How to Outline a Novel

In this post, I compare two novel outlining approaches and discuss. This post will probably be edited over time as I have the opportunity to apply elements of both approaches and discover what works for me.

K.M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel is an outstanding book on the why and how of outlining novels. I devoured it and found myself a little overwhelmed by the end. This post is my attempt to corral what I learned from her book. I highly recommend her book, by the way. This post isn’t meant as a replacement for her book, merely as an overview to help me (and anyone else who wanders this way) get a grip on the outlining process she recommends.

  1. Defining your premise.
    1. Ask as many “What if?” questions as you can think of.
    2. Ask “what is expected?” Then turn the expectations on their head whenever possible.
    3. Write a one-sentence (or two tops) premise.
  2. Define your inciting event (this can also occur later when you’re developing your protagonist and antagonist in either B or D below). In fact, in Outlining Your Novel, she puts the discussion of the inciting event in the section on creating character backstory. In my case, with my WIP, the inciting incident was one of the first pieces which struck me–it came in the same neat little bundle as my premise.
  3. Sketch things out.
    1. [GENERAL STORY] Summarize all the scenes you’re aware of (a scene list). Ask lots of “what ifs.”
      1. Don’t be afraid to say “I’m not sure what happens here.” Come back to it later.
      2. Fill in the blanks by asking questions.
      3. Whenever stumped, ask questions rather than making statements. E.g., “the dog has a high-powered firearm” vs. “just how did that dog come into possession of a high-powered firearm?”
    2. [CHARACTERS]
      1. Make an overview list of the various characters and their motives for various actions.
      2. Then dig into each character…
        1. Understand who he is at the beginning of the story, in the middle, and in the end.
        2. Write a list of the worst things that could happen to them (or the best things that could happen to them–and then flip it around to find the worst things).
        3. Who do they clash with and why?
        4. What do they want? Fear? Hope for?
        5. Characters desires? hopes? goals? needs? fears? buttons?
        6. Ask: Weakness? Who does he hurt? Who hurts him? What does he want? What does he need? What does he know at the beginning/middle/end? What is he wrong about in the beginning/middle/end? What will he learn by the end? Hero’s central problem?
    3. [THEME]
      1. Make a list of words which ground you in your theme…words which strike a chord inside you when you think of your story. No two stories share the same list.
      2. Images which remind you of your story or inspire your story-related thoughts.
      3. Symbolism you can put into your story to highlight and strengthen the theme.
      4. Define your thematic principle and your theme (I’m not clear what this means).
    4. [BACKSTORY]
      1. Explore the story before the story which led up to the inciting event.
      2. Then explore the backstory of each of your characters.
      3. Then interview your characters, asking them probing questions (or inane questions should they prove resistant).
      4. If useful, write the backstory of the setting for your novel. In my case, this was essential as I’m writing a fantasy novel. In fact, as KM Weiland (as I recall) asserts, setting can be a character in its own right. In any case, when you’ve got your characters running around an exotic locale or interacting with artifacts or institutions or social mores and lore, it can be useful to define what came from where and why.
    5. Outline your novel succinctly.
      1. This is your final step before starting the writing process: this is where you make a linear list of single sentences describing what happens in each scene (one sentence per scene). This will be your road map as you begin to write.
    6. Begin writing your first draft. Give yourself permission to suck.

Another approach is the “Snowflake Method,” championed by Advanced Writing Fiction. It goes something like this:

  1. Write a premise sentence for your novel.
  2. Flesh it out into a paragraph describing story setup, major conflict, and end/resolution.
  3. Write a one-page character summary (this snowflake method description was taken from here):
    • The character’s name
    • A one-sentence summary of the character’s storyline
    • The character’s motivation (what does he/she want abstractly?)
    • The character’s goal (what does he/she want concretely?)
    • The character’s conflict (what prevents him/her from reaching this goal?)
    • The character’s epiphany (what will he/she learn, how will he/she change?
    • A one-paragraph summary of the character’s storyline
  4. Flesh out each sentence of your story summary into a paragraph.
  5. Describe your major characters in a page, and your other main characters in half-a-page. These should tell the story from each of the characters perspectives.
  6. Now expand every paragraph of your story synopsis into a full page.
  7. Expand your character descriptions as fully as possible (this is a little unspecific on the Advanced Fiction Writing website in that there’s little indication of how this step differs from step 5).
  8. Write your novel.

