How to outline your novel in 5 “easy” steps
NaNoWriMo starts in 2 weeks. Are you ready?
I’m not. At all. I finally came up with a fifth novel idea, which makes me happy, but I don’t know nearly enough about most of them to actually start writing them. Every time I try to sit down to plan or outline, I end up doing something else instead. Yesterday, I hung out with my friend and fellow Wrimo at a tea shop, thinking I would get work done, and ended up spending most of my time on the NaNo forums and the OA chat. Not really all that productive.
However, I told myself I would be more productive today, and so far I have succeeded. I finally finished my outline (well, one of my outlines) for Degeneration, one of my YA novels. Of course, this is the story I’ve written three other times (twice as a screenplay and once as a novel), so I really should know what I’m doing by now. Still, I added a bunch of plot this time, so this actually will be a complete rewrite. Again. At first I was upset by that, but I think it’s for the best. The last draft I wrote isn’t terrible, but it could be a lot better, and it’s always been easier for me to just rewrite it than to try to fix it.
While I was trying to outline, I started thinking about my outlining process. I love reading about how other people outline their novels, but I realized I never really talk about how I outline. That’s mostly because I never really thought about how I outline. I did that today, though, and I realized others might benefit from my sharing my process. Keep in mind that I am by no means saying that everyone has to outline like this, or that you have to outline at all. Many, many people prefer writing with no outline at all, or just the basic idea of what’s happening. That’s a perfectly acceptable way to write. I can’t do that, as I need structure, but that’s okay. There’s no formula for writing. You just need to find what works for you and do that.
This is what works for me.
Step 1: The General Story Arc
The first step is figuring out what my novel is about and then coming up with a general overview of the plot. For Degeneration, I knew the novel was about a family who gets together for a wedding. So the general story arc looked a bit like this:
MC doesn’t want to go back for the wedding –> MC goes back and deals with family –> Stuff happens.
I actually had a bit more planned for the end, but I don’t want to give anything away. So, yeah, that’s basically what I started out with. Not a lot, but it helps if I know what I’m working toward.
Step 2: The 3-Act Structure
Next I break my idea down a bit further. I’ve always thought of novels in terms of 3 acts, probably because the first book I read about how to write was actually the book Screenplay. That book talked a lot about four main points in the screenplay:
- The first 10 pages (Where is the character before the action starts?)
- The inciting incident (What sets the story in motion?) – Also called plot point 1
- Plot point 2 – also called the climax
- The resolution – what happens after the action has calmed down?
This structure has actually worked well for me when it comes to planning novels. The first 10 pages translates to the first 3 chapters, which is generally when you’re supposed to have introduced the main character and what s/he wants most. By the end of chapter 3, we should have come across the “inciting incident” that pushes the character forward. In my case, the first 3 chapters show my MC before she leaves for the wedding, and by the end of chapter 3 she’s learned that she definitely has to go.
Step 3: The List of Events
By this point, I have the very basics of the novel planned. I know what I want the story to be about. Now I make a list of all the events that I know I want to happen in the novel. They don’t have to be connected or in order. This doesn’t have to be a complete list of everything that will happen, but the more I can come up with, the better off I’ll be. For Degeneration, I made a list of all the different things I wanted the characters to fight about, as well as different things they would do while they were back in their hometown. I also mentioned possible suplots and how they might change as the story progressed.
Once I have the list as complete as I can, I go back and put all the events in chronological order, or at least as close to that as I can. Sometimes I simply separate them into “Beginning,” “Middle,” and “End.” Sometimes I have the novel broken into months. For Degeneration, I had everything split into the following categories:
- Day 1
- Day 2
- Day 3
- Day 4
- Day 5
Step 4: The Chapter List
Once I have the list of events, I go back and separate those events by chapter. Depending on how I broke up the list, this can be easy or complicated. For this novel, it wasn’t that difficult, as most of the days could be split into 2 chapters fairly easily. This is actually what I finished this morning for Degeneration. According to my outline, the novel will be 15 chapters. I’m thinking each chapter will probably be 4-5k long, which means that my novel should be about 70-75k, which is a good length for a YA novel.
This type of outline is the bare minimum I like to have before I can start writing a novel. I am going to work on getting all of my November novels to this point before I move on to the last part of the outlining process.
Step 5: The Scene List
This is where I take the list of scenes for each chapter and actually figure out scenes. For the first chapter of Degeneration, I have “Introduce MC, school project, and the fact that she’s trying to pick a college.” Now I have to go back and actually plan out the scene. How am I going to introduce those topics? How can I make sure that everything flows together? If there are any bits of dialogue I know I want to include, I try to find a way to fit it in – at the very least I write it down so I don’t forget it later.
So, yeah, that’s how I outline. Like I said, I’ve gotten to step 4 with Degeneration. My chapter list is a little over 4 pages long and about 1900 words. I’m hoping to move on to step 5 before NaNo starts, but I worst case scenario, I can just work with what I have.
What about you? Are you doing NaNo? How do you outline – or are you more of a pantser?