Writing a novel – To Outline or Not to Outline

This post is the eighth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

You have developed believable, complex characters. You have selected your setting or built your world. And you have a plot idea riddled with conflict. Now it is time to write or is it? Nope. There is potentially more planning to do.

Some people like to sit down and just begin writing. They may have no clue where to begin and they want to start writing and see where the characters lead them. Or perhaps they start with a vague idea but either way, this method (often referred to as “pantser” since they are flying by the seat of their pants) can lead to more re-writing in the end as many of the scenes that don’t advance the story are deleted or re-written.

And then on the other end of the spectrum there are the real planners. These are the ones writing detailed outlines of where the story goes, sometimes even outlining each individual chapter. Actually, these “plotters” come in all different levels, and some may decide a one-page synopsis is enough.

There are, of course, numerous benefits for those who outline their novels.

1.) You create a well-developed plot/storyline

2.) You are never at a loss about what to write next.

3.) You can find problems with your plot or characters sooner (and correct them)

4.) Less rewriting

So, you decide you want to outline your novel before you write. How do you go about doing that?

Outlining methods

Snowflake method (aka Expanding Outline) – Here you start with a basic premise. (I found this example on another website.)

Jack and Jill get injured while climbing a hill trying to get water.

Then you expand on it.

Jack, the mayor’s son, is sent to fetch water. Jill comes with him. They get injured while trying to climb the hill where the well is located.

Then you expand on it some more.

Jack, who is the mayor’s son, is sent to fetch water for the town. His girlfriend Jill comes with him. At the top of the hill, where the well is located, the two are attacked. They attempt to escape but trip and fall down the hill. They are both injured.

You continue this process until every part of the story has the level of detail you want. This method can be very labor intensive. You can find out more about the method here.

Pure Summary/Narrative – On this method you write the story from beginning to end but in summary form. There are no descriptions or dialogues. You can pretty much do this one by bullet point, or you can just write it out almost as a synopsis.

  • Susan lives in the jungle.
  • She is struggling to survive with very few supplies.
  • Susan receives an unexpected visit from her daughter.
  • Susan decides to leave the jungle and live with her daughter in the city.

Headlight (or Flashlight) Outline – With this method, you plan out a few scenes or chapters. You plan just enough to get you writing. Once you have written that and reread it to see if you like where your story is going, then you do the next few chapters.

I write using this method. I find that it gives me some structure but also lets my characters dictate where the story is going. But I do have an end goal in mind – I just don’t have all the details planned in advanced.

Chapter by Chapter Breakdown – Some writers do a quick summary of what will happen in each chapter. Again, it can be almost like bullet points, or you can write even more as your guide.

These are really just a few of the methods, and as you can see some of the methods are very similar to others. Outlining had its benefits and if one of these methods doesn’t tickle your fancy, simple use Google and find other outlining methods that do.

And remember, if outlining a novel doesn’t work for you, don’t force it. There is nothing wrong with being a panster. There are many authors that plan and many who don’t. You just need to do what works for you. The most important thing is getting a comprehensive well written novel done.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

#7 – The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

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