As you can see, there are areas of overlap between the two approaches; Or, more accurately, an area of overlap. Both approaches advocate knowing who your characters are. Where they differ is that the Snowflake Method basically gets you to a fairly robust plot synopsis (several pages), and a thorough understanding of your characters. The KM Weiland method gets you the same, plus a lot of additional peripheral story material which may help your story be more alive and dynamic when you finally put pen to paper.

Both approaches will probably get you to the same place (writing a novel), and indeed, the Snowflake Method could be utilized in KM Weiland’s method by building on ideas as they arise. I.e., as you’re writing your stream of consciousness of awesome (!) and crappy 😦 ideas in your initial sketching phase (or thereafter), you could use the Snowflake Method to build out ideas when you return to them. Of course, the Snowflake Method may entail using the “What if?” style questions that KM Weiland suggests. In that, if you have a gun-toting mangy dog, perhaps you ask, “what if the gun toting dog is an African warlord who moved to L.A.?” Or something equally ridiculous.

So the above is my understanding of two different outlining methods. I’ll return to the topic as I experiment with both and let you know what has ended up working for me–which, by the way, seems to be the biggest challenge in moving to an “outline first” mode, versus a pantsing approach. I’ve tried the pantsing, and it sucks. Oh, it’s nice to just start typing, but man, when you run into that wall and have no idea where to go next…it’s brutal. In my mind, the only downside to outlining, is that you have to reign yourself in, and–in essence–hold your horses while you plan your expedition. Oh, and you have to learn how to outline–which is a separate and distinct skill. Yet, I believe once one masters the ability to outline in a way which is efficient and effective for them, they’ll be a far more productive and effectual writer.

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Great Writing Is…

In rereading The Forest for the Trees–one of my favorite books on writing–I was struck by Betsy Lerner’s many references to Great Literature and the Great Authors which created it. Many of her examples are from… Well, many names that we all recognized and may even have read in high school or college. Some of the authors and works have even been read for fun by the literary elite–what I call people who take their literature seriously and sniff at anything less than A Tale of Two Cities, or anything by Dickenson. My father and siblings are among them, so I like to think I know what I’m talking about. They believe THOSE books are worth reading and the trudge through them with determination. Yet they devour Harry Potter and avidly await each sequel. But Harry Potter isn’t great literature and conversation about the series focuses on the entrancing tale, rather on what meaning the books hold for life and society.

My point is that, as I read The Forest for the Trees, I found myself wondering if Great Literature really had to be as oppressively bleak as so much of it has been. Or, instead, if Great Literature is something else… Something which maybe Harry Potter and, say, The Hunger Games, capture but is overlooked by the literary elite.

I might even argue that the Great Literature of the past isn’t all that great. See, in my opinion the greatest literature incorporates more than just a harsh unflinching perspective on life. It incorporates everything else as well: the banal, the trite, the meaningful. It doesn’t have to be, nor should it be, a scaring look at life as an whore in Iraq with all the incumbent tragedy (not referencing any specific book that I know of). Instead, even a book with that as it’s subject matter needs more to be truly great. Merely poring out the worst which resides inside we writers is not sufficient to craft Great Literature (or fiction or whatever). We must also tap our secret hopes, desires, dreams, and goals. Even the most horrific monsters in human history have a more dynamic inner life than we might credit them with. As writers we must put it all on the page. Hitler, while gassing millions of Jews, probably harboured hopes and dreams which popular history doesn’t expose.

As a writer, I don’t see myself writing what we typically call Great Literature. I don’t aspire to pour the venom in myself to the pages and from there into my readers minds. I aspire to tell meaningful stories which achieve greatness by encapsulating the entirety of the human experience. In fact, some of the most entertaining and engrossing books I’ve read have been “childrens” books which contain the full spectrum of human behavior. There are villains which are only villains because the reader sees the consequences of the villains actions from a different perspective than the villain himself. There are the good guys which are merely “good” because their guiding principles mirror the traditional mores of the society we live in. And both “good” and “bad” do good and bad things. As they say, the best villains do bad things with the best of intentions.

