The Outline- by ria, on Wednesday, 14th July 2010, 2:12pm
I should mention that this blog is for me as much as it is for anyone else. When I start on my second novel, I want to have all this info in one place where I can refer to it with little hassle. So, this post is targeted at me (and people who write in a fashion similar to the way I do).
For me, every story has to start with an outline. Be that one paragraph or 16 pages, it doesn’t matter. I won’t get anywhere without one. Well, I might get the first scene done, but once I get past that I’ll have no idea where to go next.
Every novel starts with an idea. It might be a character, a location, a particular scene, a line of dialogue. Or, if you are lucky, it might be a whole plot, complete with characters and settings. I doubt that, but you never know. So, you have your idea, your small nugget of creative gold, but you need to do something with it, make something out of it. That’s where your outline comes in.
The outline is where you take that small idea and work on it until it becomes something worthy of a novel. Let’s say your idea was a location: an old shack on the side of a lake, a hermit’s workshop, an eccentric place filled with old bits of metal, wood, dried food, all sorts of survivalist gear. Before you even start work on your outline you might want to figure out who lives here and why. Then you come up with some event that will launch the plot.
Creating your Outline
Now you start writing.
“Scene 1: a strange something washes up on shore.”
Go into some detail, not too much – just enough to get your creative juices going. You are not writing the actual novel here, you are just giving yourself hints, or signposts for when you get lost during draft 1.
Carry on with the outline, going from scene 1 to scene n. Don’t worry about chapters or novel structure or anything like that. (Not sure how good this advice is – I don’t have enough experience to test it. When I was outlining my current novel, I did include chapters, but I reorganised everything in draft 2. It went from 16 chapters to 36.) If you do want to include chapters, leave them as broad as possible. Have them as a sort of high-level outline.
Stop. Think about your Idea
Outline done, you get to start writing, right? No. Stop. Once your outline is done, take a few days and think about your story. Think about characters and settings. Can you improve the plot? Can you see weak areas where plot holes may develop? This part is important. If you can catch the plot holes now, you can save yourself work later on. Do bear in mind that this outline isn’t the be-all and end-all of your novel. It’s a helpful map for the first draft. The more precise it is, the better off you will be.
I want to note here, that working over the idea in your head after you have done your outline is especially important if you went with the first idea that came to you. It might have seemed fantastic at the moment of inspiration, but there are most definitely ways to improve it. I studied graphic design, and one of my lecturers constantly repeated his maxim: throw out the first few sketches you work on. It’s the same here. The first idea you come up with is just your brain getting warmed up. You can come up with something way better.
Having said that, you do have the next draft to fix problems / plot holes that crop up. Your outline doesn’t have to be perfect. 50% of your novel will probably change as you go along anyway. And for those of you who think you know everything about your world and characters and plot, an outline is still handy for keeping things straight in your mind. 100,000 words from now you might not remember what went through your head day one.
Outline not only for Plot
In the outline, be sure to expand on themes and emotions. Note where you want the tense scenes to go. Focus on your character’s reaction to events (this point is still big in my mind after the last post). Figure out how characters interact with each other. I’m sure I’m missing a bunch of important stuff, it’s been ages since I did an outline.
For those of you curious, the outline to my current novel was 16 pages. I had about a paragraph for each scene and there were something like 80 scenes in the whole thing. I didn’t stop to think about my idea after I’d written the outline, I just blundered ahead into draft 1. Look where that got me. I had to rewrite 80% of draft 1. I’ll not be doing that again. In contrast to that, the novella I wrote before that (30,000 words), had a one paragraph outline. So it’s variable.
Anyway, getting back to the point: think about your idea after you create your outline. Is there enough tension? Is your idea original and interesting? Do you like your characters? Will you still like them 100,000 words from now? That is very important. I’ve read dozens of blog and forum posts where writers have grown to hate their characters and they stop working on their book because of that. Feel free to make as many changes to your outline as you want. The goal here is to have the best idea you can come up with.
(There will be a post about coming up with ideas in a few weeks. (I do like to give myself a challenge, don’t I.))
I use ‘he’ when referring to your character because my main character is male. My next novel has a female protagonist (two of them, actually) and then, when I refer to your character in this blog, it will be ‘she.’