Monday, May 6, 2013

Four Ways to Outline a Novel

If you're a writer, the word "outline" might bring to mind all sorts of images, some positive, others not so much. For me, it often takes me back to high school English class, carefully making bullet points using capital letters, number, little letters, etc, and then trying to figure out where to plug things. It's awful. The word makes me shudder. I despise those outlines. I don't use them when planning a novel or a short story. That sort of outline zaps all the creativity right out of me (as well as zapping all my joy and sending me spiraling back to high school). No, thank you.

I prefer to think of the planning process as just that... planning. Brainstorming. Sorting out major points before I get down to the nitty gritty. Ah, that's much better. I'm feeling calmer already. Maybe you're like me, and the idea of doing an outline makes you want to run screaming. But still, you're tempted to try it. Maybe you rewrote that last novel five times and you're sure there's a better, lazier more efficient way. Well, there are ways to outline and still have some fun and spontaneity.

Mind mapping might appeal to those of you who are the most averse to the idea of rigid outlines. I like using it at the very beginning of a project when I just want to get down any idea that springs to mind. You can use different colors for different ideas or characters. I like to get one of those huge drawing pads at the arts and crafts store and settle down with my markers and just fill the paper with ideas. Also, the finished project is art in and of itself. Some mind maps look like dendrites to me.

If you have an idea of who your characters are, but you have no idea what's going to happen to them, you can sit down with a series of questions and sketch out a novel outline in an hour. You spend up to five minutes on each question and end up with your character's goal, what's at stake, potential sources of conflict, and a character arc. Not bad for an hour's work. I like to type this one up as I type way faster than I can write by hand. I end up jotting down any and every idea that comes to mind, then going back over the questions and adding details later or throwing out what doesn't resonate with me.

If you're looking for a more traditional method of outlining, the three act structure might appeal to you. Now, plenty of people have described the three act structure, but none, to my knowledge, have ever compared it to spanx, at least until recently. This is actually a great, simple description of three act structure, and the post also includes a few cute pictures in case you're more of a visual learner. I'm not the biggest fan of the three act structure, but somehow my stories end up fitting the mold if I don't plan for a different structure ahead of time.

Yet another method of outlining is the seven point structure. I first heard of this when I watched this video, the first in a series of lectures given by Dan Wells. You can also find out more by googling "seven point story structure," but I really enjoyed the lecture and took notes as I watched it. However, I wouldn't necessarily recommend it for planning a novel ahead of time. Instead, I think it works better when you're getting ready to edit and you want to make sure the story you've already written hangs together well. But, it's still good to have in the back of your mind as you're planning and writing.

And now, if you'll excuse me, it's time to pull out some blank paper and my markers.

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