I’ve started writing a series, I discovered that I needed to learn to create a foundation and an arc that would develop between multiple books.
While doing a detailed outline of a novel (or a series) can be very intimidating, I like to start with a simple outline then develop them as I write.
A few ideas:
- Outline as you go. Ideas are an ongoing process, and if you’re waiting to start writing until you have a “perfect” complete story idea or if until you “finish” making your outline, you might not start writing for awhile. Start with a the main broad ideas– what is the inciting incident that starts the main conflict? Are there any major turning points you want to include? What are the main choices you want your protagonist to look at?
- Get the bare bones down of what you want to remember. Chances are you had a great idea in the shower or while you were on your way home in the car– as soon as you’re done, get down the bits you want to remember, whether it’s for a pivotal scene or a cool relationship moment or character details.
- Don’t try to get every detail in there. It’s easy to get bogged down thinking you have to plot every thing that happens between A and Z. Do you know you want A and B to happen, and maybe a M or T but nothing else? Jot those ideas down, and leave room for figuring it out as you go.
- Stream of consciousness. There’s nothing wrong with just writing down your thoughts as they occur in your head, for example okay so there’s this old king who finds a prophecy about his kid but it turns out that it’s not really his kid and there’s also a magic tree and… often times I find the most difficult thing when plotting is just starting. Just freewriting and going with the flow of your thoughts is much less pressure than trying to come up with a perfect sentence to sum up what you want to write about.
- Draw it out. This will be different for everyone, but it helps to have a visual, whether you think of your plot like a rising hill, or if you want to link certain scenes or subplots together.
A few examples of visual outlines:
I like this flow pattern for character development and worldbuilding, when you’re getting down ideas of what shapes a personality and key traits about a person, their appearance, their family and their driving motivations. It’s also been useful to me for setting and to draw little charts for each unique location in my novels.
While writing the Sidekick Squad series, I keep a chart of events in each book and how they affect the next book and so on and so forth. What are the consequences of an action at the beginning of a timeline and what kind of lingering impact does it have? This is also really helpful when you have multiple main character arcs. For example, when we first meet Bells in Not Your Sidekick, we don’t see everything he’s involved in, but the core elements are laid down so I could come back to it in Not Your Villain.
Doing a visual arc that also shows intensity is a great way to see the rising and falling action in your story. How does the conflict escalate and how does it get resolved?
Thank you. I took part in a playwriting initiative – 28 Plays later – where you write a play a day during February. I discovered that I write more and better if I just start with a very basic idea and see where it takes me, rather than spending ages trying to work out a detailed outline. When I’ve tried to do this I usually end up abandoning the project… Having to just get something finished each day was very helpful.