How to Plan and Outline a Novel

So you have an idea burning a hole in your mind — a story that must be told and if you don’t get it out, you might just explode.

But you don’t know where to start. Perhaps your ideas are flooding in faster than you know what to do with them, like trying to drink through a firehouse, it’s just this explosion of just…well, you get the point.

You decided to write a novel and need some help planning. As a professional writer of over ten years, I’ll tell you how I go about writing a novel. I’ll go over my planning process and hopefully some of it will resonate with you and give you an idea of how to create your own plan.

While it’s possible to write a novel without planning, it isn’t advised. For one, you may encounter the dreaded writer’s block — you dive in full of enthusiasm and good intentions, and get a few chapters in before you hit a wall. You step back and ponder how your story will unfold. You reach a place in the story and then ask yourself that fateful question, “What happens next?”

If you don’t have an outline, you may waste a lot of time mulling over all the possible scenarios. In the end, you may become discouraged and give up with your idea all together faulting the idea and not your own habits. You may convince yourself that your idea is flawed and the next one will be different. But, chances are, it’s not the idea that is flawed, it’s the lack of preparation.

Look, I get it, it’s exciting to write and create art, but we need to set ourselves up for success. If we try a bunch of times and fail, we may feel we are not cut out for being a writer and quit.

Also, without charting your course in advance, you are liable to get lost along the way and may end up ‘writing yourself into a corner’ so to speak. In other words, you write in a way that doesn’t leave open a lot of possibilities. You’re forcing the story down a particular path – one that you may not have envisioned from the start, and one that no longer aligns with the ending you had planned.

So, I recommend spending time before hand to get an idea of where you want to take the story. A good analogy would be an artist would roughly penciling in their drawing before making it more permanent with ink or paint. It’s the same technique that we writers use. We want to roughly pencil in the basic form or structure, before we put hard lines down on the page.

All writers have different styles when it comes to planning a novel—some like to write their ideas on flashcards and organize them like a puzzle, while others meticulously plot out every detail in their head. Do whatever works for you. My approach involves the following four steps:

  1. Notes
  2. Character profiles
  3. Outline
  4. Storyboard

Step 1. MAKE NOTES

For me, when I come up with an idea, I usually wait a few months before even writing a single word of the story.

In those preceding months, I immerse myself in the story and make a lot of notes. Whether I’m walking, working out, or dreaming at night, I’m thinking about the story, the characters, and the conflicts.

I write notes on my phone notes app and email them to myself, or I speak into my Dragon Dictation app, which transcribes my voice into text, then I email the notes to myself.

I compile all those notes into a master file, something like: The title of the book + notes (e.g. The Art of the Hustle Notes).

Step 2. MAKE CHARACTER PROFILES

Part of the planning process is to think about what characters are going to be in your story.

What I like to do is create character profiles for each of the main characters — and I usually have about five or so main characters depending on the story.

I like to visualize what the character might look like, then find a picture online that resembles my image. I then think about the characters’ strengths and weaknesses, their hobbies, their likes and dislikes, friends/family, a couple quotes, where they live, where they work, their skill level, education level, and a few paragraphs on what an average day of each person would look like.

You can add as much or as little detail as you need until you flush out who the characters are. Once I do that, I can get inside the characters’ heads, figure out how they think, how they speak, how they interact with people, and what motivates them. If you are telling a story from a particular character’s perspective, it stands to reason you know who the character is inside and out.

Here’s an example of a character profile:

TREVOR MORRISON

  • 17 years old – single.
  • Lives and works in Banff, Alberta.
  • He likes skateboarding, karate, and comics.
  • He dislikes bullies, authority, school.
  • He gets frustrated when people underestimate him or blame him.
  • He is skilled in the art of deduction and charm.
  • He is a high school graduate.
  • He wants to be rich one day.
  • He is honest and has integrity.
  • He is a hard worker, hustler, and is persistent.

I then put together a few paragraphs that reiterate his characteristics. Writing it out this way helps the character seem more real.

Trevor is very independent. He spends most of his time skateboarding or watching movies. He doesn’t put forward his best effort in school despite him being intelligent. He has issues with his parents, who are divorced. His brother still lives at home and goes to school. He is a natural leader, and does not like to follow others or to listen to authority.

