‘Outlining allows me to ride the waves of my story with utter confidence, channeling the art into the craft to produce solid stories.’ – Author K. M. Weiland
THE ROUGH FRAME
Usually a novel will begin with an idea, and they often emerge as questions: What if an orphan about to start secondary school found out he was a wizard? What if an ordinary girl started working as a carer for a rich, handsome, quadriplegic? Both of these ideas involve an inciting incident, but you can’t yet see how the story will unfold – there are only hints of what the protagonist might want and there’s no clue as to whether they’ll get it or not.
So, should you write the outline as soon as you have the idea, or should you just start writing?
I think it’s best to create a rough frame for the story before you produce a first draft. You’re more likely to actually get the words down if you have a plan in motion, even if the plan might change. I’ll usually write this rough frame in three parts, a simple beginning, middle and end. The first part will mention who my protagonist is, what the inciting incident is, and the main story goal. The second part will list some potential complications. The third part will contain my idea for the climax and possibly the outcome.
“It often takes actually writing the novel to get to know your characters and figure out what you’re trying to say (and the best way to say it). The rough frame is only a guide.”
After writing the rough frame for my current work-in-progress, I changed the gender of the protagonist, added a significant subplot, and altered many of the complications, but the emotional journey of the protagonist remains the same. Masterclass teaches, ‘A good rule to remember is that outlines involve plotting what will happen to your characters, but in the end, your characters should determine your plot.’ It often takes actually writing the novel to get to know your characters and figure out what you’re trying to say (and the best way to say it). The rough frame is only a guide. But if you just go ahead and write without any outline, it’s easy to get lost in story dead ends or find yourself languishing in self-indulgent stretches of prose.
After writing a few chapters, it’s a good idea to pause and take stock. Ask yourself: how would I describe this novel in one sentence? It might be that you knew that from the moment you got the idea, or it might still be hard to define. Before you get into the in-depth structuring process, you need to know what the core of your story is.
“Before you get into the in-depth structuring process, you need to know what the core of your story is.”
If you’re not sure, look back at the opening chapters and the first third of your rough frame. What is the inciting incident? What does your protagonist want? And what is the core conflict? These questions will very often lead you to your one-liner.
THE STEP OUTLINE
Once your main idea is clear in your mind and you’ve done some exercises around your lead characters, you’re probably ready to create a step-by-step outline. This one goes beyond beginning, middle, and end, revealing the chain of events that leads your protagonist(s) from the start to the end. It might be that you have various events in mind but you’re not sure how they’ll fit together. Get it all written down and when you’re ready, arrange them into a logical and causal sequence.
“It might be that you have various events in mind but you’re not sure how they’ll fit together. Get it all written down and when you’re ready, arrange them into a logical and causal sequence.”
Don’t worry about the details. Most writers choose to write the outline in third-person, present tense, and in short sentences:
Harry goes to the Zoo for Dudley’s birthday. Starts talking to a snake and it talks back.
The snake escapes and Dudley is horrified.
Letter from Hogwarts arrives in the post. Uncle Vernon destroys it.
More letters arrive. All destroyed.
The level of detail in your outline will depend on both your personality – some of us are naturally more spontaneous or more into planning – and the genre you’re working in. Thriller writer John Grisham writes a forty or fifty page outline before starting each of his novels. He says, ‘When you write suspense, you have to know where you’re going, because you have to drop little hints along the way.’ A character-driven literary novel may require a less detailed outline, but it’s still a good idea to write one. Suspense plays a part in even the most literary of fiction.
Every plot point in the step outline should either aid your characterisation or progress the story. Part of the benefit of creating an outline is that it stops you from going off on tangents so that everything contributes to the overarching story. In the examples above, based on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone if that wasn’t obvious, the snake talking to Harry is the first indication that there’s something different about him. This and the letters all lead him towards his future at Hogwarts, which is where we’ll meet the core conflict. The fact that Dudley is horrified is important because it shows that Harry is not like the Dursleys – he is brave, a trait that will be significant in his journey.
THE OUTLINE OF THE NOVEL YOU’VE ACTUALLY WRITTEN
The step outline will be your guide as you write the first draft. I refer back to mine during most writing sessions. You might fiddle with it a bit as you go along but your attention will be on the manuscript.
Once you’ve finished the first draft, it’s a good idea to return to the outline and consider it in light of the story you’ve actually written. Susan Choi says, ‘It’s only in retrospect that themes or subjects become identifiable. That’s the fun of it: discovering what’s next.’ Hopefully you’ll have discovered a few new things about your characters along the way, themes will have emerged from the story, and ones you’d already intended to be there will have gained depth. Now is the time to consider whether that theme that surprised you ought to be threaded into the first half of the novel, whether chapter four ought to be changed in light of how the resolution came about, etc.
“You might realise that a plot point which seemed thrilling when it was a sentence in a list has completely fallen flat in the actual novel.”
Writing teacher Jerry Jenkins says, ‘Somehow, when I try to plot a story in advance — telling myself I’ll write more confidently, things get predictable.’ Outlining has its dangers as well as its benefits. You might realise that a plot point which seemed thrilling when it was a sentence in a list has completely fallen flat in the actual novel. It’s not too late to change it! The outline is there to serve your story, not to rule over it.
‘I feel very strongly that outlining IS writing. It’s simply a matter of working on the macro level before diving into execution.’ – Author Claudia Gray