Should you outline your novel?
If you’re thinking about writing a novel, you may be asking yourself that question. Here are some things to consider as you answer that question for yourself.
First, you do not need to outline a novel to write one. I did not outline my first novel. I just wrote it as it came to me, scene by scene, chapter by chapter, for 400+ pages.
That novel will never be published.
It was a great practice novel and there are many things I love about it, but it is an undisciplined mess that taught me a great deal about how to write a novel (and how not to write a novel).
For the next 20 novels, I have used many methods to outline, and I’ve come to know what I need in an outline — something brief, story-focused, and with lots of room to grow and change.
But my novelist friends are all different. Some have outlines so detailed that a ghost writer would be able to pick up the outline and finish the book should the author vanish into thin air. Others don’t outline at all, feeling it will trap them into a story they may not want to tell.
What is an Outline?
Please, throw away your picture of the outlines you may have been forced to do in school. There are no roman numerals required in a novel outline. You don’t even need to break things out into chapters if you don’t want to. A good novel outline allows you to sketch out the shape of your story, so that you can relax and know you’re going somewhere during the time you’re writing.
The best way to know if you should outline — and what kind of outline you’ll want — before you write is to think about how you navigate to a new place.
- Do you prefer a detailed map and timeline, so there are no opportunities to get lost? Then you should do a detailed outline.
- Do you prefer a detailed map but a loose timeline that allows for interesting side trips? Then you should do a semi-detailed outline.
- Do you prefer to head toward something interesting that’s on the way to your destination, and then head toward something else.
If you want to experiment with outlining, you are in luck. There are several excellent methods to try:
The Snowflake Method: http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/
I like this one because it was designed by a physicist and my husband is a physicist, so I know how the scientist mind works. You may like the very structured approach.
From Where You Dream:
This is the approach I often use. Robert Olen Butler wrote the book From Where You Dream about his fiction creation process, which he teaches at Florida State University. It’s a fairly simple method — you take a stack of 3×5 cards and sit at your desk imagining your story scene by scene. You write down a sentence or two about each scene on a card. Then, when you have a stack of cards, you start sorting through them (adding/subtracting cards) until you have a structure you like. When you have a structure you like, you begin to write.
Writer’s Digest 30-Day Novel Outline Forms:
When I first began to write, I looked forward to going to the library to peruse the new copies of The Writer and Writer’s Digest. Now a lot of those useful articles are online. Here’s one on outlining so you can write a novel in 30 days. Browse and use what works for you.
The one caveat I have for writers and outlines: Don’t get bogged down trying to do anything that interferes with your writing time. The only thing that actually gets a novel written is writing the scenes and chapters that you’ll share with your readers. Readers don’t actually want the outline, they want the fleshed out story.
Nechama Sklar says
Thanks so much for sharing your experience! My first novel was not outlined as well and that is what got me into outlining in the first place. It was a giant mess, with no sense of direction and unresolved threads everywhere. After that, I resolved to be an outliner. I think for some people, they absolutely can write their book on the fly. I am not one of them.
Nowadays, I am a hardcore plotter. I love learning more & experimenting with outlines, so thanks for sharing some great resources!