Novel Writing: Planning (part 2a)

Last time we touched the surface of developing your idea further: this time we’ll be going deeper into plot development by talking about outlines. So how do you use your brainstormed scenes and characters and make a solid, polished plot? Join me after the cut for an illustrated guide on outlining!

I’ve found outlining an extremely helpful and powerful tool when it comes to writing a novel. How much you like to use it and how detailed you prefer to get depends on your writing style and habits. There’s not much else to say: try it out and see if you like it! Only one thing needs to be noted about the usage of outlines: don’t let them restrict you. I’ve heard this a lot from people who resent planning, but honestly, I’ve never experienced it. Outlines aren’t rulebooks: they aren’t set in stone and nobody’s going to hit you over the head if you stray from them. An outline is a lifeline: your saviour when you’re about to drown, but left on the deck when nobody needs it. Outlines provide you with guidance and goals whenever you feel lost in your story, but don’t worry about them when you feel adventurous or experimental.

With that out of the way, let’s dive straight into making an outline.

First, cut up some pieces of paper large enough to write about 3-5 words on (you shouldn’t need more than that), make sure you’ve got a handful.

Next up, take a pen or pencil, sit down and start writing plot points. Go through all the little ideas you’ve had: this is the place for those flashy, cinematic scenes you were thinking up while listening to music and all the other little bits of plot you’ve already got. Also take forth any notes and/or mind maps you have made and go through them. Write down all the plot points you had there. You don’t need to do this in any order, and you can feel free to make up new ideas and fill in any holes you notice. If you have any concepts or doubts, write them down too, just put them in a separate pile.

Now comes the fun part! Lay out all of the plot points you have (but don’t put away the empty bits of paper yet) and start arranging them. Try out different orders, don’t worry about “getting it right”. Experiment: nothing is written in stone! Add and remove plot points as you please, fill in more gaps and remember to think of characters as you do this. If you already have ideas for supporting characters, use them! Also think about what your main characters would do in these situations, and what other plot points you can make based off of these decisions.

Once you have found the perfect order of plot points, you’re done! Fasten them onto a board, paper or the wall (I use Blu-Tack for this). That other pile, with the questions, alternate versions and doubts? Put those underneath the outline and let your mind work on them. Once you figure out what to do you’ll either throw them away or work them into your outline. Remember that you can always go back and add more plot points or remove old ones.

You can still do a few little tweaks if you want to: you can mark the beginnings of acts. Act 1 is the beginning and the introduction of the problem your novel centers around. It’s also the time to introduce the world and the main character to the reader (although be wary of too much exposition). Act 2 shows your characters struggle to resolve the main problem: subplots, challenges, failures and victories all lie in the second act. Act 3 contains the buildup, climax and resolution of the novel. If you have a different way of defining acts use them your way – the outline is for yourself after all.

You can also mark different subplots or character arcs with different colours and plan the tension level of each scene by numbering them (1-5, 1-10, whatever you’re used to). You don’t have to do this, just like marking the acts is not something you can’t live without – it’s just something I’ve found helpful doing myself.

Next time we’ll go through characters: where to start, how to build them and how to write them. Until then, good luck with your outlines and writing!

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2 Responses to Novel Writing: Planning (part 2a)

  1. I usually do my outlines on the computer, like how they taught in school, with templates and insets/subpoints, etc. But this makes sense based on the mind map, brainstorming web thing. Each bubble from that map goes on a piece of paper to arrange on the wall. I’ve never tried this before with planning a story, but I’ve done it in revision–cutting out each paragraph from the printed page and rearranging it so it goes in the right place. Thanks for the suggestion!

    • mephetti says:

      Your revision idea sounds interesting, I’ll have to try that sometime! Somehow I tend to feel more at home with the actual paper, scissors and a red pen in my hand than staring at the computer screen (ironic considering how much time I spend on this thing!) Outlining by hand has a different atmosphere than doing it digitally; both are definitely worth a try :)

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