Creating an Outline

Even if you only have the most basic story, it’s important to create an outline. Being able to see your story visually will give you a better idea of where you need to add details, events and subplots, and if you leave enough space you can write in new things as they happen. Having the outline handy while writing can also remind you what you’re writing next after a particularly exhausting scene or prolonged break.

As November is almost upon us, it’s time to create your outline.

For the purpose of this exercise, I’m going to assume that you know something about your story’s beginning, middle and end, but not much about what happens between those three points. If you’re starting completely from scratch, start here.

If you’re still here, grab a pen or pencil and some paper. For outlining I usually use blank printer paper, but you can use any kind of paper, it really doesn’t matter. I like to draw a frame around my outlines, something about that makes them feel more coherent and together, but you don’t have to do that.

You do have to sit down and create a list of everything you know absolutely must happen during your novel. If you have two scenes but no idea what happens between them, leave a space that you can fill in later. Your page may be mostly white space with a few scenes described, and that’s fine. Just make sure that you write down all the scenes you feel are essential to your novel.

Any scenes you’d like to have but aren’t necessary should be written down–leaving spaces for scenes you don’t have yet–in a different colour or in some way marked as expendable scenes. This way if you have some crazy new idea, you can see what changes you can make without completely altering your story into something unrecognizable. Of course, if you do come up with a completely insane idea and alter your story beyond recognition, that’s cool too.

Once you’ve listed all the events you know must happen, it’s time to take a look at all that empty space. You can wait until you’re actually writing to figure that all out of course, but I’d suggest trying to fill in as many gaps as possible before starting. The more detailed your outline is, the easier it will be to keep writing, because you’ll always know where to go next. Many writers do find that there is a fine line where they become uninspired, but in general, more detail is always a good thing.

And once you have your most important scenes written down, the rest is easy. Ask yourself: what would it take to get these characters from this first scene to the last one? Do people need to die? Do your characters need to sacrifice their dreams, their morals? Does an ancient demon or god need to be released in order to do battle? Whatever it takes to get your character from point A to point B to the end of your novel, write that down in the blank spaces. Detail as many steps of the journey as you can figure out by looking at where they need to go and what they need to do, and you’ll be happier in November when you can turn to this outline.

The other thing you need to ask is how would your main character react to these situations? Often the best plot twists are simply unexpected actions taken by characters, usually those you don’t know well. And knowing how your character will react in a tense situation such as being kidnapped by vampires will make life a lot easier when the vampires arrive. You don’t want your characters to do things that are totally unbelievable coming from them, and a character who reacts badly to something can make the plot a whole lot more interesting, particularly if they end up killing someone in their reaction.

Ask yourself these questions and spend the next couple days filling in white space as possible–and let’s see how long your novel will be this Nanowrimo!