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To outline or not to outline. That is the question. Is it better to create a plan or just cliff-dive into the rough seas of novel writing?  Some writers will tell us they never start a novel until they have ten scenes plotted on a timeline with character sketches for the primary characters. Others will say they never intend to start a new novel at all. The story just happens. 

No matter how they do or do not plan, a novice cannot duplicate a pro’s success by copying his planning techniques. Study established authors to understand what they write and why, not how they planned to write it. You must create your own plan that works within your personal writing environment. 

At the highest level, a plan will guide authors and remind them of important story elements. The moments can be metaphorical, suggest types of real situations to create, or contain actual story description and dialogue. How extensive should an outline be? The answer depends on the author. 

Let’s begin this discussion by looking at some of the advantages of planning: 

  • During planning writers become inspired and creativity wakes up. When a novel is planned, many different ideas and creative juices start flowing.
  • Equate planning to thinking about. When planning something like a birthday party or a family trip, one is thinking about it, getting excited, organizing, sorting out details, preparing.  
  • A plan can shorten the time an author spends actually writing a novel because what’s coming next is already known.
  • It helps with research because an author generally knows the details being sought.
  • A plan helps with plot pacing.
  • There is an opportunity to see problems in future work before they potentially become difficult to redirect. 
  • Finally a plan can help with writer’s block because, once again, next steps are already in place.

There is nothing more comforting than having some kind of roadmap when the going gets tough, especially for new authors. This is the primary reason I encourage a plan but I don't recommend an author do more detailed planning than necessary – not if the author doesn't find it useful. 

Let’s look at a few outlining models and how they help with planning.

A structured outline is the most common methodology used by writers today. It is also the most restrictive to the writing process, leaving little room for changing the original character and plot design. You may still painfully remember being taught its inner workings in grammar school. Structured outlines contain detailed written descriptions of individual scenes as it progresses in a linear fashion through a novel. It is the exact reason so many writers hate outlining. Such structured methodologies create a dump truck full of details and suck the fun right out of writing.

The three-act methodology is one of the best approaches for writers who are more concerned with structure than the specifics of character or plot, although this method does allow the opportunity to be very specific about them. The structure relies on the basic beginning, middle, and end format the reader is most familiar with in storytelling. Based on the structure of the theater, the first quarter of the novel establishes setting, time period, conflict, characters, goals, and quest. Act two is the fifty percent in the middle where the reader expects rising action and increasing stakes. The third act in the final quarter of the story where strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are resolved.

The snowflake method offers the writer some useful tools for brainstorming, allowing them a bit more creativity within its structure. The basic idea here is, to begin with, a one-sentence summary of the book followed by a paragraph-long summary. Each sentence in the one-paragraph plot summary is expanded into its own paragraph. Each of these paragraphs, in turn, is expanded into individual scenes. At the same time, the author summarizes each of the main characters by listing their name, personal features, storyline appearances, goals, conflicts, etc. These continue to expand into full-blown character sheets.

If a writer is somewhat resistant to general outlining processes, the signpost methodology may be better suited for their needs. The writer fills in placeholders which briefly note the types of scenes needed including the characters, setting, and a general idea of what happens in each scene but not necessarily all of the details. The writer lays the groundwork for the basics up front then develops the nuances of each scene in the drafting stage.

Lastly, some writers simply do not want to or are unable to outline. Some brains are just not wired to be “structured”. Those who prefer to write by the seat of their pants are lovingly called pantsers.  Although pantsers play in the land of Nod where anything goes, many trick themselves into creating a kind of pseudo outline by writing what’s called a zero or discovery draft. This is too unstructured to be a true first draft even though pantsers believe it is their best initial attempt. However, many times it is remarkably more extensive and detailed than the above outlines. In fact, it can run to 100 or 200 pages. If a new writer follows this loose methodology it should be written quickly. It is permissible to skip entire swathes of the actual story replaced by rough idea notes of what should occur, such as “something happens here” or “somehow they get out of the building.”

An outline can come in practically any shape and format as we’ve seen. It can be a short step-by-step plan or a detailed piece of work with extensive descriptions of all major events and characters.  Make your outline selection based on whatever is appropriate for your specific style, level of patience, detail requirements, comfort, etc. Don’t go overboard on planning, but do plan smart. Vivid understanding and visualization of your novel’s piece/parts are critical to your novel. 

We’ve only touched on a few outlining methodologies here. For more details of the methodologies above and a thousand more, simply Google “writing outlines” for more information and ways to document a novel.


by Paul Hollis  (TopShelf Columnist)

Twitter @HollowManSeries / TheHollowManSeries.com