The previous post discussed why writers should prepare written outlines for their novels. Let’s look now at what an outline should include. Writers differ on the length and scope of an outline, but it should include these elements:
- Title of the novel.
- Premise or idea behind the story. This doesn’t have to be detailed. It could be one sentence. For example, the premise for the Harry Potter series could be this: an orphaned boy escapes from a cruel childhood to discover he is a celebrated wizard who must take on a powerful evil wizard.
- A list of the characters. For the main character, the writer should identify her strengths, weaknesses goals and motivations. The characters should include those who will help the main character and those who will try to stop her.
- Identification of the main character’s goal, quest or dream and the obstacles in the way.
- A sequence of major events in the story, which should have conflict and tension.
- A climax to the story, followed by resolution.
- A satisfying ending that ties up the loose ends.
Common types of outlines include:
- Chapter outline—a few sentences or paragraphs on each chapter
- Scene outline—short descriptions of each scene.
- Narrative outline—an account of what happens in the book.
- Index card outline—writing scenes or scene ideas on index cards
Outlines can be short or detailed. A writer colleague of mine uses a device called a “structure table,” a grid with columns and rows. Such a table could be organized in a grid with these columns:
Some writers organize tables where one of the columns is Motivation. Some create storyboards and some authors write scenes on color-coded index cards. Some write a long narrative describing all the action in the present tense.
Mystery writer JA Konrath writes long outlines. “My outlines are very detailed,” he wrote in A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing. “They run between 30 and 40 pages. I go chapter by chapter, and list who is in each scene, what information needs to be revealed, and what the conflict is.
“I write outlines in present tense, and give each chapter a paragraph or two,” he wrote.
Konrath estimates it takes him a solid week of eight-hour days to produce a 40-page outline. “But once I do it, writing the book is easy, because I already got all the hard stuff out of the way.”
James Scott Bell, in his excellent book, Plot & Structure, discusses a variety of plotting systems, ultimately concluding writers must choose the system that works best for them. He cautions, however, “If certain foundational elements are missing, the story is going to sag. You can avoid major problems by some focused thinking about your story before you write.”
As I mentioned, I am more of a “pantser,” but I have used an outline for each of my novels. My outline for Small Change became moot when I made the main character 14 years old instead of 10 at the start of the book. That’s the beauty of writing. You need to have the flexibility to change your mind when something’s not working. If I were to rewrite my original outline it might start out like this:
Introduce John Sykowksi, the main character, and his family at the lakeside resort in Wisconsin where they spend a week each summer. In the opening scene, John, who is 14 years old, is uncomfortable when their neighbor, Mrs. Crandale, asks him to rub suntan lotion on her back. [This foreshadows the most dramatic scene in the first half of the novel]
So what’s the correct answer regarding outlining? There is none. Whatever system works for you is what you should use.
Here are some good resources on outlining:
What is your outlining method? Have you changed your view on outlining as you’ve grown as a writer?