Writing Tips: How to Outline Your Novel

Getting ready for NaNo? Do you get stuck with your writing sometimes? My second episode for Writerly Wednesdays deals with outlining!

Everything that I do as part of my outlining process should be changed to suit your individual needs. Now, this probably isn’t something you want to hear. Don’t fret! I, just like most people, wanted a magic formula to getting my story on paper. One single method that would be the answer to all my prayers.

I didn’t find it.

Or, rather, I found it in a way I didn’t expect.

I’m not sure how many books on the writing craft that I’ve read, because I’ve been reading them since I was a teenager (and I didn’t have Goodreads back then to keep track). But there was one common thing I found among all of the books that I read:

No two methods are the same.

Granted, there are a lot that are very similar. What this epiphany did for me was to make me realize that my method won’t be like any one of theirs.

You need to adapt. Your method has to be just that, your method. Trial and error may suck, and reading books on outlining will definitely give you a better idea of what you need to do, but one size does not fit all. And this is a good thing. What if every book in the world were written in the same structured outline (oh but Vivien, that’s the three-act structure…I know, just go with it okay!)? We would get tired of that repetitive pacing. We wouldn’t like reading about the same five basic characters in every story.

We like different. We want every story we read to be, in some way, unique. Therefore, I think your process to outlining must also be unique.

Alright, rant over! Focus Vivien!

If you would rather see me chat about my method, watch the video below!

First things first: find out of you’re a plotter or a pantser! Most likely if you’re in this post, you think you’re a plotter. A pantser is someone who comes up with a general idea for their story and immediately sits down to write the story. I thought this was me for a very long time and boy, was I wrong! You don’t, or most likely aren’t, 100% of either one. I don’t map out every single detail before I write, but I definitely have to do a lot of plotting. I’d say that I’m about 80% plotter, 20% pantser. If I get stuck while I’m writing, I tend to make a few more detailed notes about that chapter. Sometimes that’s just what I need to get out of my rut.

Here are the things I do in my outlining process. You can feel free to change whatever you want to, however you want. You’re the one that’s going to be writing your story, not me!

