Hate outlines? I know many writers do, because I often get questions about outlining fiction. It’s a real challenge for many writers, and I sympathize. Way back in the 1970s when I started writing fiction I hated outlines with a passion.
That was way before Amazon and ebooks, so if I wanted to sell my novels to publishers, I had to outline. When I whined about it my literary agent at the time told me: “just write an outline. You don’t have to follow it.”
Outlining fiction: do it YOUR way
That was the best advice I’ve ever received: you don’t have to follow your outline. Your outline is just a way to make your novel real to you. Over the years, I’ve pantsed/ outlined my way to many, many novels. These days, I rarely think about outlining at all. It seems as if my outlines just magically appear — I think about a novel, and before I know it, I’ve created a workable outline. 🙂
It will happen for you too — persist with your own method of outlining, and sooner or later, writing novels (and nonfiction too) will be easier, because you will outline automatically.
So let’s look at five tips which will help if you hate outlines, so that you can find a process that works for you. No stress. As my agent pointed out, you don’t have to follow the outline you created. You almost certainly won’t, because a good outline kickstarts your thinking. Your completed novel will be much better than it would have been without an outline.
1. Start with text: your creative brain thinks in images, not linear outlines
Want to outline? Just start writing.
Yes… I know it sounds simple, but stick with me.
Let’s say that you’re writing a romantic mystery novel, with a super-glamorous billionaire. Or whatever you like. Choose your favorite genre.
Click your timer, and write for five minutes. Start off this way: “I’m writing a romantic mystery, with billionaire. My heroine is Tessy Anne Smith. She’s just won an internship at the hottest public relations company in New York city. She’s scared she won’t fit in… yadda yadda…”
Not an idea in your head? That’s OK.
Use this simple character template:
Name + Age + Occupation + Major Attribute + (optional) Big Problem
Viz: Tessy Anne Smith, 21, PR intern, ambitious — big problem: evicted from her apartment, staying with friends.
Another example: Megan Summers, 31, resident at a city hospital, loves medicine — big problem: someone’s killing patients. She’s blamed.
Tip: stop TRYING. Just write. Allow words pop into your head, without judgement, and without trying to edit. Focus on quantity. You’ll get quality out of it.
2. Mind map from the text you’ve generated, then write, or dictate
Create a mind map from the text you’ve generated. Mind map programs, commercial and free, abound online. Find one, or just mind map by hand.
Put the name of the character you’ve generated in the center of your mind map, and add the information you’ve generated surrounding that center. Mind maps are visual, and your creative self “thinks” visually.
Create more information to add to your mind map. Keep developing text. Interview your main character. Ask her what she likes, dislikes, and why her big problem is so scary. Add this new information to your mind map.
3. Focus on your characters: readers want to know what happens next to your story people
Create more characters. In the Tessy Anne Smith story, you could create Tessy’s boss, the aunt with whom she’s crashing, and her best friend. At this stage, you just want a bunch of people. You can create new characters at any time — feel free to delete characters too.
4. Got the glimmer of a story? Write your BLURB now — it’s your working outline
Once you’ve created a bunch more people, you’ll get the glimmer of a story. Like this:
Tessy Anne’s PR firm is doing the publicity for a “marry a billionaire” reality TV show, and she’s sent along to the set as a researcher. A photographer accompanies Tessy Anne. All she needs to do is interview the show’s producer, and the show’s stars. She finds herself attracted to the billionaire’s business manager.
OK… With this much information, you’ve got enough to write your blurb (book description) for your novel.
Remember: your main character must have a goal which is very important to him or her. It’s a matter of life and death that your main character achieves the goal. In Tessy Anne’s case, she wants to make a success of her internship, and get hired by the PR company, so that she’s no longer homeless. And of course she wants to solve the mystery: who murdered the show’s producer, and why?
Many writers hate writing blurbs. That’s fine. Write anything you like. What you write doesn’t matter. Your novel will differ in many ways from your initial blurb. You’ll update your blurb later. Your blurb helps you to stay on track, so that you remember what your story’s about while you write it. A blurb’s essential, because novels have a tendency to morph, no matter how many outlines you create.
5. Outline the high points (turning points) of your story
Your novel has this basic structure:
- Dark moment
- Climax — think of it as the big bang, the culmination of everything. In a mystery, the climax is always the big reveal: the sleuth unmasks the killer.
Write the structure on an index card, numbering the items from 1 to 5. You may or may not know what happens at those points. You don’t need to know what happens in detail. Currently, I’ve written 60% of the first draft of a novel. I have no clue what the Twist will be, and I don’t care.Within another few thousand words, I’ll have a Twist. For now, I’m focusing on my scenes.
6. Outline your scenes as you write: just one scene, or outline ahead
I know writers who outline each and every scene of a 60-scene novel before they start writing. Kudos to them; I admire and respect them. Unfortunately, outlining so intensively never works for me. I get bored, and I stop caring about the characters.
Here’s my process. When I’m writing the Setup, which is around 25% of a novel: introducing the characters, the situation, and the main character’s big problem, I outline scene by scene — and I use the term “outline” loosely.
All I want to know is:
- Who’s in the scene?
- What’s the main character’s goal for the scene?
- Where does the scene take place?
- What can I do to make the scene memorable — does it take place in an unusual location? Are the characters doing something unexpected?
- (Vital) Why does this scene matter?
Keeping your blurb in mind, by the time you’ve finished the Setup, you’ll begin to get ideas for the Midpoint, and the Twist, which will occur at around the 75% point of the novel.
Outline your way: go with your instincts
On some novels, you may outline each scene intensively. You’ll have an occasional novel which “writes itself” — you just write, and ideas for scenes magically pop into your head. You can’t count on this; it’s lovely when a book takes off. You can forget about outlining and generating text and mind mapping, and just write. For all those times you’re pushing, rather than taking dictation from your creative self, our tips will guide you.
Keep the tips in mind, so that you have more fun with your writing. 🙂
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