I did not write an outline for the first draft of my novel, but you should. I wrote about 5,000 words for the 2015 NaNoWriMo challenge. I had no plan. I just wanted words on the page. Back then I didn’t believe in my skills as a writer, so a few days in, I stopped writing.
Then, in 2017, I found an old word file on my desktop. I read the beginnings of a novel I’d forgotten about, and I loved it, so I continued writing.
When I reached about 20,000 words, I started drafting a rough outline, though I didn’t know this was what I was doing at the time. I wrote a paragraph about the climax of the novel, then I began each chapter by writing dot points on how each subplot contributed to it. I shifted these dot points around a lot, and even changed them on quite a few occasions.
What are the benefits to writing an outline?
My outline now, at the end of my first draft, is 10,000 words. You might find this hard to believe given the word count, but this is just the barebones of the story. It is a shorter, more succinct version of everything that happens.
So why did I write it? Well, James Patterson told me to (I’ve just finished his Masterclass). I was fairly convinced I was wasting my time, but it’s actually been some of the best advice I’ve ever been given.
When researching (which I have to do a lot of, because I know very little about the Australian Defence Force), I can now quickly refer back to the outline instead of wading through 80,000 words and thirty odd chapters. It’s also a lot easier to make changes to my outline before tackling them in the novel and saved me from searching for notes in my journals.
This is especially relevant if you like to free-write your first draft. Using an outline during the editing process can help you refine the plot without you feeling too restricted during the writing process.
I’ve never liked outlining, but it’s been important for this novel because it has a few big twists. I need to make sure I manage reader expectations so the twists aren’t too obvious or too surprising and unbelievable.
This is especially true of short fiction where I need to fit a lot more in a much shorter space, I have less words to work with, so I don’t have the luxury of taking 20,000 words to learn who my characters are and what their world is like.
Every time I’ve written short fiction without an outline, the story has had no clear central premise and a very flimsy plot.
When should you write an outline?
Now, my argument is that everyone should have an outline. But, generally, I’ve found there are two kinds of writers; those who outline and those who don’t. Even if you are in that latter category, you should still develop some kind of plan before you start writing your novel or short story.
The outline I mentioned I wrote after completing my first draft is quite an extended outline (it’s 10,000 words). This outline runs through what happens chapter by chapter. There are still no metaphors, descriptions or superfluous language. An extended outline is just the story – it’s why we came to novel writing in the first place. The story is why you’re here. Just say what happens and how the character’s goals change.
If you are big on planning, you can also check out Randy Ingermanson’s snowflake method. Ingermanson suggests you start with a one sentence central premise, which you then expand on using his 10 steps. I’ll flag this with a big warning though, this process is very structured, going as far as to say how long each step should take.
If you don’t outline you probably find that, when you have a detailed outline like the two mentioned above, you fall into the trap of following it to the letter. You might find yourself ignoring potentially interesting side roads, alleyways and rest-stops.
Maybe you write an outline and then you ignore it, so you think, why bother?
If so, you can go about this two ways. The first is to write an abbreviated outline or synopsis, like I did partway through my first draft. This form of outlining focuses on developing a basic structure. You should aim to include all of the major plot points, such as the hook, the turning point and the resolution. You don’t need to go into very much depth – one sentence for each point is fine.
Another way to outline is the bookend method. With this method, you map out where your story begins, and where you want it end. Don’t plan anything else; let yourself discover it as you’re writing. In order to do this well though, you need to make clear who your character is in the beginning and what they want to have achieved in the end – this is your story’s premise.
The other way you can go about it is to outline after you’ve written the first draft. Natasha Lester, author of The French Photographer and The Paris Seamstress, freewrites her first draft and then does a structural edit later (2016; 2018a; 2018b). Lester uses a large chart to map out what is known and unknown to the reader in each section of her book (2017).
How adaptable is an outline?
Outlining is just a fancy way of saying brainstorming. You are brainstorming ideas so that, if you get stuck or have a moment of writer’s block, you have something to fall back on. You can use it as much, or as little, as you need.
By brainstorming your novel, you are discovering more about your story. You won’t need the 20,000 words I did to learn who the characters are and what their goals are.
Just remember, when you’re actually inside the story, the emotional drive of your characters will always be stronger than when you’re writing your outline. Let them take you in different directions. Your outline is just a roadmap. If your passengers want to go down a different road, let them.
Change the roadmap to reflect the new story.
Writing is inherently creative, and we all have different creative processes. You should experiment and decide what works best for you. Just make sure you have some kind of process so that, when you’re lost in the woods, you can see all the different paths that have diverged ahead of you.
Lester, N. (2016). What Comes Before The First Draft? The Pre-First Draft! Natasha Lester. Retrieved from https://www.natashalester.com.au/what-comes-before-the-first-draft-the-pre-first-draft/
Lester, N. (2017). The Redrafting Process, Plus Exactly How I Use that Colourful Chart. Natasha Lester. Retrieved from https://www.natashalester.com.au/the-redrafting-process-plus-exactly-how-i-use-that-colourful-chart/
Lester, N. (2018a). Writing the First Draft of a Novel. Natasha Lester. Retrieved from https://www.natashalester.com.au/writing-the-first-draft-of-a-novel-2/
Lester, N. (2018b). Burrowing In: Working on the Second Draft of a Novel. Natasha Lester. Retrieved from https://www.natashalester.com.au/burrowing-in-working-on-the-second-draft-of-a-novel-2/
First image in the public domain by Instructional Design.