In honor of National Novel Writing Month, I’d like to feature a few posts this month discussing the early planning and preparation stages for starting a new novel, whether for NaNoWriMo or any other project. I previously shared these posts last year, but I hope they’ll be refreshing to new and old readers alike. Last week, I discussed how to find ideas and get inspired for a new novel. Now, let’s take a look at one of the most dreaded stages of the process: outlining.
I don’t mean to suggest here that outlining is for everyone. It doesn’t work for some writers, and that’s okay. It’s important to choose the process that works best for you. But if you’ve never outlined before, or if it’s something you struggle with, I’d encourage you to give some of these tips a try. Outlining can be an incredibly valuable skill, especially when participating in something like NaNoWriMo where you need to draft the novel quickly. Outlining can ensure that you have a solid foundation in place before you start, thus saving you work in revisions later and giving you a plan to follow in case you get stuck. And if you’re pursuing traditional publishing, you’ll find that being able to outline and write synopses is a useful skill for pitching or selling novels on proposal. Even if outlining doesn’t work for you, consider trying some of these tips to see if they work with your process.
So, with that in mind, here are my tips and tricks for outlining:
If you’re struggling with outlining your own stories, try outlining someone else’s first. Consider trying it with other books or films. How are they structured? What are the essential plot points and beats? What’s essential to the plot and what isn’t? What needs to be in the outline and what doesn’t? Examining the ways that other narratives are put together and practicing with them can help you learn how to do your own. Plus, you can try out various outlining methods to see what works well for you.
- Use software
If pen-and-paper outlines don’t work for you, there are a number of electronic methods you can try. Scrivener is pretty much designed for outlining, and comes with built-in index cards and other tools that make the process simple. Even Word or Excel spreadsheets can be used. There are also tons of apps designed for organizing ideas and mindmapping that might work well for outlines.
- Use beat sheets
If outlining feels overwhelming and you have no idea where the plot should go, consider using a beat sheet as a guide. Beat sheets break narrative structures down to their simplest components and allow you to examine the story point by point. There are lots of different types of beat sheets available, so you can probably find one that works for you. If you aren’t sure where to start, try Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
- Think about character
A lot of outlining methods, like beat sheets, focus more on the plot points than on the characters and their journey. If you dislike outlining methods like beat sheets, you might find that outlining based on character is a better fit for you. And if you have problems with characterization in early drafts, this could help set the foundation beforehand. To outline based on character, profile them first. Chart their goals and their problems. What do they want? What do they need? How do they plan to get it? Chart their arcs, too—who are they when the story begins, and how do they change?
- Think about essentials
When outlining, don’t get so caught up on sequencing that you forget to include the essential elements of your story. Is there conflict? Do your characters have strong goals and motivations for wanting them? Are there high stakes, and do they get higher throughout the story? Your outline won’t be helpful if it doesn’t include the essential foundations of your story.
- Be flexible
Remember that nothing on your outline is written in stone. Think of it as a guide or suggestion, rather than a rule. If your writing process is anything like mine, you’ll probably end up deviating from your outline frequently. My finished drafts often look nothing like their original outline. But having those initial ideas in place before I start helps me figure out where the story does and doesn’t need to go. Don’t stress too much about what goes into your outline, and remember that it’s there to help you, not to hinder your creativity.
What do you think? Do you outline? What’s your preferred method? Do you have any tips? Let me know in the comments!
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