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?”
      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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