In the first part of this guide, I covered the planning stages for writing a novel, from character conception to building every aspect of your world. I hope it’s been of use to you. Today we’re moving on to the second and third steps:
Part II – The Outline
Every author has their own way to outline the plot, some write a full synopsis so specific they go into how each scene will go. Some, as I recently found out, go for a visual approach and map out their scenes in graphs, making sure to note every important character and detail for them. I have two approaches: Overview and Chapter-View.
The Outline is a continuation of the planning stage, but instead of focusing on building your world, now you’re building the plot. At this point, you already know what your premise is and where you’d like it to go. You might even have a few scenes thought out and you can’t wait to get to them. I know because it happens to me every time.
The hard part of the outline is connecting the dots between the scenes you have mapped out, from the opening up to the ending(s) you’ve thought of. The Outline will change as you write it, as will the planning details you came up with last time. To be perfectly honest, the Outline and the planning details might still change all through the writing process, because you’ll refine your ideas as you write. And it’s a universal truth that whatever your write tomorrow is going to be better than what you write today. So don’t be surprised if a great idea today sounds terrible tomorrow.
With what I’ve said you might be thinking you don’t need an outline, especially if it’s going to keep changing. The Outline isn’t a hard-set rule for how things will go, but a guideline and baseline, something you can go back to if you’ve forgotten something or hit a dead end. The Outline reminds you of your basic plot points, giving you the freedom to explore others as they come along.
I wrote my first novel without an Outline, off the top of my head and I only realised the results were bad when I went through it all for the second draft—I had to rewrite the entire thing. After I wrote the second one with an Outline, I did one for the already finished first novel and in writing it I realised all the plot holes it still had, all the storytelling gaps and mistakes.
Much like The Planning step, the Outline will also help you find the flaws in your craft and help you overcome them.
In terms writing Outlines, I have two methods as I previously mentioned. Let’s talk about the Overview first.
The overview is a detailed synopsis. How detailed depends on what you need or want. But you’ll list the major events, scenes and plot points. I write it casually, as though I’m telling the story to a friend. “The plot starts four months after the events of the previous novel and [insert character name] is getting ready to hike his way to the moon from Wisconsin.” I recommend writing it in a natural way. Make it easy for you to read, understand and double-check if necessary.
The following is an Overview Outline example. This time around, let’s go for some Sci-Fi instead of the Techno-fantasy world from last time.
At the end of yet another insufferable day in Melvin Backbreaker’s day at the Automation Ministry, he receives a letter from the family solicitor to inform him of his father’s passing, only Melvin had never met the man. The solicitor informs him he’s inherited the Backbreaker estate but there is a condition: he must travel to the family Manor to ‘collect’ his prize.
Using his father’s death as an excuse, Melvin manages to take his saved up vacations for the trip. Maccallum is a generally desolate planet, but Melvin finds his flight packed. To him all other passengers look murderous. The exception is the beautiful redhead Amanda Cole, sitting across the ship from him. She scoots over and they talk amicably for the rest of the flight. She’s a distant cousin—in fact, he’s related to every other passenger in one way or another—but something about her makes Melvin nervous.
At the Manor, the reptilian-looking Insillian Buttler, Ducky, welcomes and explain the inheritance. They are all potential inheritors, but must meet certain conditions for it to become official. They must race to find the ancient family vault and open it before the other inheritors. Any and all measures and tactics are valid in this race, even murder. In fact, the last surviving inheritor will become the new master of the estate by default, even if he doesn’t find the vault.
Hearing the conditions, the murderous family members draw weapons and start killing each other. Melvin and Amanda do their best to escape the massacre, diving for cover, hiding and helping each other escape the others. When half of the inheritors are dead, Ducky paralyses everyone in the room using his species’ psychic abilities. On his command and to everyone’s horror, Maruvian Cleaners burst into the room and eat the dead.
After taking their weapons, Ducky releases them and takes them to the banquet hall for dinner. No one eats, disgusted by what they’ve just seen, but with only ten of them remaining they introduce themselves. After dinner, Ducky takes them to their rooms and locks them in with energy barriers and makes it clear should he discover them making attempts on each other’s lives during the evenings, he’ll send the guilty to the cleaners. It’s the last rule—the competition is from dawn to dusk.
Waking up from nightmares, Melvin finds Amanda on his bed. She tells him of secret passages between the rooms and that another of the inheritors had escaped and was tampering with the energy door to her room and she feared he would break in and kill her. Melvin believes her and lets her stay and they comfort each other on the terrible events of the day. They decide to team up and search for the vault together, to keep each other safe from the other inheritors and promising to share the inheritance should they get it.
The previous is a sample of what an Overview Outline looks like. It’s a synopsis of events. Some stuff detailed as specifically as possible and others just broad strokes.
If you’re wondering, yes, I did just make that entire story up while writing this article. There was no planning done for this story, as it’s just a sample.
The Chapter-View on the other hand takes much more work. It consists of detailing your plot from chapter to chapter. It’s still as flexible as the Overview but it does require a greater effort as you’ll need to decide in advance how you’ll split the scenes. The upside is that you’ll have a steadier framework on which to build your novel. You’ll know what you’re supposed to deal with on every chapter. I’ve used this outline style in the past for novels where I’m not sure how to connect the dots between events, the approach letting me work on each of those dots separately.
