Tag Archives: outlining in fiction

Developing a Written Outline–Part II

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:

Chapter 1

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:

Paperback writer

Creative Penn

Snowflake method-Randy Ingermanson

Larry Brooks discussion on outlining

What is your outlining method? Have you changed your view on outlining as you’ve grown as a writer?


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Developing a Written Outline-Part I

Most novelists fall within two categories on the topic of developing a written outline: plotter or pantser. Plotters prepare outlines that could range from a synopsis or overview of the book to a detailed scene-by-scene list. Some do both. Pantsers, as the term suggests, fly by the seat of their pants. They believe too much advance planning kills creativity and stymies the wonderful discoveries writers make during the writing process.

Regardless of where you fall on the plotter-pantser spectrum, there is some merit in preparing a written outline. Outlining is a complex topic. I will break this topic into two posts. This post will cover “why” to prepare an outline and the second post will discuss “how” to do it.

An outline is simply a written plan for your story. Think of it as your roadmap. You wouldn’t hop in the car and drive to a place you’ve never visited without obtaining a set of directions. Think of your outline as your directions to help you reach your destination—a finished novel.

A solid written outline:
liForces the writer to think through the events of the story with a goal of creating a cohesive plot and structure./li
liKeeps the writer focused on the larger issues of theme and story progression/li
liPrevents the writer from going down blind alleys or off on tangents that don’t relate to the story./li
liIdentifies gaps and weaknesses in the story that the writer must address before sitting down to write./li
liTells the writer whether there is enough structure behind the story to sustain a novel./li
liReduces the amount of time the writer will later spend editing the story./li
liAllows the writer to identify the relationship among the characters, their development, how they will interact, and their strengths and weaknesses./li
The most important reason to outline, in my opinion, is that it provides the foundation on which your story is built. Without a solid foundation, your story will collapse.

Many experts don’t believe in written outlines. Stephen King, in his book, ema title=On Writing href=http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Stephen-King/dp/0743455967On Writing/a, /emwrote he does not believe in outlines, preferring to discover the story as he writes it. “I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story,” he wrote. “Some of the ideas which have produced these books are more complex than others, but the majority start out with the simplicity of a department store window display or a waxwork tableau.”

I am more of a “pantser,” but experience has taught me the value of a written outline. Before I start writing, I prepare a barebones outline with about a dozen milestone plot developments. These don’t always follow the classic story arc: describe protagonist in her world, make her goal clear, create an inciting incident, throw in a complication, increase the stakes through rising action, build to the climax and resolve the main character’s dilemma. My outlines tend to follow the major events of the story. I know writers who prepare detailed outlines that go on for many pages. I’ve seen outlining methods that go on for many pages. Next, I will describe some of the outlining techniques available.

strongDo you believe in written outlines? Are you a plotter or a pantser?/strong


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