  1. One paragraph. That’s the absolute first thing I do. A lot of times this ends up happening on my phone because an idea will pop into my head when I’m in random places. I make a quick note of it then, and then expand upon it later. Also, this paragraph tends to get written first thing in the morning (or in the middle of the night) when I have a crazy long dream about something that no normal person should be dreaming about.
    This paragraph should consist of the main idea of your story and how it ends. Mine typically have notes about strange aliens or brainwashed people that live in that world…the world of my head that is. Vivien’s World! VivWorld! Viworld! Eh, that’s just not working…
  2. Expand that paragraph! That lonely one paragraph entry might sit in my phone for quite some time before I get around to plotting it out some more. But, in that time I still think about the story and map things out in my head. I seriously get the best ideas at the most random times and the longer I go in the plotting time, the deeper the story gets. Anyway! Expand your paragraph into the dreaded five paragraph essay structure. Here’s how I typically do it:
    1. The beginning. What is the protagonist’s world like? What do they do in an ordinary day? Who is in their family? Most importantly, what do they care about? I think that last part is especially important for establishing early on, otherwise it can be difficult to sympathize with the protagonist.
    2. Something terrible happens. I know, that’s vague. Hold your horses! By about the 25% mark of a story (this is the latest I think it should happen…my current WIP starts off at about the 10% mark) something absolutely terrible – or awesome – should happen to your character. In mine, someone dies. This problem should project your character out of their comfort zone in search of something. By the end of your novel, you want this first event to be something that started a chain of change for your protagonist! Your character should grow and evolve from the start of this one terrible/awesome event. Why do I say awesome as well? Think Harry Potter and his glorious letter.
    3. Hope renews all! After your character learns about whatever terrible problems they have in life, the story arc comes back up to give hope to your protagonist. They befriend people, they learn new skills, they’re given a pep talk by someone of importance to them. Your character develops a plan of attack, so to speak, and amasses the means to carry it out.
    4. Something really really terrible happens. Way worse than before. This is when the twist happens! In my video I say this happens at about the 75% mark. I think this is the earliest it should happen. A lot of novels have this occur at about the 90% mark and quickly wrap things up from there. It all depends on the pacing of your story, so my suggestions are just that: suggestions. This really really terrible thing squashes all of your characters hopes and dreams for ever getting what they want. The world has been metaphorically turned upside down and they’re falling to their doom. Someone they trust betrayed them, someone really really close (and important) to them dies and now they can’t get out of their predicament, or the protagonist is the one that dies. I don’t know…that last one might have been a bit harsh.
    5. Wrap up. This is where we come back up in our emotional rollercoaster. In some way, the character has prevailed over an important issue in their life. It doesn’t have to be the biggest issue in the book (in Harry Potter, Voldemort doesn’t die in the first one), but it’s a pretty big hurdle for them. They’re changed along the way and so are their closest friends. The characters can now breath a sigh of relief! But, you know, not too much if we plan on ruining their lives with a couple of sequels.
  3. World build! Now that the big ideas have been laid out, it’s time to get to know the region your people will be staying in. This can be a lot, or it can be a little, depending on the type of book you have. A fantasy novel might take a lot of time to map out, depending on how deep you need to go. A contemporary novel set in Tallahassee, FL will be loads easier to “build.” Even if the setting in your novel is familiar to you, take some time and brainstorm the places your characters hang out. Where do they go to school or work? Where is their house in relation to this place? Where do they go with friends? Where do the really bad/good things happen? This stage is where you can go back in your five-paragraph outline and pinpoint where each event occurs.
  4. Get to know your babies! I mean…your characters. Same thing. This is my absolute favorite part of outlining because I go crazy with it. Next week I will be going more in depth with this topic so I won’t say much here just yet. But do what you have to to nail down who each one of your characters are. Yes, supporting characters too. Especially, actually. The best of stories have you emotionally attached – not to just one character, but to them all.
  5. Scrivener. My last tip is to try out this awesome program. They have a free 30-day trial for everyone, and an added extended trial for those participating in NaNoWriMo as well (a post typically goScreenshot 2015-10-21 17.39.54es up on the NaNo forums with information on this at the beginning of the month). I love that you can enter a distraction-free writing mode. You can have a plain black background, or you can put up an inspiring picture! I have a cave in my background for my current WIP. Get to know this program because it’s literally an all-in-one place for your writing needs. I keep pictures, websites, videos, character spreadsheets, world-building notes, and my writing in one place. The days of me having a thousand files in one project folder are over! Oh. Ver.

Another helpful thing that I actually didn’t include in my video is laying
everything out. Literally. Put each one of your key events onto a notecard and put them in order. I do this virtually with Scrivener, but you can do it physically as well. This becomes especially helpful when you’re rearranging things later (we all do it), and helps you visualize the overall arc of your story. You can actually color-code your events in Scrivener to know what character is speaking in which chapter, or what phase that chapter is in for your editing purposes. The sky is the limit!

An awesome source for outlining is The Better Novel Project. It’s run by a woman, Christine, who analyzed three different popular YA novels and found some really interesting things they had in common. She analyzed Twilight, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. Now, you might be thinking…those three books have nothing in common! Trust me. Go to that website because they have a lot in common! It’s kind of shocking. Not kind of. It just is.


Let me know what you lovelies are doing to prepare! Have you found your method of outlining yet or are you going to try something new this time?

3 thoughts on “Writing Tips: How to Outline Your Novel

  1. Pingback:How to Write the First Chapter – A Great Opening

  2. Pingback:How To Permanently Defeat Your Writer’s Block (a formula anyone can follow) – Vivien Reis

  3. Question: I am writing a fiction book about an object that takes the person in present time that finds it back progressively back in time. Would starting the first chapter with him back in his chosen time period be better or would it be better to start with the event that caused the object to take its owner back to that time period.

    By the way, I stumbled across your videos on scrivner and am enjoying them very much….very good and interesting.

    Thank you,

    Mark

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