A couple weeks ago, I published an article called 5 First Draft Tips:The Magic of Writing A Book where I shared five essential points to guide you through the process of drafting your book for the first time. Today, our writing tips series continues with another stage of a novel’s creation: the outline.
This article should have come before the First Draft piece, since outlining comes before drafting, but you can still go back to it here!
Now, let’s get into the reason you’re all here: outlining a book!
What’s an outline?
Are you thinking of writing your first novel, but don’t know what an outline is or how to make one? Do you keep seeing your writer friends talking about their outlines on social media without really knowing what it’s about? That’s okay, because I’m here to help!
You’ve certainly heard the word “outline” before in different contexts. In high school, or college, perhaps, when your teacher/professor talked about “outlining a paper.” Well, even though the outline of an academic paper varies in content and structure from that of a fiction novel, the purpose remains the same.
An outline is the skeleton of your book. It is the white canvas upon which you will paint your story, the basis of a steady, consistent plot. Here are 4 things to know about the outline of a fiction novel:
1. A full outline isn’t necessary before you start drafting
You don’t need a perfectly detailed, full outline of your story before you start drafting it, or maybe you do, or simply want one. Either way, the most important point of an outline is to help you figure out how you want your book to end. That ending might change to fit your story or characters more as you write or revise in later stages, but my advice is that you must know where you’re going with your plot. Otherwise, you risk getting caught up in everything and losing sight of your original storyline. Trust me, I’ve been there; it’s not fun running in circles trying to end a novel properly.
Why is the end so important?
Well, because the end is the last thing your reader will remember about your story. If it’s the first installment of a series, it will determine whether they’ll want to pick up the next one. If it’s a standalone, if might determine if they want to read more of your work. Whether the ending will make a good lasting impression depends on how well you’ve crafted it, and that begins with the outline. Of course, I’m not saying you need every single detail of your conclusion planned out, or that once you’ve outlined it, it’ll be set in stone. It’s just important to have a general direction to guide you throughout the process. And this brings us to my second point:
2. you don’t need to have every single scene of your book outlined before you start writing
Some writers like to have everything planned out in advance as it helps them stay focused on their goals. Others simply need a general idea of what they want to write. For my part, I like to have most of my chapters roughly outlined with characters, chronology, locations, and main idea. I don’t always outline all my chapters equally; some are heavier than others and need to be broken down into scenes, but I also like to let my characters choose their path and see if I want to roll with it. All in all, each outline is different, because each story and its writer are different. Whatever works for you. Just don’t lose perspective.
3. Outline revisions are an option
Wanting to alter a small or big part of your outline after you’ve started drafting is okay. In fact, sometimes it’s needed in order for you to be able to move on with the story. I was halfway through my first draft once, when I decided to make a major change in my outline. Instead of writing my book in the present with some flashback chapters, I wanted it to be equally set between “Now” & “Then” chapters. An outline revision helped me gain more perspective and adjust the structure accordingly.
Wasn’t it daunting, making so many changes like that?
It can be, yes. But on the long term, is was so much more beneficial than if I had continued with that outline and decided to add more past chapters after the first draft was done. Again, this is just my opinion; how I prefer to work. If you feel better sticking to your original outline until the first draft is complete and altering it later, that’s also an option. Everything can be fixed in revisions! Just don’t be afraid to make that decision.
4. turn to your critique partners for help
Reach out to your CPs if you have any doubts or want to brainstorm your outline. They are there to offer advice, and sometimes, having a pair of fresh eyes look over your work can do you a world of good. As writers, we get so engrossed in our manuscripts that it becomes hard for us to see the bigger picture. That’s what CPs are for!
I hope these outlining tips were helpful, and I will see you guys in our next writing advice article!