Writing About Writing: Outlining a Novel
If you've ever started writing a novel but find yourself stuck halfway through, having an outline may benefit you and your process. While outlines don't work well for all writers (here's looking at you, pantsers!), they are a highly effective writing tool to maintain focus and help you finish your story.
All stories have structure, even novels written by pantsers, but an outline is different. An outline combines your story structure with other critical elements to inform the breadth of the work. Your story outline should be fluid and malleable to ensure you retain creative flow as your plot unfolds. The outline will keep you on track, keep you from stalling, and provide a reference point when you need a life preserver to continue.
So, how does one create an effective outline for a manuscript? Well, it depends. An outline process that works well for one writer may not work well for others. Here are some tips to help you find your path to a great outline.
Write a One-Sentence Story Summary
Seriously, that is the advice here. Make the sentence simple, short, and concise. Your single sentence may become a fantastic marketing tool--the elevator pitch. See also Nailing the Elevator Pitch.
Determine Story Structure
While there are common elements in each fiction story, knowing the structure of your story will help you finish writing the story you started writing because A must connect to B. See also The MICE Quotient for a review of structure.
Nobody is perfect, and your characters shouldn't be either. Characters that are human (or humanesque/humanoid), vulnerable, and flawed will create a more believable and relatable story. Know your characters' backstories to inform your writing. See also Developing Characters with Tarot.
Map the Plot
Each story contains a carefully selected sequence of events, the what of the story, that compels the reader to either continue reading or put a novel in the dreaded DNF pile. Whether your plot centers around an adventure, romance, transformation, mistake, temptation, chase, or gift, your goal should be to grab your reader and refuse to let go until the bitter (or not so bitter) end.
Whether the entire novel takes place during a single day in a family home or traverses all of the multiverses, knowing where your characters will be at various plot points will help focus your imagery and build your world.
Leverage a simple play-by-play of each chapter to ensure you are working toward the conclusions of all plots and subplots, tying up character development, and wrapping up the structural integrity of the manuscript in ways that make sense for your story. Remember that you're not writing the chapters during the outlining process. You are simply summarizing them so that you may write more freely later.