While many authors will happily sit down at their author desks in the morning and rattle off a chapter of their novel as if it were being copied off a blackboard, the majority of wordsmiths will find that strategy a little stunting.
Do you use a GPS when you’re driving around a new city? Do you use a recipe when you’re cooking a new dish? Do you like to consult a TV guide prior to an evening of couch potato action? If you answered yes to one or more of the above, it doesn’t mean you’re less laissez-faire and fancy-free than others, you just like to have a sense of where you’re going. And more than likely, you’d benefit from a story outline for your novel.
A story outline is a roadmap that covers the basic plot points in your novel. It’s produced before you start the writing proper, and helps to keep your novel on the straight and narrow.
Why Do It?
Let me count the ways.
1) It gives you a sense of direction: It offers a light in the distance that ensures your story is working to its incredibly satisfying conclusion.
2) You’ll write quicker: Knowing where your story needs to head will have you thinking less, and writing more.
3) Bye-bye writer’s block: Unsure of the direction in which you’d like your story to go? Not with a well-written outline you’re not. The days of head-shaped dents in your plaster wall could well be over.
4) You won’t paint yourself into a corner: Pursuing a plot point that simply doesn’t work with the rest of the novel is far less likely if you flesh out these ideas in the outline.
5) The ability to foreshadow: You’ll be able to drop subtle yet ingenious hints throughout your book if you know what’s coming later.
6) You can research ahead of time: Knowing what’s coming allows you to knock over the often time-consuming research phase before you begin, rather than having to scan through and fact-check your manuscript later.
How to Do It
Forming a story outline for your next novel can be as simple or as complex a process as you’d like it to be. There are no hard and fast rules regarding exactly how it needs to be done, but there are some basic pointers that will help to ensure that the outline you produce is truly helpful in creating a great novel.
1) The Initial Idea
I’m going to go ahead and assume that the reason you’re keen to write a novel is because you’ve had an idea for a novel. Yell if I’m getting ahead of myself. Your premise is the backbone of your story – the reason for it being. Write this basic nugget of an idea down on paper. If it looks cliché or overdone, it may be worth rethinking. If it’s ‘a tornado that is made of sharks’ then it has a proven record of success and I say go for it.
2) The Elements of a Good Story
The initial idea needs to be fleshed out to ensure it’s got legs (or in the case of Sharknado, fins). A good story will be the sum of the following parts:
- A Goal – Any story is essentially a sequence of events that revolve around an attempt to attain a goal or solve a problem.
- A Consequence – Uh-oh. What will happen if the problem isn’t solved, or the goal not achieved?
- The Prerequisites – What must your characters do to avoid the consequence and achieve the goal?
- The Forewarnings – How do you know if the consequences are getting closer? Through the handy medium of forewarnings. The serve as delicious hints at what’s to come.
- The Vested Interest – Why do your characters care about the goal and the consequence? Because it’s a freakin’ tornado made of freakin’ sharks.
3) Character Development
Who are the incredibly interesting people that will play the major roles in your blockbuster? It’s wise to reverse engineer the main protagonist’s backstory beginning from the point at which they become involved. Where did the come from? Where will they go? Where did they come from, cotton-eye Joe?
‘Interview’ your characters, and get an idea of how each of them would react in the specific sets of circumstances that your story offers up. Find the motivation behind their actions.
4) Setting Development
Where will your story take place? If it’s in a real-world area that’s within striking distance, go for a walk around it. If it’s on the other side of the world, use Google Maps. Familiarise yourself with its look, feel and idiosyncrasies. Find the hidden gems that will offer more than a traveller’s view to your narrative.
If your story is located in the land of make believe, take some psychedelics and put on Enya.*
*Don’t do that.
5) Fleshing Out Key Scenes
With all the pieces of your novel puzzle laid bare in front of you, it’s time to roughly sketch out some scene ideas. This process should focus on only the most pivotal plot points, to ensure that the twists, turns and crescendo of your story are the enthralling, exhilarating and mesmeric ride that you’d envisaged they’d be.
This key scene road test will allow you to pinpoint plot holes, clarify motives and join plot points within your book. It can be super difficult to do your book’s pivotal scenes justice – going in with a plan can save you a lot of rewriting.
6) Forming Your Outline
With all of that homework completed, it’s time to write the outline proper. Use all the intel that you’ve gathered to form a scene-by-scene plan of how your book will unravel. This final step is all about structure – you’ve already got a good idea of how you’d like your plot to play out, who will be involved and where it will take place. Now is the time to form that disorderly, tortured genius mind map into a solid framework.
The complexity of this framework is up to you. It could be a single page of simple numbered chapter titles and short descriptions. It could be 30-odd pages, each one outlining a chapter in detail. Work to produce an outline that flows naturally, with no dead ends and no obvious gaps.
Why do you use a GPS when driving somewhere unfamiliar? Amongst other things, it’s to ensure you don’t drive into a lake. Why do you use a recipe for that untried dish? To ensure that you don’t accidentally kill your loved ones.
Like these things, an outline for your story is nothing more than cheap insurance.
Insurance against a horrible novel.