© 2007 Daniel Arenson

Let's talk about outlining novels. How do you plan your novel before writing it?

Here are three methods I’ve used.

Method 1: The Detailed Outline

I used this method for my fantasy novel Firefly Island. In the Detailed Outline, I will outline every scene in great detail. This outline might be fifty or more pages long, all outline, no actual writing. Before writing a single word of manuscript, every scene will be planned. I’ll have a good idea of how the pacing will work. I’ll know where every plot event occurs. The outline will be a complete blueprint.

For Firefly Island, my outline was so detailed, it contained the important lines of dialogue. For some chapters, it even detailed every paragraph!

An example would look like:

Paragraph 14: Describe the ogre’s cottage. Broken roof. Vines. Lizards run across the ground and the sky is cloudy.

Paragraph 15: Aeolia enters the cottage. Rotting furniture, dank smell. Aeolia thinks about her brother.

This is similar to the way moviemakers will create storyboards before shooting any scene. The point of this method is: Before actually writing anything, I’ll know exactly how this novel will look.

When it comes to the writing stage, since I already know the entire story, I don’t have to write chronologically. I can decide one day to write scene 3 in chapter 8, and the next day go back and write scene 2 in chapter 3.

The outline will be so detailed, that I’ll write my copy right into the outline--in the same document. Thus, the outline will grow fatter and fatter, scenes coming into more and more detail, until one day it’s no longer an outline. It’s a manuscript.

This is the same method I use when painting. First I paint a rough sketch on the paper. Then I’ll fill in the basic tones. Then I’ll add another layer of color. Then I’ll add a layer of detail. With every layer, the painting comes into life. Same with the Detailed Outline. At first my document is a sketch. With every layer it grows and grows, until it turns into a novel.

Method 2: The Brief Outline

With this method, I’ll plan the basic plot, but not every scene or chapter. This outline is only about five pages long. It describes the characters, the conflict, the overall storyline, and that’s it. It provides just enough detail so that I’ll know where the story should head.

Once I have the Brief Outline, I’ll write my novel in chronological order, from the first word to last. While I’m writing, I’ll keep the Brief Outline in mind. Because I’m not bound to a detailed structure, I’ll be free to explore possibilities while I write. I’ll just let the words flow. I’ll make sure the story is moving in the general direction I outlined, but have fun and discover things on the way.

The great thing about this method is that it lets you find the natural pace and flow of your story. You’re not constricted by a rigid outline.

When I finish writing a manuscript this way, I might find many pages that lack structure. Some scenes might be too long, others too short, some too slow, others fast paced. Perhaps I spent fifty pages with a single character, completely ignoring the other characters and their subplots. Some chapters might end at the wrong moment, without a cliffhanger. There was no thought put into a flow that would be exciting for the reader.

I’ll take this pile of pages and cut and paste and reorganize. I plan the structure of the manuscript after I had already written it. I’ll break long scenes into shorter scenes, cutting them at the exciting moments for cliffhangers. I’ll move scenes from here to there. All the work I would have done in the Detailed Outline (before writing anything), I do now with the pages I already have.

Some of the pages I might toss out. In other places, I’ll write new pages. Filmmakers might shoot hours of film, then spend many days in the editing room, piecing the bits together. That’s what I do with the Brief Outline, just with pages instead of film.

Method 2: No Outline

With “No Outline”, as its name implies, I don’t plan the plot at all. Does that mean I just jump into the book and write blindly? No. There is still a lot of planning involved.

I’ll spend lots of time planning each viewpoint character (those characters from whose eyes we see the story). For each, I’ll create a document where I write everything I can about the character.

I write about their physical traits. What is their hair like? What do their eyes say to the world? How tall are they, and how much do they weigh? Are they good looking or ugly? How does their physical appearance affect their behavior, and how does it affect the way others treat them?

I describe their background. Where do they come from, and what have they done in life? How does this affect the way they’ll act in the future? And—perhaps most importantly—what are their goals for the future?

I describe their personality. What do they like and dislike? I write about how they think, what they want, what they fear. Does the character have any quirks? What is the character’s favourite food? Favourite music?

Once I really know the characters, I let them write the story. I’ll know the premise, but have no idea what the plot will be, or how the story will end. I place the characters into the setting of the story, and let them direct the flow.

Every day when I sit down to write, I have no idea what will happen. I make it up as I go along. Because I know the characters so well, I know how they’ll act in each situation, and the story writes itself.

The first draft comes out a mess. Then I break it into scenes and restructure.

Which method is best?

It depends on the writer and it depends on the novel.

Some novels place a strong emphasis on emotion. Thus, the “no outline” method can work best. You are not constricted by any outline, and are free to explore the characters’ lives and the drama between them. The one danger of this method is that you might be left with an unfocused first draft, and will have to spend a long time rearranging it.

The Detailed Outline works great for me personally. You know where the story is heading and have the freedom to write scenes out of order, depending on your mood and spare time that day.

Meanwhile, the General Outline combines the strengths and weaknesses of the two other methods.

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