Outlining—you either love it or hate it. I happen to love it, and I’m going to share my approach with you today.
When I was in school, outlining felt suffocating. It was like death to creativity. Nothing irked me more than a free writing assignment that required an outline—and I usually wrote one after the fact (not exactly what my teachers had in mind, I’m sure). Years later, when I was attempting my first NaNoWriMo, I decided I needed some sort of strategy to get my word count in. I wrote the major points of my book in three paragraphs and called it good. And it was pretty good. I knew the main events and the ending, and it helped a bunch. But at the end of November, my manuscript was still a mess. I knew I could do better.
Fast-forward a couple more years, and now I proudly call myself an obsessive outliner. I use a mishmash of techniques that I’ve tweaked to fit my style. Before I begin to explain how I do it, I want to say that I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to outline—you need to do whatever feels good to you. And if that means pantsing it (writing by the seat of your pants), then do it! This is just what works for me. I hope it’ll help you as well.
Sum up your idea
First, I start by summing up my story into one paragraph. What’s it about? Who are the characters? How does it end?
Divide the idea into four parts
After that, I divide my idea into four parts and write a summary paragraph for each section, making sure to end the first three sections in conflict. I like to have something inconvenient happen to my character at the quarter mark and halfway through the book. The climax hits about three-quarters of the way through, and then the last quarter is for overcoming the problem and wrapping up the story.
Expand the sections into chapters
There are several ways you can go from this point. You have your story’s skeleton—you can start writing, if you want. Some writers will go on to expand these paragraphs into a page or two. Others may take it a step further and begin chapter outlines. That’s what I like to do.
I decide how many words is ideal for my novel. Then I decide how many chapters I want. For an 80,000 word novel, I’ll usually shoot for thirty. I like to write in short chapters, and that puts me at just under 2,700 words in each. You can have shorter chapters; you can longer ones. It’s completely up to you, and they’re bound to change as you’re writing.
Since I know I need my conflict at 1/4, 1/2, and 3/4 of the way through the story, those are the first chapters I fill in. For example, for my 80,000 word novel, I will have the 1/4 conflict at 20,000 words, which will fall in Chapter 7.
After I have my conflict in place, I begin to fill in each chapter. These little summaries don’t have to be long. I write a paragraph for each. Often, I will find I don’t have quite enough story points to fill them all in, and I brainstorm for ideas until I have a story that flows from beginning to end.
Now, as I’m writing my book, things often change. I’ll just go back and tweak my outline as needed. Sometimes one of my chapters will end up as two chapters. Other times two chapters may merge into one. Nothing is set in stone. The outline just keeps me moving toward the conflict.
After that, I begin to write! That’s really all there is to it. During my planning stages, I also like to fill out character and setting questionnaires. They really help if you’re stuck in the development stage; you’re bound to get new ideas when you’re working on them.
Whether you choose to outline or not, I hope this was useful for you! Also, if you have your own technique, be sure to add it in the comments. I love to hear how other people tackle the pre-writing stage.