If you hear the word “outline” and start imagining Roman numerals and indenting, you aren’t alone. I remember trying to write outlines by hand in school and trying to make sure all my sections and subsections matched up. I remember teachers drilling it into us that we couldn’t have Point A without a Point B, and I’d have to try to figure out where the heck to put my lonely Point A.
Most of us think of outlines as a structured and precise preview of what is or will be in the main document. It’s this mentality that leads to writers who swear by writing a novel outline, your Plotters, and writers who avoid outlining at all costs, your Pantsers. There are those who walk between the Plotting and Pantsing worlds and find ways to outline creatively.
A Twist on Traditional Outlining
When you think about writing a novel, or even a short story, another concept from your school days may come to mind too. You think of the plot structure diagram with the rising action, climax, and falling action. That plot diagram lends itself very well to the traditional concept of an outline. This type of plot lends itself well to conventional outlining.
Instead of setting up your story introduction as item I. on your outline, challenge yourself to change it. Try using a specific character or place in the story you are planning as your main points. See how differently your story develops by shifting the focus of your outline. For a character outline, make your top three headings something like childhood, teen years, five years ago, or 15 years from today. Work out a similar outline for your settings as well. For a place, think about what that place looked like in the past, how it has changed, what changed it, and how do all of those things play into your story.
When it comes time to write your story, take the overarching plot outline along with any character and setting outlines you developed to guide you. Keep all of your outlines within easy reach when you write and refer back to them often. Use those to help guide your story and keep you moving toward the next big plot event in your story. The critical thing to remember is that in the process of actually writing, you may find your characters are leading you down another path. Give yourself permission to go with them and forget the outline. You may end up writing a novel outline based on the new direction, and that is great.
Using layered outlines like the ones described above is very similar to using a beat sheet. A beat sheet gives a snapshot of your story scene by scene. It could be a bullet point list, a chart, or just a simple numbered list. This method is sometimes more helpful when you know certain things will happen or have to happen in your story, but you aren’t entirely sure how or why those things happen. For example, your main character may wake up in the back seat of a Buick in a car impound lot, but you aren’t sure how or why this happens yet.
There are a few helpful terms you should know when writing a beat sheet. Most writers are familiar with the opening and the hook—or the “gotcha moment” where you grab the reader with the story. For a beat sheet, you will also add things like plot and pinch points in the rising action and the falling action. Plot points are things or events that drive the story forward and are usually stronger than a pinch point. A pinch point is a smaller scale event the character faces and overcomes. These points happen in predictable spots along the novel diagram.
Writing a novel outline using a beat sheet works well for fiction as well as screenplays, stage plays, memoir, biography, and much more. For more information on beat sheets, check out Larry Brooks’s books—he is the master at using beat sheets.
Another approach that may work for people, especially those who tend to be more visual is a grid sheet. If you are a Harry Potter fan, chances are you have seen the picture of the J. K. Rowling’s notebook page with the lines and scribbles that she used when writing about the adventures of Harry and his pals at Hogwarts.
This variation on an outlining theme is nothing more than a sheet of paper or an Excel file if you want to be fancy, broken into boxes to track chapters, story timeline, scenes, and characters and events in the story scene by scene. Where a beat sheet could be a word, phrase, or sentence to identify a scene, a grid sheet lays out more detail about who and what is going on in a particular moment in your story.
Having a column for each character can help you identify plot holes and logistical issues within your story. For example, if you have a character hiding something in a Louisiana swamp in one scene, but then three pages later that same character is on a research mission in Antarctica—you probably need to go back and do a little explaining for your reader.
Write the Synopsis First
One method I like and have used a couple of times now is writing my synopsis first. For those who may be newer to writing, a synopsis is a dreaded task for most writers that becomes important when you start to send your finished manuscript out to publishers or agents.
Most writers wait until they have at least a first draft of their novel before they tackle the synopsis. The purpose of the synopsis is to give a publisher or agent a detailed overview of the story, up to and including the actual ending. This summary of your story allows the publisher or agent to decide if they want to read your manuscript.
I think of it as working backward. I write a short paragraph for each significant event I believe will need to be in my story. I leave some space between these short paragraphs. Then I go back and fill in the spaces between the principal points with short sections detailing the scenes that will help get me from one major scene to the next. Of course, this changes as I get into the actual writing, but the synopsis is easily adjusted to keep pace with my story.
Which method is the best?
That is a question only you as the writer can answer. There are endless options for writing a novel outline. Some authors put everything down on index cards or post-it notes on a cork board. You can devote an entire wall to plotting out a novel and connect the pieces with different color strings. There are some who have mountains of notebooks with their book notes. There are some who use things like Scrivener (see my review here) or other software to help organize their thoughts.
The key, as with most things when it comes to writing, is finding the method that works best for you. While the desired outcome is the same—to finish a brilliant novel—there are several ways to get there. Don’t be afraid to blend methods or change your approach for each project. There is no right or wrong way to get to the end of a novel.