Ok, let’s start by saying what this isn’t: it’s not a post about why you should outline rather than write by the seat of your pants (and it would be great if we could stay away from that particular debate in the comments). It’s also not about how you should outline your novel. It’s about how I happen to do it.
At Magical Words we often say that there are many different ways to approach writing and that not all methods work for all writers. This post is going to be a case in point.
As I’ve said before, I used to be a pantser, but found that my books often lacked a tightness and sense of purpose because I had a hard time getting enough distance from the first draft to really knock it into shape. In one fairly recent instance which I’ve mentioned before, I returned to a book I hadn’t been able to sell and stripped 22,000 words from it in a single pass, but it took me over two years to be able to see what was wrong with it. (Good news: I subsequently sold the book. It’s a thriller called The Tears of the Jaguar and it will be out later this year.)
But opting to outline a book doesn’t present a single formula to work by. I’ve heard of writers (I think the excellent thriller writer Jeffry Deaver is one, though I don’t know that first hand) who spend as long or longer on the outline as they do on the novel itself, producing an outline which is sometimes a couple of hundred pages long (about half the finished novel)!
I don’t work like that. For me, the actual writing of the novel is the fun part, and it needs to stay very organic and subject to change, particularly if I make a discovery along the way, or otherwise want to deviate from my outline.
Some authors talk of their outlines as if they are blueprints which nail down every feature of the final book or roadmaps which outline a journey, but permit some deviation along the way. I prefer to think of mine as a thumb nail sketch, and an impressionistic one at that; it’s light on detail and packed with wiggle room.
I’ve just completed the second in my Darwen Arkwright middle grades series so I’m able to look back on the outline I constructed and see pretty well what changed in the drafting and revision (though since the book won’t be out till fall, I’ll be avoiding spoilers!).
The finished novel came in around 92,000 words or 370 pages. The outline is 5,000 words and is 18 pages. It’s written, for the most part, as a narrative summary and concludes with a couple of charts listing character names, their nature and functions in a few words. In short, the outline reads like an extended pitch letter, a summary of the story told as colorfully as I can manage it, not simply an outline of the plot. This is partly because I wrote it to show my publisher what I planned to do with the book, before I wrote it, but I think I’d use the same method even if it was strictly for me.
I know some people use charts and diagrams and other things, but for me something linear and narrative, something that feels almost like an overdense (in terms of plot) and sparsely detailed short story works best. It lays things out in roughly the same way I will construct the novel: sequentially and in coherent prose. This way the leap from the outline to the book is smaller than it might be if I worked from, say, simply a list of events or scenes (though that is how the outline sometimes starts until I have the whole thing figured out).
Though a paragraph of outline might indicate a theme or series of events which are dotted throughout the book, it usually stands in for an extended sequence or major event, so the chronological progression of the outline is almost the same as the finished book.
The outline is dotted with adjectives and phrased so that the feel of each scene or beat in the story is clear, not just the events. I’m trying to get a handle on the shape of what I plan to be the reader’s experience, not just a listing of what happens, and that is particularly true in terms of the main characters’ emotional journeys.
The narrative is broken down into three acts, and assumes that the second is twice the length of the first and third. The first act thus sets up who the characters are, their major conflicts, goals and needs, and does so in 880 words. The second act contains the bulk of the stuff which is going to happen once the story really gears up and is comprised especially of obstacles, discoveries, and suspense or action sequences (2700 words). It also depicts the world in which the story will take place and builds on the emotional journeys already hinted at. The third act (1,000 words) maps the resolution of the story, particularly the final showdown, what is won and lost. The whole thing reads like the summary of a novel that already exists.
Sometimes I will add more charts to this document, tables of the students’ class schedule, for instance, brief summaries of the monsters’ key features, world notes or matters of the story’s internal logic, but these are as much research and world building as they are outlining, and though they may wind up in the same document, their function is a little different.
What the outline I’ve described above provides me with, then, is not just a skeleton, but something that already has some muscle and sinew on it. It shows me how the story is supposed to move, and how it should affect its readers. Rereading it now, I find that the book I wrote in 2-3 months adhered to the shape I sketched out in about a week surprisingly closely. I did move some things around, and I made a couple of key changes to character and action when I realized that my sense of who the good/bad guys were needed tweaking, but that (admittedly extensive) change didn’t happen until after the first draft was complete.
An outline like this helps me to see the whole story at a glance and helps me get a good sense of the structure, major conflicts and big ‘visual’ moments. I can usually tell from this if the action is all packed together and there are likely to be long, slow sections elsewhere, and I can fix those issues fairly easily. When I come to write the actual book, the outline provides me with a kind of safety net, something that allows me to press on knowing that I’m roughly on the right track. It also makes it almost impossible for me to have anything like writer’s block when I really don’t know what to do next.
Again, this is just how I do it. I hope you find the model useful.