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

Developing the Setting for your Novel

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

In my series, I recently listed three aspects of your story that you need to develop before writing – characters, setting and plot. The past two weeks have covered characters so today I will address setting.

The setting is the location where the events of a story or scene take place. This could be New York, a National forest, a pool hall, the White House, in space, on another world or any of a million different places.

Every situation, every story is different and will have different setting demands. Some stories only work in a fictional setting (think Lord of the Rings, the Wizard of Oz, Star Wars). And some benefit from real-world settings. And then there are some – such as romance – that could work in either location.

Real vs. Fictional Settings

Real SettingIn this case you are setting your story in a real place such as Las Vegas or London.

Pros –

  • There is typically less research when using a real location as your setting. This is especially true if you write about a place you know well. You know how it smells, how the morning air feels, how the people move and talk. You will know the layout of the city. You won’t have to research the setting as you already know it, and hopefully that knowledge will come out in your writing.
  • Readers already know some of these places so you can spend less time establishing your setting. When you mention the Manhattan skyline or the Washington monument, people will know what you are talking about.
  • The history, folklore and local stories can be woven into your story and give it authenticity.

Cons –

  • You have to know the place you are writing about well especially if it is a popular place like New York or Las Vegas. If you get something wrong about where something is located, or how long it takes to travel from one place to another, then those readers who know this place will be irritated, and these inaccuracies will chip away at your novel’s authenticity. If you are writing about a well-known real place, no amount of research on the Internet will replace actually going to the location.
  • Using a real place in a fantasy setting can actually sometimes make it harder for the reader to believe what is happening. They doubt things that contradict what they believe to be true. In this case, a pure fantasy world actually might work better.

Fictional Setting This means setting your story in a place that does not exist. You will need to develop enough information to make your reader believe that this is a “real” place.

Pros –

  • You get to create a whole new city/country/world. Everything is the way you want it. You pick customs, government, the local law enforcement, where the hospital is located as well as where the forests, mountains and beaches are located. (For tips on naming places in your fantasy novel, click here.)
  • If you are creating your own world, no one can tell you that your society is wrong. It is your creation and yours alone. If you want two moons or for people to live in pods, it is all up to your imagination.

Cons –

  • Creating your own city or world can be time consuming. You are starting with a blank canvas, and you need to fully develop your setting for your characters to work and live in it. The type of city or world you create will determine the reactions and behavior of your characters.
  • There is no immediate connection with your reader. When you mention the Las Vegas strip or the Grand Canyon, readers can visualize the place. In your fictional world, you will need to add more descriptions to make this place come alive for the reader and be believable.

And no one said you can’t do a little of both. You can set your novel in a real city but have your protagonist live on a fictional street or subdivision. Or you can start in a real place like London and ended up at a fictional magical school. You just need to pick a setting in whatever location will work best for your story.

If you need more help deciding on your setting, check out this post on 9 Questions to Consider When Choosing your Novel’s Setting.

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?