Lessons for Beginning Novelists: To Outline or Not

This is the second of three posts offering help to beginning novelists

Writing can be like falling in love. It’s on your mind day and night, and you can’t wait to sit down at your computer and type out the next scene. For many beginners the problem comes in when you “hit the wall” which can lead to writer’s block and result in your story never being published.

The phrase “hit the wall” comes from running. Anyone who’s ever run cross-country knows the feeling. As the race begins, you feel excited and energetic, and you may start out too fast. Suddenly, however, you feel out of breath and can barely move your legs. That’s the proverbial wall. Runners learn how to cope with that feeling. Novelists need to learn how to avoid it, or if they can’t, they need to know how to move forward when progress seems impossible.

The wall for writers can be one of several points in the process where you feel stymied, you might not know what comes next in your story or you’ve written yourself into a corner and don’t know how to rescue your story, or you might find your novel is too short (under 50,000 words) or too long (over 150,000 words).

Like some runners, you may have started out too fast. Writers, like long-distance runners, need to pace themselves if they want to reach the finish line.

The best way to avoid hitting the wall is to outline your story either before you start writing or after that initial burst of writing when the story idea first explodes into your consciousness.

Outlining a novel doesn’t have to be like the outlines you prepared in high school or college. In fact, the farther you depart from forcing a structure onto your outline the better.

The keys to an effective writer’s outline are as follows:

1) Write down the core story idea in as few words as possible. Example: A hobbit is charged with destroying a dangerous ring that threatens the world.

2) Expand on the core idea by describing the story in parts. In Part I, the hobbit accepts the mission and along the way friends join him. In Part II, evil forces have amassed to stop him, but he survives with the help of his allies. In Part III, it’s up to him and him alone to complete the mission.

3) Next write a longer description of each part, introducing minor story lines and characters. It’s not essential that you break down each part into chapters, but if you sub-divide each part, it will give you a sense of proportion. You may discover, for example, that one part is much longer than the others, in which case you’ll need to re-balance, perhaps by removing a subplot.

Outlines should be fluid documents. They provide you with guideposts to keep you pointed towards your ending. Go back and edit your outline any time the story doesn’t work out the way you thought it might. Also, if despite your advance planning, you hit a wall, your outline can help you figure out at what point you need to change direction so that you reach your destination.

Add-on: I find it useful to create spreadsheets to list characters and places by name and purpose in the story. This can save you time as well as help you avoid things like having too many of your characters end up with similar sounding names or spelling a character’s name differently in different parts of your story.

In the end writing is not a race, but there is a finish line. Hence pacing or outlining can help you reach your goal. Once you finish that first draft, you’ll be ready to start revising, which is the topic of my next column.

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