The Art of Outlining Novels

Outlining is a process pushed onto young writers (mostly college kids) from day one. Why do teachers suggest it? Because it works…sometimes.

I have found that most writers have completely different approaches to “outlining.” Personally, my loyalty to the task is iffy at most, though I do understand the advantages of having a road map to help keep you motivated, organized, and writing.

Plot & Premise

In the past, I spoke on plot vs. premise. One thing I’ve learned from writing long-form stuff is that, if you are unable to pitch your idea (to the mirror or someone else) in 30 words, you’re in for trouble.

Is this our plot or premise?

Is this our plot or premise?

The “premise,” in this sense, is the tagline of a novel, the “In a World” movie trailer. The premise is usually not the plot of your novel. It’s more like, “John Doe suffers through post-apocalyptic helicopter training just as militant aliens invade.”

Maybe not the best example, but you get the idea. Then we have our plot and, for outlining’s sake, I recommend writing down everything you think should or may happen in your story. The plot becomes the one-page brainstorm whereas the premise is the subtitle.

I’m not saying you need to have a plot summary or premise on a sticky note on your forehead, it’s just helpful. I did not have a clear idea of where I was headed with my book and suffered for it, though the lack of planning undoubtedly sparked some unwarranted creativity and unexpected genius (if I do say so myself).

The “Story Goal”

I’ve heard of story goals before from teachers (not professors) and can see the benefit. The story goal is typically what you want to do with your main character(s). Here are a few possible examples:

  • The outcast tries to re-win his place in society.
  • An ex-girlfriend sabotages her presidential lover.
  • Three friends find something they shouldn’t and learn the true meaning of “pal.”

The story goal may overlap with the premise, but I sense an even better way to use the vague, general outline of a character’s trajectory.

Character Trajectory

Possibly before outlining (or “step” outlining, you screenwriters), I find it helps to have a decent idea of where each of my main characters are going and their potential use in a story.

Taking the 2nd example from “Story Goal,” let’s say our main character (Martha) is going to break out of prison, hitchhike herself across the country, infiltrate a media outfit, and mail herself into the White House. With this in mind, we can start brainstorming obstacles and side characters, such as:

Not this kind of trajectory.

Not this kind of trajectory.

  • Martha’s sidekick who is actually in love with her but she doesn’t see it.
  • The “ex” (i.e. the prez) who is too focused on work to notice Martha is coming after him.
  • The Homeland Security agent who believes the nation is in danger, though no one else believes him.

This can go on and on, of course, and you’ll likely discover more characters as you write Martha’s story.

Do I comply by this method? Not really, though it would have helped me through my first few projects. Now, however, I do have a clear idea of my character’s motivations, quirks, and plot trajectories. I had to touch them up time and time again because I didn’t outline, something I hope you consider doing.

Outlining

I consider myself a loose, fluid, go-with-the-flow writer. This conflicts with my highly structuralized projects, though I did find a healthy medium to keep me organized: Outlining as I go.

Keeping track of my story as I go is the best of both worlds. On one hand, I’m able to monitor what’s going on, maintain the tempo and pace, and make sure characters are moving forward. If I don’t, I could wind up on a huge plot tangent that has nothing to do with my story.

On the other hand, lazy outlining lets me write on without personal expectations. When I know exactly how a scene or section will end I find myself stuck somewhere in the middle, trying to figure out how to get there.

Is this the best method? Far from it. It’s just what I prefer to do.

Formal Outlining

I have, on occasion, created formal outlines for various projects. I go scene-by-scene, leaving notes of what might happen (a good way to not forget anything). This gives my writing sessions a start and finish point.

The cool thing about outlining is that there’s no set structure to it. I use legal pads and eventually transfer the info into bullet points at the bottom of my manuscript (or in a separate file called “Notes”).

Creating a formal, in-depth outline seems as useful as it is dangerous. To think out this issue, here are my outlining pros and cons:

Pros:

  • You can write full steam ahead without having that, “Where do I go from here?” mid-book crisis.
  • It keeps you organized.
  • Formal outlines force you to fully think out the broad strokes of a story before writing thousands of off-the-wall words.

Cons:

  • Responsible writers may get stuck sticking to the outline instead of using their imagination.
  • Predicting the story is much harder than it seems.
  • What you write in the outline may never come to pass.

The third con isn’t the end of the world, however. I see outlines as novel-centric road maps that are meant to guide you through the process, not direct you.

I guess this conversation leads me to a question I love to ask writers: Do you outline?

About Brennan Reid (100 Articles)
I'm Illinois born, Indiana educated, and writing for a living in Missouri.

3 Comments on The Art of Outlining Novels

  1. Sorry, I do not comment much on your blog. I do read it, though. I am not a writer. I play with flash fiction once in a while. My partner is a writer and has been working on his “story” for a couple years. He recently put up an outline on the bulletin board behind his desk. So, yes some of us do use an outline.
    As I said, I read you posts and find them very interesting and helpful. I would love to write and I play with it in my journal all the time.

  2. That’s great to hear! The physical note cards, bulletin board outlines, and other tools writers use are always intriguing. I think it was Faulkner who wrote outlines on his walls in pen.

  3. I personally haven’t outlined in a very long time. I recently have been writing mostly flash fiction and short stories, so I haven’t really needed to use outlines for them – I just let my character take me where he/she wants to take me.

    For a larger project, though, that I do plan on working on sometime in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future I can see where outlining would come in handy. The way I look at it, though, as something that isn’t so restricting; rather, it’s a way to get what I want to at least consider happening before I actually get to it. If it doesn’t fit, then I find something else that does, and so on. Though this is very good advice! Thank you!

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