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:

  •  Before
  •  Day 1
  •  Day 2
  •  Day 3
  •  Day 4
  •  Day 5
  •  After

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?

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Posted on October 17, 2013, in Degeneration, NaNoWriMo, outlining, Writing. Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. It’s always interesting to see how others outline. There are some similarities here to how I do it, some differences. Of course, you know me. I always say to do whatever works for you and gets you to the end.

    For me, I’m definitely doing NaNo. Almost done my outline too, which will be nice. I’ll still have to go back and review it, but that doesn’t need to be done until a couple days before NaNo starts. Man, am I looking forward to getting lost in drafting a story again. :)

    • That’s why I like reading how other people outline – I can pick and choose things that I think will work best for me. :)

      I’m looking forward to it, too. I’ve been editing one of my novels, but it’s just not the same as throwing yourself into writing. So much more exciting! :D

  2. The verdict is in!! And so am I :-)
    I’ve decided to do a collection of short stories this time. Something different!
    And…I made an outline, too. For the very first time!
    Yay!! Here we go….

    • Yay! A short story collection sounds like a really cool idea! How many are you planning to write? Is there a theme to them, or are they on a bunch of different topics?

      • I’m not sure how many I’ll get done, but I have several in mind. They’ll be different from each other…but who knows what will actually happen when I get going?!

        Are you getting excited?

      • Sounds like fun!

        And I’m really excited! I’d be more excited if I had the rest of my outlines planned, but I’m really enjoying the planning phase. I can’t wait to start writing! :D

  3. Hi, Katie :) Just happened across your tweet about this in the #NaNoWriMo chat. I’m not doing NaNoWriMo, but will be getting into writing my novels at some point, hopefully not too far off in the future and appreciate simplified, clear guides when it comes to outlining, etc. Years ago, when I was writing the first draft, I was finding my way as to what would work for me, but am still trying to feel it out, so any info like this is helpful. Thank you! :)

    • Hello! I’m so glad you found this helpful! I’ve always loved hearing people talk about how they outline and stuff like that. Like you said – it really helps you figure out what works and what doesn’t work for you, as everyone is so different. Good luck with your novels! Thanks for commenting! :)

      • Thanks, Katie :) What I’ve got planned for them will be a huge undertaking, but it’s not stopping me from wanting to do them. Good luck with yours, too! Of course, getting more involved with Social Media, plus being relatively addicted to READing about “all things writing,” and, of course, LIFE interfering ALL the time, I wonder when I’ll ever have time to begin them! lol Still, I know it’ll happen.

        Happy writing! :)

      • Haha. I know that feeling! The biggest battle for me is always forcing myself to sit down and actually do the things I said I was going to do.

        Good luck! :)

      • You, too, Katie :) And thanks for following my blog, though it’s still not active yet :( It won’t be for a while longer, I think.

      • Well then I’ll already be prepared for when it is! :) Thanks for following mine, as well!

  4. I’m a pantser! But I really admire people who can outline. I guess you have to do what works for you :) I hope I can pants my way through 50kDayOne hahaha…Good luck this year!

    • See, I’m the exact opposite. I really admire people who can pants! :D I did a hybrid last year for Day One (where I had a general plan but didn’t plan most of it), and I found it super difficult to keep writing. But you’re absolutely right – just do what works for you! Best of luck to you, too!

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