How to Outline Your Novel

how to outline your novel
Do you know how to outline your novel?

Many writers balk at the idea of outlining. However, learning how to outline your novel makes writing much, much easier. By the time you start writing, you will already have an idea of the plot structure and overarching narrative, making it that much simpler to get going.

And if you want to actually finish your book, knowing exactly how to get to your final destination greatly raises your chance of success. This goes double for everyone gearing up for Camp NaNoWriMo this year—trying to finish a novel in a short period of time is a daunting task, and planning your work beforehand makes it more likely for you to reach your goal.

In a previous post, I briefly discussed a few different ways to decide how to outline your book. Here, I’m going into more specific detail about outlining your book in a way that suits your style and needs.

What materials should you use?

When figuring out how to outline your book, the first thing you’ll need to decide on is what particular materials you’re going to use to do the outlining. Here are some ideas:

Document it. You can use word processing software like Microsoft Word to make bullet-pointed lists or spreadsheets like Microsoft Excel to make charts. Using cloud-based services like Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, or Evernote would allow you to have access to your outline from any device or location.

Write it down: If you want to go old-school, you can keep your outline in a notebook. (Moleskine journals are perhaps the most well-known brand.) You can use different colored ink pens to color-code your thoughts and organize your notes.

Draw it out. This is best for writers who think visually. Get a whiteboard or a large piece of paper and trace out your ideas in a non-linear way.

Post it. Put your thoughts on post cards or post-it notes and arrange them on a wall or bulletin board. You can connect each note with a bit of yarn (color-coded, if you like), making a web that can be shifted around as you need it.

Use software. There is a wide variety of different writing software available on the market. Look at product descriptions and demos in order to see what each software program offers so that you can more accurately judge if it might be right for you. Scrivener and PageFour are both popular choices.

Use whatever materials make you comfortable. A linear thinker might not be the drawing type, but are perfectly suited for making and organizing spreadsheets. Someone who isn’t tech-minded might not make the best use of writing software, but would be great at any of the more low-tech options.

And, of course, all of these ideas can be mixed and matched to find the mix of materials that best fits your thinking pattern. Find what works best for you.

What method should you use?

Another thing to consider when figuring out how to outline your book is what particular method you will use. Again, this depends on what best suits your own needs. How detailed do you want to be? What aspects of your story are most important to you? Here are some ideas:

Character-Focused. Are you writing a character-driven drama or a story with a large and diverse cast? Do you think more in terms of people than plots? This might be the right method for you. The goal is to understand how each character progresses during the course of the story. Make a list of all of the characters in your work and figure out how they fit into the timeline of the story. When is Person X introduced? When does Person Y die? When is Person Z revealed as the villain?

The goal here is to keep track of each character and use this knowledge to build your story. If it’s helpful to you, your notes might also include character info—e.g. physical characteristics, personality, background information.

Plot-Focused. This is for writers who want to keep track of particular events and plot points. You can be as broad or specific as you need to be. In my previous post, I discussed the “Act by Act” approach, which gives you a more general overview of the main events in the overarching narrative. There’s also the “Chapter by Chapter” approach, which is a more detailed account about what happens in each specific chapter. These methods tend to be best-suited for linear thinkers who like to make chronological lists.

Another method is to construct a timeline of each subplot (or “story thread”) that happen in your book. This way, you can understand how each subplot develops over time and feeds into the main storyline.

Idea-Focused. This is the most abstract method, perfect for writers who are concerned about shifts in tone in their book. For example, writers of thrillers or horror novels might be concerned about how tension is maintained throughout the course of the story. Switching between violence scenes and calm scenes helps to make the violence all the more distressing to the reader, since they don’t have the opportunity to get acclimatized to it.

If you use this method, think about how particular plot points feed into the overall emotionality of the book.

And of course, these different approaches can be combined into different hybrid styles. Borrow whatever elements of each approach works for you as you plan your book.

The final verdict?

“Outline” doesn’t have to be a dirty word. The key to figuring out how to outline your book is understanding what materials and methods fits your own style. Do whatever feels right.

What do you think? Do you outline? What approach do you take to planning your novel?

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