How to outline a book without killing the fun of writing it

Do you write with an outline? I was asked this by another writer at a book event last weekend. ‘I like outlines,’ she said, ‘and I don’t like them. I want to know where I’m going. But if I make a scene-by-scene breakdown, I find I’m not interested in writing the complete book.’

I thought it was worth a post.

Because I believe outlines don’t have to kill your interest in the book.

The minimalist

You could try the barest possible directions – an opening, a pivotal middle and a surprising but elegant solution at the end. Those three markers might be enough to keep you on piste and still let you explore.

Certainly I’m not a person who can tolerate boredom or predictability. If a writing session hasn’t confounded my expectations in some way, I’m disappointed. Yet I’m a fan of detailed outlines. Indeed, I find they don’t stultify or restrict at all.  Au contraire.

I think it’s because planning is not the same mindset as drafting. Drafting is experiencing the story moment by moment – and that’s when the surprises come. Here are some examples.

The detailist

  • Immerse in a description and you discover certain practicalities that add more life to a scene.
  • As you build a location, you realise it forms a resonance with what’s going on. You might then make your characters use it more frequently.
  • As you flesh out a set-piece of dialogue, you realise it won’t work the way you assumed because there’s an interesting hitch in the characters’ attitudes to each other. Their reluctance to follow your orders – or vice versa – which you have not felt until this moment, opens rich possibilities.
  • You might try to write a piece of action that seemed straightforward. But you realise you need more of a build-up. Or you know the character would do it but they need a stronger reason. Or maybe they won’t do it at all. Or maybe they do it and it’s not interesting enough.

All these moments seemed clear and logical in the outline. But everything might change when you’re with the characters breath by breath.

So I find that outlines are like a question. I think the character might do this? I put it in the plan and find out.

How to write a novel slowly and carefullyWhat vs how

If the outline is most concerned with the ‘what’, the draft is interested in the ‘how’. And ‘why’. And whether the reader will care. If you like that kind of work – and I do – you might find outlines are not a hindrance but a stimulating provocation .

Here’s some provocation in action. Here’s where I wrote about a major twist I fell over in the first draft of Ever Rest. I had not considered it – even remotely – until I wrote something from the outline and decided it wasn’t enough. The characters had a sudden rebellion that kicked everything over. Amazingly, it worked very well with the rest of the book.

But why bother with an outline?

You might ask, why bother with the outline if it’s so likely to change? What’s all that planning for? I’m asking myself that. My gut reaction is that I need an outline or I’ll bolt madly off into my imagination and never finish.

But actually, there’s a good underlying reason. It’s structure.

Stories work by structure. Resonances, crescendos, misdirection, clue-planting. That’s what you’re really building when you work on an outline – a structure that is robust. And when you’ve done that, you understand what you can easily change, what the fallout will be and whether you’ll need other elements.  There’s a lot more about structure in my plot book.

Your outline, your way

We’re all different. So this is the real secret. Write the kind of outline that gives you a star to follow, and makes sure you don’t forget the important steps, but still leaves you plenty to discover and enjoy.

Psst… There’s more about outlining in the original Nail Your Novel.

Psst 2… Outlining is one of the ways to nail Nanowrimo. Here’s my post of resources for that

Psst 3… If you’re curious to know how Ever Rest is doing, this is my latest newsletter.

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  1. #1 by tracikenworth on October 15, 2018 - 12:53 am

    Reblogged this on Where Genres Collide and commented:
    I like the bare minimum in my outline. I usually write a paragraph on the three acts I break it into and then as I go along, I write notes as to what may happen in the next chapter.

  2. #4 by The Story Reading Ape on October 15, 2018 - 7:53 am

  3. #7 by DRMarvello on October 15, 2018 - 1:14 pm

    I like the way you describe an outline as “what, not how and why.” That’s exactly what it has evolved to over time with me. I think it was James Scott Bell who referred to the approach as “the headlights method.” It’s like taking a drive in a car at night: you know where you are going, but you don’t see the details until they appear in front of you.

    I can’t move forward until I have an idea of where I’m going, but I have never been able to plan at the scene level from the start (other than having ideas for a few key scenes). The problem is that the “how” and the “why” evolve as the story and characters develop. For me, it’s the *interactions* between the characters that drives how/why, and those interactions are hard to fully anticipate in a new story world populated by new characters. When I wrote my trilogy, I was able to outline at a more detailed level by the third book because, by then, I knew my characters well and could better anticipate the how/why of the story. It was more like driving in full daylight after previewing the route with Google Street View.

    • #8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 15, 2018 - 9:24 pm

      I like your headlights comparison, Mr Marvello! With a nod to the eminent Mr Scott Bell too.

  4. #9 by Morgan Hazelwood on October 15, 2018 - 4:45 pm

    I like outlining – with maybe a sentence per chapter – so that I can be sure I know where I’m going and that the pacing seems reasonable. It’s often pretty vague stuff – “chapter 4 – travel. Chapter 9 – X fights Y. chapter 30 – denouement.”

    And then? I completely ignore it unless I get stuck.

  1. Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers – 10-18-2018 | The Author Chronicles
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