The weird thing is that you’ll rarely (well, perhaps never) hear any fantasy books called Great Literature. And why is that? Because fantasy deals with worlds and lives and technology or magic which isn’t real? But often the characters, their motivations, and the outcomes of their actions are all too real. Why do we discount them simply because they aren’t an expose on New York society–calling out the author’s family and friends and lambasting them in excruciating detail?

Back to my original point: we as readers and writers must broaden our definition of Great Literature to encompass all literature which illuminates the human experience. When we dig deep we need to summon not just our inner demons but also the angels as well. We must pour to the pages what horrified us, tempts us, disgusts us, AND also pour out our most deeply held convictions, mores, hopes, dreams, and desires. Great Literature can be written in any genre and any form, and that we makes it truly great is simply the degree to which it fully encapsulates the human experience.

The Opportunity Cost

I’m one of the unfortunates blessed with more than one ability. For writers it is helpful if they are instead blessed only with one ability: to write. If you’re capable of achieving success in multiple endeavors, writing by comparison is a difficult pill to swallow. Writing is a solitary endeavor plagued frequently by immense investment and little fiscal reward.  Sure,  it’s easy to say that the intrinsic rewards make it all worthwhile, but at the end of the day we’ve all gotta eat. And this is the quandary someone like myself faces. I can do more than write. I can do a lot of things well which pay well. I can make a living as an economist, working as an analyst at a bank, or as a computer scientist, developing out-of-this world software. Money beckons. But fulfillment lies in writing,  and that is a future much more uncertain. So, as I have a family for which I provide, I must find a way to make the ends meet while pursuing the unlikely (or so I’m told) dream of making a living as a writer. And yes, it doesn’t have to be gobs of money. My wife and I can swing a double-wide on a few acres of land in the middle of nowhere and live “off the grid” if that’s what it takes… But we still have to get there. Which means I’m going to have to suffer being good at things which make lots of money until the day I’ve developed my abilities enough and my reader-base enough to rely on the writing income alone. The challenge–the primary challenge–is to put in the blood, sweat, and tears necessary to develop as a writer when the easy tedium of a “normal” life calls so strongly… The fat paychecks arrive reliably on a biweekly schedule, and life does it’s best to be similarly uncomplicated. There is no uncertainty there, and if you’re reasonably good even the loss of a cushy gig doesn’t scare you much because other cushy gigs abound. A writer chooses a much more uncertain, dangerous path. How much will you make? When will you get paid? Will it be enough to cover rent, utilities, credit card payments, groceries, insurance? Your wife may never ask, but these are the questions you both worry about. Sometimes it seems easier to smother the creative voices inside which percolate ideas and themes and images and opt for the easy road early. But therein lies the rub. Smother those voices and you become just another unfulfilled middle-aged male watching football on Sundays while his wife nags him to take out the garbage, stain the porch, and show more interest in the kids. Those people drink more beer than they should and drown themselves in whatever meaningless entertainment they can find to distract themselves from the screams of their dying creative side. But they have a steady paycheck and life is okay.

There are no easy answers. The only one which is clear is that in order to be fulfilled a writer must write, even if only for themselves. Making a living at it is a secondary concern which will mostly realize itself as more books are written. They say you have to write a million words before you’re any good anyhow, and that’s a lot of words. So you write your ten books and then start writing good stuff, and maybe you self-publish on Amazon, and maybe 100 people buy your book(s). And maybe that’s not enough to pay the bills and you have to keep the job with the steady paycheck, but at least that way you’re still fulfilled. And then, even if you are a middle-aged balding male, you don’t feel empty inside because you’re listening to the voices inside, expressing them, and by doing so validating yourself more deeply than anything else in your life can. You may even voluntarily take out the trash, stain the deck, and help the kids with their homework.