All About Novel Outlines

I’m here to talk about outlines - the pros and cons of making an outline before starting a book, different types of outlines you can do, and my experience with them.

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There are many opinions on whether writers should make an outline before writing a single word of a new project. People in the pro-outline category argue that it can frame the structure of your novel ahead of time so you have a roadmap of where the story is going to go. And those in the anti-outline category say that a rigorous outline, or any outline at all, can hinder the flow of the story and hinder creativity.

Let’s discuss those two main arguments. One reason outlines can be helpful is that they set up the story. With an outline, all the major plot decisions are made in advance. You know what will happen to the main characters, what the ending will be, and the rough details of the structure. Without an outline, you may find yourself halfway through the manuscript wondering, now what?!

The negatives to outlining are that if your outline is too rigid, if every single detail is planned in advance, it can be hard to change course. If you get halfway through the manuscript and realize that the way your characters are behaving isn’t in line with what your vision for the story was, it’s really hard to go deviate from the original plan.

Methods of outlining

  • Flashcards - You can outline the plot of each chapter or scene on a notecard. On one side, write the general plot points that happen. Just a few sentences. On the back, you can go into more detail - setting, ideas for dialogue, more detailed plot points.

  • Excel - If you’d rather use the computer to plan out your novel, do a similar activity as the flashcard method. In one column, list the chapter. In the next column, list the scene. And in the third column, make general notes about what should happen in that scene. Do this for as many scenes as you need to in order to outline that chapter.

For a deep dive into outlining and to see more methods (and outline templates!), check out https://blog.reedsy.com/how-to-outline-a-book/. It’s one of the most comprehensive resources I’ve seen.

My experience with outlining

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When I started Hidden Lake, I was so excited about the story that I didn’t bother to do any outlining. I simply began writing from the point of view of one of the characters. And I had a rough idea of what I wanted the story to be about, so I assumed that was enough and that I’d figure it out as I went along.

About one-third of the way through, I came across my first major stumbling block. I needed to decide whether to keep my plans for three points-of-view or only have two. A big issue, right? And because I hadn’t planned it ahead of time, I had no idea what to do. I already had a really good chunk written, and I loved it, but I felt stuck. An outline would have alleviated this problem. (Eventually, I decided to scrap the plans for a third point-of view. It just felt more like the story I wanted to tell.)

Are there any writers out there who’ve used an outline?  Tell me all about your experience!