What is an Outline?
An outline is a road map or a recipe for your story. Some people run from the idea of using outlines because they are afraid of the process. It has a reputation for being too rigid. Some writers feel that writing is a process of discovery, that they learn about their characters as they write. The only problem with this method is that it results in massive rewrites, editing, and revisions. But the truth is an outline is just a guideline. It’s a tool to help you get where you are going. And just like a road map or a recipe, you can always deviate with a detour or add a few extra chocolate chips to your cookie recipe, but in the end you still reach your destination and you still get to enjoy some delicious homemade cookies. So now that we know an outline is nothing to be afraid of, let’s talk about some of the benefits of using an outline for your next book.
Why You Need an Outline?
Here are just a few of the benefits of using an outline for your next book:
- Helps reduce the amount of work that goes into writing the novel.
- Allows you to spot potential plot-holes/problems early.
- Helps to keep you on track and prevent writer’s block.
- Gets your creative juices flowing.
Here are just a few of the techniques that you can use for outlining your next novel. They range in complexity, length, and time required, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to pick the one that’s best for your writing style and needs.
The Structured Outline:
This is the most in-depth outline. It takes the longest and is the most fleshed out version of the options discussed in this post. In this version you will lay out the three acts (or 9 acts if using that structure), then you will lay out everything that happens in each act. A lot of people really like this version because it gives a good overview of what is happening with each character in each part of the story and can be used to track character development and changes as well as story progression. This is also the method most likely to help you avoid any potential pitfalls that will cost you time later down the line while actually writing your story because everything is already planned out.
Notecards (sometimes called Signposts):
This method is very popular with screenwriters and playwrights. It can be done using standard notecards or by making digital notecards (some writing software offers this as an outlining option already). Each notecard should contain some kind of title to identify what it is, the location, who is in the scene, and then a brief synopsis of the action taking place. This method is great for rearranging your scenes and you can really visualize the whole story by putting them up on a pegboard.
This is a favorite of the fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants authors. As the name suggests, you just write, put down your thoughts, questions, anything you want to remember, research, or include in your story. This is a very flexible method and can be any length you want. The fun part about this method is that it’s fairly easy to turn a free writing outline into a treatment.
This is the one that most of us remember from school. It can easily be applied to your novel by using narrative points (i.e. Inciting Incident, Rising Action, Climax, Conclusion, etc.). This is a great method for a quick outline that gives a nice birds-eye view of your story.
This is basically an ever expanding outline that can get as big as you need it to be in order to give the level of detail you need. In this method you start with one sentence describing your story; it should be simple and to the point. Then you expand that sentence into a full paragraph. Then 3 paragraphs (one for each act of your story). Next you will need to do character profiles for each or your main characters, this should be about a page and detail not only their physical appearance, but also their motivations, strengths, weaknesses, and their goal within the story. Depending on your genre you may also want to create a world outline for the world of your story, especially if you are working on a fantasy novel that requires extensive world building. If this looks like the most appealing method to you, you can find a really good extended description at http://www.
Picking the Method That’s Best for You
It all basically just comes down to the method that works best for you. An outline is a tool. It’s there to help you be more effective and ultimately make your life easier. I recommend trying out a few of the different methods to see which one works best for you. Obviously each has a different level of effort and detail required, but they are all easily customized. Play around with them a bit. Let me know what you liked and didn’t like or if there’s another method that I missed.