Monday, August 22, 2011

Outlining a Novel - Step By Step

Not every author outlines a novel. I use a brief synopsis to set up my storyline not broken into scenes and I build from there. I build my characterization, and I know the beginning and ending of my novel along with the black moment. Then as I begin to write in more detail, I outline the next scenes. But I’ve had to outline a whole novel for an occasional publisher, and so here is what I learned from that experience. But you might ask, if you don’t outline is in worthwhile? My answer is yes.

Value of Outlining
• It provides a roadmap that helps you envision where you will begin your journey and where you’re headed. When you take a trip, you have a beginning point and a destination, but the adventures that happen in the middle can prove to be anything—interesting detours, car repairs, getting lost. But knowing where you’re headed keeps you focused on the destination.
• It forces you to brainstorm. It causes you to develop characters, select a setting which includes era, location, time of year. It compels you to select a genre whether a thriller, suspense, romance, paranormal, women’s fiction or comedy.
• It gives you confidence because you’ve answered numerous questions, and once you have a direction, you will begin to expand the brainstorming to unique ideas you may not have contemplated for the journey if you had just “climbed in your car and turned on the key.”
• It allows you to use techniques like foreshadowing events, problems, or clues which provides a hook for the readers.
• It helps you remember all the threads that must be tied together by the end of the novel.

Problems With Outlining
• You could stifle your creativity if you let it. Don’t give so much detail that you stop thinking outside the box.
• You may fear taking detours that can expand the story and adding new complications and obstacles.
• You may become bored with the story because you’ve made all the discoveries you think you can make.
• You may provide too many details that can bog an outline. Think skeleton or bare bones leaving out all details and emotions

Pre-Development of An Outline
Before beginning the process, answer the following questions
• Who will be your main character with type person, etc.?
• What is this problem or goal? What is the most important possession or person or treasure to your character at this moment in time?
• What problems arise between the character and his/her goal or the solution to his/her problem?
• What is the setting? Historical/contemporary? Urban/rural? What is the genre? Romance? Women’s fiction? Suspense? Paranormal? Thriller? What are the key events that move the characters toward resolving the problem or reaching the goal?

Break your novel into chapters first, writing the gist of what you want to accomplish in each chapter. Next break the chapters into scenes with only enough detail to provide you with “the next step on your journey.” As you write the chapter, you still have a multitude of opportunities for creativity in where and how this scene will take place, who will be in the scene, what will you foreshadow, what will be the mood.

If you have a story with two or three plots running at the same time, do a chapter by chapter for each of these plots. When you expand into scenes for the whole novel, use color to highlight to designate the various plots as you arrange them into chapters. Make sure you give a good balance between the major plots so that the reader doesn’t lose interest in the side plot or doesn’t become confused. Keep each plot line clear by opening with reference to the characters involved in that plot. Example: detective, criminal, kidnapped child’s family.

For an excellent detailed example of an outline, visit Paperback Writer blog at:


CatMom said...

Great article, Gail - - thank you for sharing this. ~ Although I've done some outlining with my writing, I tend to be more "seat-of-the-pants" with my writing. However, I really find that I do better if I at least have a general outline, so I really appreciate these tips you gave today. Definitely a "keeper post" for me! Blessings, Patti Jo

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Hi Patti Jo - and thanks. I had a request from one of the followers of this page for an article on outlining and so I was happy to do it. Any questions are always welcome. If I don't have the answer, perhaps I can steer others on where to find it.

. said...

Gail thanks for sharing this. I think makes it easier for me to understand. I've always had a general idea of how to do it, but now I think I can do deeper outlines and maybe create sub plots now. So thanks for helping me out.

Jillian said...

Great post, Gail! Last year when I participated in NANOWRIMO, I was a "seat-of-the-pants" writer. This year I plan to follow your tips and do some outlining first. Thank for all of the great information you provide. My "Gail" notebook is bulging! :)

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

So pleased the post is helping some of you deepen stories and try something new. Jillian,you always make me smile with your "Gail" notebook. I'm honored. Thanks so much.

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Anonymous said...

I love outlining.I have a flash card with 1 or 2 sentences for each chapter. Then when I come to write I make notes on what's going to happen, incl all those details I tend to forget (like senses).
Then when I actually write, things flow so much quicker. I don't get frustrated since I know what comes next.
Highly recommend Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method. Especially for newbies.

Alex said...

Great read. I've come to appreciate the need for outlines. I first thought I could be one of those cavalier writers who could write a whole novel without thinking no more than two-three pages in advance. What I discovered about myself, however, is that by outlining a novel beforehand, my story flows better and the characters are usually developed to a much greater degree than if I simply started writing from scratch.

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Alex and others. I'm so pleased you found the post helpful. I'm so glad someone asked me to share my ideas with all of you, and I'm happy this blog is helpful to so many. It's a lot of work to do these so knowing they are being useful makes the job easier. Being a novelist takes enough time. : )


Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Natalia - The index cards are great and that's what I use when I'm writing suspense especially or when I'm in the middle of a book and I'm trying to decide which piece of information to reveal next.

Randy Ingermanson is a dear friend of mine and his snowflake method is amazing. Writers should take a look at what it has to offer.


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