Plot Development – To outline or not to outline…

I’ve had more than a few authors tell me that they don’t outline their novels.  They just sit down and start writing and see where it goes.  For what it’s worth, one of those was a successful author.  None of the others have met with any measure of success.  Be that as it may, the subject of this article is to discuss outlining your novel.  This is in reference to fiction writing, obviously.  If you’re writing a non-fiction book or anything other than fiction then you’re going to create an outline for your project.

I’ve heard lots of reasons for not outlining – it stifles creativity, it’s too confining, it’s boring, it’s too much like writing a term paper, to mention just a few.  Typically these excuses come from authors who are more enamored with the idea of “being a writer” than authors who actually produce manuscripts that are readable.  On the other hand, if you were responsible for creating a huge, important sales presentation at your day job, would you outline what you wanted to present?  After all, this is an important presentation that could bring in lots of money for your company.  It needs to be professional and slick and impressive.  Besides, your name’s going to be on it and you’re going to be responsible for presenting it to the big wigs.  Your credibility is at stake.  You better believe you’re going to outline that sucker.

So…what’s different about a novel?  Do you want it to be a money-maker?  Do you want it to be professional and impressive?  Unless you’re ghost writing or using a pseudonym, your name’s going to be on it.  Your reputation and credibility as a writer are at stake.  If an outline could help, why in the world would you not create one?  Well, again, there are lots of reasons and I’ve even used some of them myself.  As a matter of fact, I have about five novels that I’ve worked on without an outline.  They aren’t finished yet.  Go figure.

I think one reason authors don’t outline their novels is because they don’t know how.  It’s actually quite easy and if done properly won’t stifle your creativity.  In fact, it’s a very creative process itself and can be a lot of fun.  The first thing you do is develop your “cocktail party description.”  This is what you tell people you meet at a cocktail party who, when they learn you’re a writer, inevitably ask, “What’s your book about?”  Or maybe it’s what you scribble down on a cocktail napkin in the airport lounge as you’re waiting for your flight.  This is one paragraph, only four or five sentences, that states what your story is about.

Harry Bishop is living comfortably in a quiet little southern town, the kind of town where nothing much happens, and that suits Harry just fine.  But his peaceful existence is soon interrupted.  The trouble begins when a friend dies in what appears to be a tragic accident.  In the aftermath Harry learns that his friend had a few secrets of his own…the kind that involve the type of people he left Detroit to get away from.  In spite of his attempts to avoid involvement, Harry soon finds himself embroiled in a deadly, real-life chess match with a ruthless mafia hitman and an adversary from his past who still holds a grudge.

Next you take the cocktail party description and expand it into two paragraphs, then three, then four, and so on until you have two or three pages that outline what’s going to happen in your novel.  Keep in mind, this is still a high-level, very general outline.  But it does include how the story ends.  This is what an agent or publisher might request if they ask for a synopsis.  This should also include a paragraph or two about each of your subplots.

Once you’ve completed your synopsis you will work through the same process with your characters.  Refer back to my earlier articles on character development for more information on how to do this.

Now it’s time to sit down and diagram your plot like we discussed in the article on main plots and subplots.  Once this is completed you write a brief description for each chapter.  Keep it brief, no more than three or four sentences.

Harry comes home to find Charlie waiting for him at his house.  They listen to a CD Charlie brought over and make plans to meet for lunch on Monday to celebrate Harry’s birthday.  But when Harry hasn’t heard from Charlie by Monday evening he goes to his house and finds him, dead, floating face down in the river.

Now, when you sit down to write the chapter described above, you know what you’re going to write.  But you haven’t outlined it to the point that it becomes restrictive or limits your creativity.  There is still plenty of room for creativity in how you set up the scenes, how you describe what happens, how you write the dialog, etc.  And, of course, this is just an outline.  It isn’t set in stone or written in blood.  It’s written on paper, in pencil…metaphorically if not literally.  If you get a better idea you can always change it.

When you’re outlining your chapters you may want to do them all before you start writing your first draft, or you may only do a few at a time.  I generally outline three or four chapters, then write those chapters, then outline the next three or four chapters, and so on.  That way I always know what I’m supposed to be writing at any given time when I sit down and starting mashing keys.  You will need to experiment a little and see what works best for you.

That looks like a lot of work, but you know what?  Writing a novel is a lot of work.  Outlining will help you stay focused and “on track.”  It can also help prevent writer’s block since you know what you’re supposed to be writing when you sit down at the keyboard each day.  Outlining also helps reveal places for twists and turns and “hooks” to keep the reader turning pages.  I’ll go into more detail on this in my next article.

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