Fiction,  How To Write A Novel: Step by Step,  The Writing Life

To Outline or Not to Outline

How to Write a Novel: Step by Step

Plotting your entire novel is an enormous undertaking. A lot of percolating about your story has gone on before you are ready to take on such a mammoth task. Or, you may decide that outlining is not for you. Let’s look at the options.

In the writing world, much controversy surrounds the plotter versus the pantser approach to writing a novel. Plotters are those writers who love to have every plot point, well, plotted, the narrative arc firmly charted, and the scenes organized.

Plotter style

Plotters are those writers who love to have every plot point, well, plotted, the narrative arc firmly charted, and the scenes organized.

There is much to support this approach. If you have this kind of detailed roadmap, there will definitely be fewer detours AND, more importantly, less rewriting. I meandered around, writing and rewriting and rewriting until I completely lost count of the number of drafts I had done. And that was before I submitted my manuscript for publication. After the editor got hold of my manuscript, there were plot holes to fill, inconsistencies to address, devices that failed, AND much, much more rewriting in my future. Yeesh!

Outlining your novel can save you a lot of grief.

Pantsers Style

The pantsers approach, as you’ve probably gathered, is pretty much the opposite to the plotters. This is the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants way of tackling the project. Pantsers will vouch for the creativity that this approach allows, claiming writer’s block if they have to follow a prescribed map. If you take this scenic route to your destination, you can truly enjoy the journey. You must, however, be prepared for many detours and accept that you may end up in a different place from your original idea. That may be okay, OR you may lose your way, and find you have many chapters and many scenes, the sum total of which do not equal a novel.

Pantsers feel that outlining stifles their creativity.

Of course, I have painted the two extremes, and there is much that falls somewhere in the middle. The most important thing, is that you find the approach that suits you.

While I began my writing journey as a confirmed pantser, I have found that this circuitous route is no longer appealing. I also realized that the reason I began this way, is that I really didn’t know how to chart my project. I also did not know enough about how to craft a successful novel. Growing up, I read a lot. I still read a lot. So, for the most part, I was relying on the instinct that my years of reading had built. Reading is super important. Having that intuitive feel about your work is super important. But it isn’t enough.

Take the time to explore the possibilities. Having said that, if you already know how your plot is going to develop, and you are itching to get that outline down in black and white, then go for it! You don’t need my help. But if you suspect that you might be somewhere in between the two camps, the exercises below may help.

I like to take a scene approach to my planning. You have an idea for your story. Maybe it was inspired by some place you travelled. Maybe it was a comment you overheard. Or maybe, you’ve always wanted to write a novel about a particular challenge or struggle. Perhaps an historical or current event about which you feel passionate, is the driving force behind your idea.

Take some time to think about the scenes you anticipate as your story idea percolates.

To Do:

  1. Write a scene you want to include somewhere in your story. What did you picture when you chose the idea for the story? It doesn’t matter where in the narrative it fits. Is it an action scene? Or does it include an important conversation? We’ll be going into depth with scenes later, but for now, just make sure there is movement. Something needs to happen.
  2. Now, write a scene which happens early in the story. Maybe the first scene. Where is the character when the story opens? What is she doing? What do we learn about the character from this opening scene. Again, make something happen.
  3. If your scene from #1 was not the ending, imagine what happens at the end. I sometimes find this one impossible to write when I first tackle the idea. If you can’t write the actual scene, jot down some ideas about how you envision the story ending. Even if it is a difficult task, it’s worth spending some time on the ending. You need to have some idea about where you are going, when you begin the journey.

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