Years ago, when GPS devices were new, clunky, and attached to your dashboard, I took a vacation in the mountains. There was a famous restaurant in the area that I wanted to try, so I entered their address and started off.
According to my Garmin, I would arrive at the restaurant in 20 minutes. At 25 minutes, I wondered if I had missed a turn. At 30 minutes, I became concerned that I’d messed up the address. When I hit 45 minutes, I pulled over at a ramshackle little hotel attached to the side of the mountain and went inside.
I asked the owner if she knew where the restaurant I wanted was. “There,” she said, pointing toward the windows of her tiny lobby where the valley and surrounding mountains spread out beyond.
“There?” I asked. I looked across the wide valley and saw the glint of the setting sun on glass. “That’s it,” she said. “It’s about fifteen minutes from here.”
The GPS had taken me around the valley. Twice. Without even a hint that I kept missing my goal.
The experience of writing without an outline can be like that, too. You‘re certain the way is clear, but end up going around and around, never arriving at your destination. Along the way, it feels like you’re making progress and some of the scenery is interesting and exciting, but you never get where you really want to go.
WHY AN OUTLINE WORKS
Having an outline works because it gives you the blueprint of your story before you start building it. Working first with the blueprint allows you to see the big picture, move sections around, add or delete elements, and evaluate if the structure is sound and will deliver your vision in an engaging, interesting way.
It’s a lot easier to change an outline than it is to change a 90,000 word novel that took you months to write.
To create an outline, follow these steps:
- Brainstorm where the protagonist starts (beginning), where their world turns upside down (middle), and where they face the antagonist and triumph, or fail (end).
- After brainstorming answers to the above questions, describe the journey of your protagonist in three sentences, one for each part — beginning, middle, and end.
- Write one to three sentences about the secondary story line, which is often a relationship arc. Do the same for the tertiary story line, if there is one.
- Brainstorm and list the twists and turns, mysteries and discoveries, conflicts, disasters, and triumphs that your protagonist experiences as they move through these story lines from beginning, to middle, to end.
- Now, brainstorm what happens in each chapter of your book and write a short description of it. As you get used to this process, sometimes a chapter title for your own reference is enough.
- Finally, take time away from the work you’ve done. After one to three days, come back and see if there are any elements you can improve, or intriguing layers you can add.
You now have your blueprint. Great job!
NOTE: If you want to take your outline to the scene level, that’s easy to do. Once you’ve decided on what each chapter contains, simply follow steps 1, 4 and 5 for each one to create its scenes. For step 1, antagonist can mean any form of challenge to the characters, depending on the chapter’s placement in the story.
COMMON QUESTIONS ABOUT OUTLINES
What if I get inspired along the way and want to change something?
Inspiration is always a welcomed gift when writing. Honor it. Trust that you’ve done the work, know the journey and characters, and understand where you want to go. If the inspired new direction meets the structure of your outline, move forward with it. If it doesn’t, but you like it better, change the outline. You’re the writer. You get to create what you want.
What if I review my outline and it’s boring?
First, breathe a sigh of relief that you’re still at the outline level and not 60,000 words into your story. Next, look at each place where you feel the story slows down and brainstorm what could happen to make it more interesting.
Some questions you can ask yourself are:
- What if ________ happens before/now/next?
- What’s beneath that?
- Who could be behind this, and what’s their goal?
What if I don’t want to work on an outline and would rather just write as it comes to me?
That’s perfectly fine. You’re the writer. You get to do what you want.
Some people are able to outline in their heads, sometimes without even realizing it. I’m not that organized. Plus, it gives me a headache. For me to write a story a reader can’t put down, and that inspires a following beyond family and close friends, I have to outline. Maybe you do, too. Give it a try and see what happens.
For more help on how to structure a story, see Story Arc.
See you on the bestsellers list!