I used this outline style when I went back to my first novel, so I could take a closer look and find the errors in each chapter.
The following is an example of a Chapter-View Outline. For this we’ll use last issue’s setting.
Chapter 1: On the Crown Prince’s birthday, the Praetors hold a tournament. Marius makes it to the finals through cunning rather than strength, infuriating his opponent, Praetor Stalls, who views him as a weakling. The match is one-sided, with Marius forced to fight defensively, earning jeers from the audience and fellow Praetors. Tired of years of abuse, Marius decides to send a message and begins his counter-attack, reading and anticipating all of Stalls’ moves.
King Almerk stops the fight, noticing his friend’s mood and fearing he’ll not only maim his opponent but also break Praetor Commander’s spirit. The crowd sees this as the King granting his friend a reprieve from a humiliating defeat.
That night Almerk receives a report of skirmishes in the border with Crestfall. He rides out to end them and hopefully avoid war with the merchant state. A war they can’t win.
Chapter 2: Marius acts as Regent while the King’s away and uses his absence to meet with the rebel forces in the capital. They plot to kill the king and put his son on the throne, but Marius advises them against rash actions.
He insists they must first find the cause behind the King’s personality shift, fearing the Crown Prince might fall under it just as his father did.The rebels introduce him to the Crystal Mage Chaorus, tasked with finding if the King’s under a spell.
On the way back to the castle, Marius notices one of Stalls’s pages following him. He leads him towards a dark alley where he kills the boy. He disposes of the body at the nearest Grindhound pit.
Chapter 3: The King returns gravely wounded and ignoring Marius’ advice, the rebels jump at the opportunity to take Almerk out. Marius manages to stop a few of the more overt attempts: sending assassins to his room and poisoning his bandages and medicines.
But keeping the King safe and continuing to run the Kingdom while he recovers spreads Marius too thinly and he fails to stop them from poisoning the king’s food. Only the King has no appetite and his son, the Crown Prince, dies in his place.
Chapter 4: A grieving Almerk hunts those responsible for his son’s death. One by one they find rebels and Marius does his best to help the others escape and silence those caught. Stalls whispers in the King’s ear of Marius’ suspicious behaviour and involvement. Almerk, accusing him of trying to divide him and his best friend and most loyal Praetor, executes him on the spot.
As the days pass and more rebels die or escape, Stalls words resound in Almerk’s ear and he puts his royal ‘interrogators’ to keep an eye on Marius, and they discover him leaving the castle in disguise and helping rebels escape. Almerks confronts his friend on his way back to the castle and accuses him of murdering his son.
Blinded by his grief sets the Praetors on Marius, but having fought them for so long, he easily defeats them and escapes, branded a traitor and with a price on his head.
These are the methods I use, my styles for outlines. They might work for you or they won’t. It’s important you find the style that works best for you, but more important is that you write an Outline. It’ll help you in keeping your tone, pacing and characterisation consistent throughout the novel.
Once you’ve written it, you will have enough to move to the next step:
Part III – The First Draft
You’re all set to start writing, to get on with your plot, to write your chapters. There’s isn’t much I can help with as it now all depends on you, but I do have something for you. You can consider it the one rule for first drafts:
Never Look Back!
It’s a universal truth that tomorrow’s writing will be superior to today’s, and when you start writing your first draft, you’ll feel the urge to fix yesterday’s writing, to polish it off before moving along.
Don’t do it! It’s a trap! You’ll waste all your time polishing and never move on.
For the first draft you need to keep going even if what you wrote the previous days causes you physical and emotional distress. Ignore it and keep pushing forwards until you’ve finished the book—until you’ve written THE END.
You’ll inevitable come up with new stories to add, new subplots or even new characters. Don’t add them yet—they’re distractions. Write them down on another document or piece of paper and leave them aside for now. You’ll get back to them when you come back for future edits.
If once you’ve finished you feel the book is terrible, a complete waste of your time, don’t worry. Nine out of ten times, the first draft is nonsense and you probably won’t keep much of it. I didn’t, I rewrote the entire thing.
The purpose of the first draft is to write your story from the first chapter to the last one. Your conversations might be poor, the pacing might be off and hell, the characterization might slip even having everything planned out in advance and with the guidance of your Outline. That doesn’t matter because it is the first draft. As long as the main plot is there, it’s done its job. Once finished it becomes part of the foundation on which you’ll improve on. In that regard, consider the first draft an extension of the planning stages.
So don’t worry, you’ll write more drafts in the future.
I have two more pieces of advice: once you’re done with the draft, enjoy the feeling. Nothing beats the rush of completing a novel. Even if you don’t like the draft, enjoy the fact that you’ve done the job and finished it.
And the last bit of advice is walk away. As soon as you’re done—and you’re no longer enjoying the moment—you’ll want to jump right back in for further drafts. Don’t do it! It’s an even bigger trap! When you’ve just finished the novel, you need to walk away and work on something else for a couple of weeks. A new story, article or just do something different for a while. That way you’ll come back re-energised and much more creative.
If you jump right back in, you’ll miss things. And to make your future drafts as good as possible, you need a clear head and fresh eyes and the only thing that can give you that is time apart. So save the novel, back it up and do something else for a bit before coming back and work on the next bits.
But we’ll talk more about those on the next issue.
As last time, I hope you enjoy this, find it helpful and that you come back in a fortnight for the third issue.