Trevor gets along well with people, but feels he doesn’t always fit in. He is optimistic and wants a better life for himself, but doesn’t know how to get it. He gets frustrated with his station in life, but just sucks it up and deals with it. In his mind, he imagines a scenario where an opportunity presents itself, perhaps winning the lottery so he does not have to work ever again.

QUOTABLES:

  • “I need to get out of this town!”
  • “I don’t know what I want to do with my life.”
  • “I would really like to be a rich one day.”

Step 3. MAKE AN OUTLINE

It is my belief that writer’s block comes from a lack of planning. They charge ahead and begin writing without first creating an outline for their story. They figure they have an idea and they just want to get it out.

But sometimes what happens is that a few chapters in, they begin to run out of steam or write themselves into a corner. They become consumed with the dreaded question, “What happens next?” and for some, the endless possibilities of how a story can evolve and the direction it can take can be paralyzing if they haven’t say down ahead of time and worked out all those details.

If that’s your style and it works, go for it. I’ve written a few books this way and it has worked out fine, but an outline just makes things way easier. You may have heard of this term: planner vs pantser. Planner is obviously one who plans, and the latter is one who writes by the seat of their pants.

I have a file on my computer with a default outline that I use for each story. The outline is based on a five act story arch. There’s also a three act story arch that is common – The setup, the conflict, and the resolution. I like the five act story arch because it helps me break up the story more. Here is a sample of the template I use:

Every story is comprised of a conflict between either:

  • Man vs Man
  • Man vs Environment
  • Man vs Self

First Act

  • Introduction to character
  • Attitudes/ personality/ opinions
  • What are character’s wants?
  • Relationships
  • Ignorant to duty

Second Act

  • Instigating incident
  • Call to adventure
  • Refusal of the Call – “You must stop them,” – but what can I do?
  • Subplot of bad guys

Third Act

  • Meeting the mentor
  • Cross some threshold
  • Enemies/ allies/ tests
  • A crucial new piece of information is discovered
  • Big fight looming
  • Gather a posse
  • Equip themselves with knowledge

Fourth Act

  • Point of no return
  • Supreme ordeal
  • Some kind of reward
  • There must be a change in character’s personality (for the better – maybe recognizes their duty)
  • Fails before succeeds
  • Climax

Fifth Act

  • Journey home
  • Resurrection
  • Satisfying ending

If you need a copy of this template, send me an email at Edward@EdwardMullen.com and I will be happy to send it to you.

Okay, so I have my outline template. From there, I use the notes and my imagination to start to roughly plot out the story. It’s okay to deviate from your outline. There are many ideas I’ve had over the months, some good, some bad, and some that just don’t fit the story.

Another important thing to mention is that while outline is important, I want to remain flexible enough to chase whimsies. During the writing process, I may get a new idea and decide to go down that path to see where it leads, just because.

Step 4. MAKE A STORYBOARD

Okay, so I have my character profiles, I created an outline using my notes, and now I’m ready to start writing. But before I do that, I need to create a storyboard.

storyboard

What’s a storyboard?

To follow up on the analogy I used earlier where I talked about an artist penciling in a rough draft, a storyboard is slightly darker lines with more detail, but still not committing to anything substantial.

What I do is take a legal pad and draw squares on it— say three across and three down so I end up with nine squares.

Each square represents some arbitrary grouping, perhaps a chapter, or a series of events, it doesn’t really matter. Inside each box will be a slightly more detailed breakdown of the next series of events.

This allows me to navigate the story and remain on course and also acts as an agenda, so when I sit down to write, I know roughly what I need to do for that day.

To give you an example of how it works, suppose I have nine squares drawn out. In my outline I have a bullet point that says “Introduction to Trevor”. But that isn’t much detail at all. So in my storyboard, I’ll say.

  • Trevor in school
  • Gets in trouble for throwing a snowball
  • Has conversation with principal about his future

Now, in the actual book, I obviously need to flesh this out in more detail, but a least I know the beats I have to hit.

Once I finish writing all the content in the boxes, I draw nine more boxes, fill them in, and continue the process until the story is done. Again, this is a rough sketch of the story, it can always change if need be.

An important point to consider is that I very rarely know how my story will end. I usually have a rough idea, but all the little elements and complexities are discovered as I write. Some people may not do it this way, but this is the way I’ve always done it.

So while it’s good to create an outline, don’t let it confine you or else that may take the fun out of writing.

Additional Resources

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