Writing a Novel: Outlining

Writer’s block. Probably the scariest phrase ever. You want to write. You need to write. But the words/ideas aren’t coming.

I used writer’s block as my excuse over and over for not focusing and for not finishing any story I started. Then I began researching how to overcome it. At first I found the same boring stuff I’d heard before… take a break, relax, do some mindless chore around the house to free up your brain…

But none of those suggestions had ever worked for me.

Then I got to the good stuff – outlining.

Writer’s block defeated?

I found more and more writers recommending outlining as a way to defeat writer’s block. After all, it’s difficult to get stuck if you already know where you’re going, right?

I can’t leave my book’s plot up to inspiration alone, that plan has failed me too many times. I need a road map. I need to create every landmark, and I need to make sure I have a clean and interesting path from word one to “THE END”.

So how do you outline a novel?

There are numerous ways to outline your story. From my research over the last few weeks it seems there’s a new method named almost every single week (Snowflake Method, Flashlight Outlining, Structure-Plus).

I’ve only mentioned a few below, but a Google search for “novel outline method” will provide nearly endless reading on the subject. And you probably won’t know which will work best for you until you try a few methods.

Index Cards

Scrivener's Corkboard

Scrivener’s Corkboard Window

You can write individual notes or scenes as they come to you on index cards. Then rearrange and add scenes until you have a giant stack of cards representing every beat of your plot. This is similar to the Expanding Snowflake or Skeletal methods. You continue to add individual elements, fleshing out your broad strokes with more and more detail.

I highly recommend using the popular writing software Scrivener and their corkboard layout to create and organize these cards. Scrivener’s corkboard is similar to using physical index cards, but it’s digital. Less waste, easily backed up, and you can just click and drag cards to rearrange them. You can also double-click on any card to begin writing that specific scene the moment inspiration hits.

Point Methods

Then there are “point” methods. Like, the Seven Point Story Structure used by author Dan Wells (and many others), or the much more stringent 27 Point Story Structure floating around YouTube. With the point methods, you outline your novel knowing that a certain thing has to happen at a certain point. For example, the Seven Point Story Structure says you need:

  • Hook
  • Plot Turn I
  • Pinch I
  • Midpoint
  • Pinch II
  • Plot Turn II
  • Resolution

This makes it easy for writers to know where various plot elements need to happen in their story. If you have an idea for a great pinch, but you aren’t sure what should happen before and after that, the Seven Point Story Structure will help you build your plot around that initial spark.

The point methods here evolved from the oldest and most traditional outlining method, The Three-Act Structure, which simply defines the beginning, the middle, and the end of your story.

The Detailed Synopsis

Picture the blurb on the back of any book, those two or three paragraphs that describe how the story starts and what it’s about. That’s a synopsis. Now write one of those for your story, but instead of finishing with a tease, go ahead and spoil the ending. Write it, so you know where your story is going.

And you’re not just limited to the two or three paragraphs that fit on the back of any book. Go ahead and write two or three paragraphs for each chapter. The more detail you add to your synopsis, the easier it’ll be when it comes time to write.

How I wrote my outline…

I started with the Seven Point Story Structure. It sounded like just enough of a guide to help me organize my story, but not so detailed as to kill all creativity. Once I had a basic layout of the seven points, I started expanding them and filling in the scenes between the major beats.

This eventually turned into a detailed synopsis with one to three paragraphs for each chapter. Not spectacular prose, but a dry, mini-first draft. As an example, here are the two paragraphs describing what is currently chapter five:

On ADRIANA’s first day of community service at the Adult Learning Center she’s told her class comes with a stipend for supplies, which is the first good news she’s heard all day as she immediately plans to bring her old materials from home and pocket the cash stipend.

Before class she meets a few of the other instructors in the building, eventually befriending some – a psychologist leading a Living with Depression group, a musician teaching beginner chords to pimple-faced teens after school, a washed-up novelist helping housewives write their memoirs or thinly-veiled erotica – a few of these instructors are also completing community service (and everyone’s skimming a little bit of the stipend, which makes Adriana feel better about going whole hog on it), while others volunteer out of boredom.

That’s enough to give me a good idea of how this chapter will play out. I know the location (Adult Learning Center), the characters involved (mainly Adriana, but also introducing a few minor recurring characters), and the action that takes place (planning to steal the stipend, getting to know the other instructors, and beginning her first class to work off her community service hours).

When I get to this part of my book in a few months, I’ll be able to quickly dive into my writing and make that chapter come alive.

Plotters vs Pantsers

Outlining may not work for everyone, some writers love to let their characters and their story worlds discover conflict and plot all on their own. They like to be surprised by where their characters take them.

But I’ve tried that. And I’ve always gotten stuck.

I want to know where my characters and story are going so that I can foreshadow properly and drop clues into action scenes (where they won’t be easily recognized). I want to make sure my character’s darkest moment is right before her triumph, not six chapters too early. And to achieve these things without massive time-wasting rewrites, I have to outline.

If writing by the seat of your pants works for you, awesome! But it hasn’t for me, so if you find yourself struggling with writer’s block, or just losing interest in your own stories, give outlining a shot. Maybe it’ll help you too!