Finding the Novel Outlining Process that Works for You
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There’s nothing more nebulous than trying to produce a decent outline for your novel.
With dozens of outlining methods to choose from, all of which seem to work well for some writers but not for others, defining the outlining process that works best for you and your stories can be more than a little intimidating. How much detail do you need to include? Is outlining really necessary? Isn't there a better way?
Writers, it's time to cut through the chaos and get down to business. Let's find the outlining method that works best for each of us in today's breakdown!
The Key to Creating a Powerful Outline
Outlines are tools authors create to help them write better first drafts. So when it comes to creating an outline that lends power and purpose to your drafting process, it helps to first understand what your drafting process is.
If you have absolutely no idea what your personal drafting process looks like, have no fear. We recently covered this topic in depth here on the blog. Catch the article now before diving back into today’s breakdown!
All set? It’s worth reiterating that all drafting processes are unique. What works for one writer may not work for another, and the same principle holds true for outlining. There is no right way to outline a novel, and no single outlining process is better than another.
What matters most is that the outlining method you pursue helps you draft with clarity and confidence rather than leaving you feeling bored or fumbling around in the dark. Some writers may not even need an outline, preferring instead to work on a draft zero — otherwise known as a discovery draft.
Keep in mind, however, that the right outline for your creative process isn’t simply defined by your outlook on outlines. Many writers dislike the outlining process itself, despite the fact that having an actual outline helps them write better first drafts.
So rather than making rash decisions about outlining, consider the struggles you typically face when drafting a novel. Do you often get stuck in the messy middle or struggle to wrap up your plot? Do you find yourself frequently restarting your draft or growing bored with the story you’re telling? Creating an outline can help you solve all these issues and more, but not all outlines are created equal...
Four Popular Outlining Methods…
There are many different ways to outline a novel. Keep in mind, we’re not talking about the various story structures you can use to map out your stories’ major beats or the many outlining styles and mediums (e.g. bullet-point lists, the alphanumeric style, outlining software, etc.) you can employ.
We’re talking specifically about the many outlining methods you can utilize, which are mostly defined by the level of depth they encourage and the process by which they are created. Not sure what I mean? Here’s a quick breakdown of four popular outlining methods frequently used by fiction writers:
1. The Synopsis Outline.
Many writers find that creating a one- to two-page synopsis provides the perfect balance of structure and flexibility in an outline. A traditional synopsis includes all of a story’s major beats — the hook, inciting incident, major plot points, midpoint, climactic sequence, and resolution — without going into so much depth as to make the drafting process seem clinical.
If you crave the creative discovery of a draft zero but know that writing without any sort of outline will only leave you lost or overwhelmed, utilizing a synopsis may just be the right choice for you. Learn how to write a synopsis by clicking here.
2. The In-Depth Outline
Need as much help as you can get when drafting? Don’t be afraid to create an in-depth outline that summarizes each individual chapter or scene in your book.
As someone who dislikes drafting and prefers to write the rough draft as quickly as possible, creating an in-depth outline has proven extremely helpful to me. And when I say in-depth, I mean in-depth. My most recent outline wrapped up at a whopping 10,460 words.
You can read more about my personal outlining process by clicking here.
3. The Snowflake Method
Created by Randy Ingermanson, The Snowflake Method is an extremely popular outlining method that sees you expanding your story idea little by little until you’ve created not only an outline of your story’s plot, but gained a strong understanding of your characters, settings, themes, and more.
I haven’t personally given this method a try as I’ve already discovered a method of outlining that works well with my creative process, but given how many writers enjoy this method, I absolutely think it should be considered. Learn more by clicking here.
4. The BookEnd Method.
Are you fond of a lot of wiggle room when drafting? You may enjoy the Bookend method, in which you “bookend” your novel by mapping out where you want your story to begin and end while choosing to discover the journey from Point A to Point B in drafting.
To use this method effectively, you’ll need to have a strong understanding of the type of story you want to tell. Take time to define your story’s premise, as discussed in the section below, before getting started.
With your premise defined, you should have enough information to map out your story’s exposition and resolution while still retaining the freedom to do a little discovery drafting in between.
Think you’ve discovered an outlining method that may work well with your creative process? Don’t dive in just yet! First, it’s time to discuss a few tips and tricks that can help you make the most of your outlining experience.
Tips for Outlining Your Novel
Outlining shouldn’t be the first step you take toward pre-writing your novel. Discovering and defining the following elements before getting started can help you take the overwhelming process of figuring out your story’s plot and turn it into yet another purposeful, powerful process. (Baby steps. Right, writers?)
1. Develop Your Premise.
A story’s premise is typically a single paragraph that answers the following core questions:
Who is the protagonist?
What is their goal?
How do they plan to achieve their goal?
What disaster will throw your protagonist off balance?
Who or what will oppose them?
What is the core conflict?
Defining the answers to these questions before outlining can help you map out a strong understanding of what steps your protagonist and antagonist will take, thus making the process of defining your story’s plot points a lot simpler.
Need an example? Here’s the premise for my current work-in-progress, Lady Legacy:
"With her medical training complete, ambitious healer Clíana Godtric (protagonist) sets out to become a world-renowned physician by earning a commission at royal court (goal).
But when her first prominent patient dies mysteriously within her care (disaster), Clíana must salvage her legacy by mending the heart of a grief-stricken prince, quelling the suspicions (core external conflict) of his superstitious companion (opposition), and finding the cure to a strange and deadly power taking root within her (core internal conflict)."
Using this premise, I can easily map out the steps Clíana will take to achieve her goal, how the core conflicts will affect the story’s internal and external arcs, and how the antagonist will work to undermine Clíana’s fight to achieve her legacy.
2. Find the right framework and structure.
With your premise mapped out, it’s time to consider how you will frame your story. Is it a story best told in a single linear point-of-view, or would a different framework better enable your story to unfold?
If you have a clear framework in mind, you can then search for the story structure that will best help you map out your story’s major beats. Examples of popular story structures include:
Working with a story structure allows you to create a strong sense of pacing and develop powerful storytelling beats that will give your story a sense of masterful plotting.
3. Define your characters.
Character drives plot. That doesn’t mean all plots are character-driven; many do indeed focus on an external journey far more than an internal one. But it’s your characters’ actions that will define where your plot heads next, and you can’t very well know what actions your characters will take if you don’t first know your characters.
Before outlining your story, I recommend getting to know as much about your story’s main characters — the protagonist, antagonist, and any major secondary characters — as you can. If any character affects your plot in a prominent way, take the time to first understand who they are.
Here are some resources to help you get started:
Once you’ve outlined these three elements, you’re ready to write — your outline, that is. Unless of course, you’re a discovery writer who finds that outlines only serve to weigh you down. Remember, there is no right way to write a novel. No right way to outline, to draft, to edit, or to build a writing career.
At the end of the day, do what’s best for your stories and your creative process. It may take some time and a little exploration to discover what works best for you, but I promise it will be worth the trouble when you find your writing groove. So go forth and conquer your next outline, writer. I'll be right here to cheer you on!