Writing a novel is hard work, even when you know exactly what you want to write about. In terms of novelists, there are two types: Pantsers (those writers who just sit down and start writing), and Plotters, or Outliners (those writers who create an outline that will guide them from beginning to end).
Being a pantser, for me, just means that I like to start writing, because it allows me to enjoy the ride and to discover who my characters are, what they want, what gets in their way, how they overcome those hurdles, and so on. BUT, once I’m done with the first draft, I outline the novel. After that first draft, I know what my novel wants to be, and I help it along by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable chunks. Those chunks become plotlines, which then become chapters. But that’s just how I work. You may want to go straight to an outline. An outline may just give you the structure you need to get your first draft (and subsequent drafts) done. And that’s the goal. So let’s talk about some ideas on how to get your outline going.
The research is the easiest. The outline is the most fun. The first draft is the hardest, because every word of the outline has to be fleshed out. The rewrite is very satisfying.
So, How do I Get Started?
The late South African bishop and theologian, Desmond Tutu, once said “there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.” What he meant by this was that you can overcome anything, however daunting or seemingly impossible, if you attack it a little bit at a time rather than thinking the only way to accomplish something was all at once. The same holds true for outlining your novel.
Now, there is no objective consensus on how to approach outlining your novel, at least when it comes to the number of steps it requires, in what order you should begin and end in terms of the creation of your novel’s outline, which structure or “template” you should use, etcetera. But the content is generally the same, because novels generally have the same goal: to tell a compelling story in a compelling fashion.
Here are 7 Steps to Create an Outline for your Novel. They are:
1. What’s the premise of your novel?
This is where you decide what the novel is about. Is your novel about a woman trying to set her cheating husband up for her murder (as Gillian Flynn did in Gone Girl)? Or maybe it’s about three childhood friends who endure a traumatic event, only to reunite when one of their daughters is brutally murdered (as in Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River)? Whatever the premise, you should know the premise of your novel before you begin, because it’s what everything else is built upon. Some of the things you need to consider when laying out your premise are:
Who is your protagonist?
What do they want?
What gets in their way?
Does your protagonist get what she wants? If not, what happens?
Are there themes you want to write about (like death, comeuppance, unrequited love, revenge, etc.? If so, what are they?
Where does everything take place? Meaning, what’s the setting of your novel? Is it Boston? Is it a home in an unnamed town in Kilkenny, Ireland? An asylum on an island in the Pacific Northwest? Remember, setting is a character in and of itself.
2. DECIDING ON SETTING
On that last one, let’s talk about the setting of your novel. Now, when I write my novels, I tend to dive deep into understanding the where of where my novel takes place. Every novel I have ever written, published or still waiting to find a home, has been written only after I have a great sense of the setting. In fact, I have lived in most of the settings I have written about in my novels, or at least visited them at one time or another in my life. You don’t have to do that, but it’s important you get the details right, because your readers will know when you don’t (especially if they’re from the place where you’re writing about).
When writing about setting, you’ll not use all of the facts and oddities of where your characters interact, but you’ll want to know what they are anyway. You’ll want to know what’s happened, historically, in the town where your character murders her husband. Is it a small town? Is it a logging town? Are there are lot of murders in that town? Do the people handle things a certain way because there’s no sheriff there? What does it smell like? What’s the weather like? Do things get blanketed in snow, for instance? Things like footprints? Setting is critical to understanding the things your characters face on a daily basis. Settings can also contribute, ultimately, to why things happen to your characters. Plus your readers want to feel like they’re there with your characters; they don’t want to feel like they don’t know where they are. You’re writing a novel, not a screenplay. They want a setting, and they want the details.
In fiction, you have a rough idea what's coming up next - sometimes you even make a little outline - but in fact you don't know. Each day is a whole new - and for me, a very invigorating - experience.
3. DEVELOPING YOUR CHARACTERS
Now this is one of, if not the most, important parts of your outline. Not because the plot of your story isn’t (I’m heavy on plot), but because without compelling and interesting characters who want something and want it desperately and struggle to get it (whatever it is that they want), you have nothing. You need a protagonist, and you need an antagonist (unless you’re writing about a person trying to climb Mt. Everest alone and the mountain is their antagonist, or some other challenge is), and you’ll need a cast of main characters and minor characters.
So, what does your protagonist want? Figure that out first, because that’ll determine how the other characters interact with your main character (are they friend/foe/facilitator/wise teacher/whatever) that exist to help/hinder your protagonist’s journey? What are the characters’ backstories? Their ethnicities? Their religious leanings? What are their goals, behaviors, pet peeves, vices? Do they have tics? Speak multiple languages? You don’t need to have all of these things in there, but it’s worth getting it all down. You never know what might come in handy later as you’re writing the novel. Some of your main characters may actually be minor characters, and some of your minor characters may become more important to your story as you write it. So, try to be as detailed and specific as you can.
