I’ve written a variety of novel manuscripts over the years, many during the noveling month of November. My typical approach to writing is commonly referred to as “flying by the seat of your pants,” and although this may work in short doses, it is much harder to sustain in novel form.
In the past I avoided the traditional outline, with its spontaneity-crushing fascism, convinced it was a tool used by only the most mad or tortured of authors, chained to their writing desks and forced to retroactively outline their novels as cruel punishment by their publishing companies (who were probably stumped as to how to market their books, hence the need for said outline). However, I came to realize—while plotting my most recent novel—that writing something as large as a novel truly requires adopting some method of outlining.
As an outline hater, I did my best to create a painless process that would both enable me to see where my entire novel was going in one fell swoop and still leave the door open for spontaneous changes and writerly fun, like incorporating random characters named by friends or having zombies attack in the middle of an epic battle of pirates vs. ninjas. Having completed Ninjas of the 512 as a direct result of creating this new take on the sad old outline, I’m now an outlining convert, here to preach to you about all the ways this method will save your novel’s soul.
First of all, if you’re anything like I was in my pre-outlining days, you currently believe that outlines are those drab sheets your high school English teacher foisted upon you for essay writing purposes, back in 10th grade. You’re supposed to write your thesis statement, and branch out from there with follow-up sentences that help support your over-arching argument, right?
When outlining your novel, the goal is certainly to start with a one-sentence summary of the plot, in order to solidify your mind’s wanderings. But after that, it’s chaos in motion, baby.
To best outline your novel, do write down that one-liner that best conveys your story’s plot (i.e. for Ninjas of the 512 I wrote “Pirates and Ninjas face off in a no-holds-barred battle of good vs. evil — who will win?!”, which is more of a question than a sentence, but that’s okay, too).
Once you’ve got that under control, start making a list.
A list? But that’s not an outline!
Isn’t it? Think about it: you’ve got some ideas you definitely want to incorporate into the story. You’re not quite sure how they’ll all add up, or how you’ll connect the dots, but you want them all in there. How best to capture these disparate elements, other than listing?
So then I’ve got stuff like:
These are all elements I wanted to incorporate into my story, each of which served as a reminder to me when I was running low on steam. Throw in the wild, the crazy, the weird, the sane, the insane, the stuff that even you don’t really understand what you meant when you scribbled it down off the top of your head. Everything and anything. Get it all down on paper. The more specific an image, the better.
Next, see if you’ve got a few actual plot points in your list. Maybe you have something like “Pirates and Ninjas battle at Town Lake” or “Ninja training center reveals the leader of the group is really so-and-so’s boyfriend.” Start arranging those on your paper, in an order that seems to make sense.
As you arrange your plot points, you may think of others. Write ’em all down as you go, and keep moving them around until they seem coherent. Remember, you can always change the order if things crop up in the story to throw off your timeline.
Once you’ve got your outline from A to Z, taking your characters on a journey of some kind (this can be an actual journey, as in a quest, or a metaphorical journey, if they’re soul-searching or coming-of-age or something hyphenated like that), be sure you’ve got a few plot points that involve your main characters getting their asses kicked. Again, this could be entirely metaphorical; perhaps your character is just engaging in negative thinking, or is turned down for a date. On the other hand, maybe your character ends up on the business end of a baseball bat, or sets out to fight a Big Bad that he can’t really handle, and his ass is quite literally handed to him on a plate.
Why beat up your characters? Because you need CONFLICT. No conflict? No story.
Intersperse many small conflicts with your various plot points, and you’ll start to see how your outline is going to save your soul. (Or, perhaps more correctly, your hero’s butt.)
Once you’ve got conflicts, you need resolutions. Make sure you have a few points that show your hero getting out of a jam, or rebounding from those conflicts you’ve set up. At the very end of the outline, you have two options:
- Tie everything up in a nice neat bow, or
- Leave the reader dangling as a set-up for the next book in your series.
Both have their own charms; please choose your own adventure as you see fit. Keep in mind that you will likely change your mind as you come to the end of actually writing your novel, throwing out a totally random, unexpected ending instead of the first one that came to you. This is completely acceptable.
Get it? Got it? Good. That, in a nutshell, is how to write up a nearly painless, rather entertaining little outline for your next novel or non-academic endeavor.