4. FIGURING OUT YOUR PLOT
Plot can be a touchy subject for a lot of writers, especially for writers of speculative fiction. It shouldn’t be. Readers want to know why things happen, and that’s what plot is about. Plot is about causality. It’s this happened, and SO this happened, and because that happened, THIS happened, and so on. Without a plot, your novel may become episodic (this happened, and this happened, and this happened, but they aren’t related), and your readers won’t know what the point of your story is, and if that happens, they’ll lose interest. And that’s the death knell of your novel. So, when writing your outline, make sure you know what questions you’re asking, and what the answers to those questions are. You can break it down by chapter, which is what I do, because I find it easier for me to understand. For example, in Chapter 1, Jim loses a promotion to Bill, who already stole his wife, and so he cuts Bill’s brake lines. Which leads to Bill’s having an accident in Chapter 2, where Bill lives, but Jim’s ex-wife is tragically killed. Which leads to Bill wanting revenge in Chapter 3, where he hires a hitman, who is actually an undercover cop, which leads to . . . you get the point.
5. WRITING SCENES
I love scenes in novels, and so do your readers. Scenes are where the action happens. It’s where your characters interact, where people face and overcome (or not) the bad happening to them, where your readers’ heartbeats get going. Often, when I get stuck on something (I don’t believe in writer’s block), I’ll just start writing scenes. I’ll have my main character start talking to another main character. Maybe I’ll have them say something like, “I met someone.” (I stole that from my friend, the writer John Dufresne). Or I’ll have someone listening to their spouse have a conversation on the phone with their doctor (hint: the conversation won’t be a good one). Or I’ll have a private in a trench in Vichy France smoking a cigarette while bullets fly over his head.
When you’re not in scene, you’re in summary, and summary, while necessary to allow your readers a break from the action, isn’t action. It isn’t exciting. Not like scenes are. So, don’t be shy about writing out the critical scenes you believe need to be in your novel. They may change. You may throw them out later. That’s okay. But get your scenes down, because they’ll help your plot along, and vice versa.
6. STRUCTURE or OUTLINE TEMPLATE
Personally, I don’t set out picking a structure before I start writing. By structure I’m referring to the different constructs that exist out there that a novel may be broken down into. I’m referring to:
Dan Harmon’s Story Circle
The Three Act Structure
The Fichtean Curve
Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey
The Seven-Point Story Structure
And whatever other structures exist out there
In general, they all contain, in some form or fashion, everything that’s in Freytag’s Pyramid: Exposition, Inciting Incident, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Resolution, and Denouement. Whatever structure you decide upon (though you don’t have to do it in your outline if you don’t want to), it’ll be important to make sure, if even loosely, you have a structure after a few drafts that makes sense to the reader. Readers need to know what’s happening, and even a crazy, unorthodox structure needs to have some sort of rationale to it.
7. CREATING YOUR OUTLINE
Now that you have all the previous elements worked out, it’s time to create your outline. It is one hundred percent your prerogative on how you want to go about it, but there are a few that are pretty popular ways of going about it.
Use an excel spreadsheet (or similar program like Google Sheets) to lay everything out. You can create columns and/or rows to lay out things like Characters and Character Arcs, Settings, Scenes, Plots and Subplots, Backstories, etcetera. Within each column or row you can then dive as deep or as shallow as you want—the point is for you to understand, as best you can, what the story is about, who’s involved, what happens, when it happens, and anything and everything else you need to know in order to get your story going.
With all of the above, you want to make sure your outline has a beginning, and middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order. Order is up to you. You’re the puppet master of your novel. In the world of your novel, you are God. You get to say what happens to whom, when, and what the results are. I like to put everything into chapters, just for clarity’s sake, but again, I create my outline after I write my first draft. You can do things the way that best fits your process.
Once you have your outline done, print it if you want (I lay everything down on the floor and review it that way), or just read through it on your computer. The goal is to see if everything makes sense as you’ve written it, and if it doesn’t, this is where you start revising. Make sure your story is a compelling one. Make sure things make sense. Real life maybe doesn’t have to make sense, but your fiction does. Remember that. Now go forth. Outline that story you’ve always been meaning to write. And then, when you’re plan is laid out in full, get to writing. Good luck!
Let us know your thoughts in the comments and share the post with your writer friends. It helps us know we’re getting you the information you need to write the best novel you can.
Cully Perlman is author of The Losses, a novel, as well as a Substantive/Developmental Editor. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing in Fiction, an MA in Literature in English, a BA in English Literature, and an MBA in Market Strategy and International Business.
Contact him at Cully@novelmasterclass.com if you’re ready to discuss your writing project, or have your novel edited.
Cully’s fiction and nonfiction has been published in Bull Men’s Fiction, The St. Petersburg Review, Real South Magazine, Avatar Review, Creative Loafing, Connotation Press, The Good Men Project, Pioneertown, El Portal, and more. He was a 2013 semifinalist for his novel-in- progress, LOS BEAUTIFUL, as well as on the short list of finalists for the 2012 William Faulkner – William Wisdom Competition for his novel, THE LOSSES. He has been a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Story Contest, won the Writer’s Digest Dear Lucky Agent contest for a novel, and received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open.