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How to Outline Your Novel


If you were building a house, you would not paint the kitchen before the foundation has been laid. The same rule can hold true for constructing a novel. Creating an outline of the book gives you a firm structure. You can see if the spine of the story will hold up as you pile on thousands of words. It also can keep you on track during the long writing process. While there is no hard and fast rule to creating a novel, having an outline can make the sometimes insurmountable task of completion a little easier.

Beginning

Create an opening scene for the book. For first-time writers, an action scene can help grab the attention of an agent or publisher. A mystery might begin with a murder. Historical fiction might start with a battle. Remember that the opening line and paragraph sets the tone for the book. If you are writing a fast-paced thriller, the first sentence should reflect the speed of the story, not bore the reader.

Introduce your main character(s). While some characters might not be met until the middle of the book, your protagonist should be seen in the first chapter or two. Show the protagonist's strengths and weaknesses. Write out six specific flaws the protagonist possess, ones that will be dealt with during his journey. The protagonist often starts off in stasis, meaning he's at a place in his life where he needs something, like a journey, to turn his life around.

Create an inciting incident, which throws the protagonist's life in another direction. He might experience the death of someone close to him, or he could get an invitation to a wizardry school, like Harry Potter. This event should give the protagonist a call to action. He might be called to solve a murder or prevent a terrorist act.

Write out the debate the protagonist has to decide, whether or not to answer the call to action. This might be an actual debate with another question, or an internal one. Decide what the character must risk in order to take the journey, which should come with even more danger. Crossing the street would not typically be an exciting journey, unless the protagonist has not left his home in 30 years. And the debate should end with the protagonist answering the call.

Middle

Establish the world the protagonist must enter on his journey. This might be a completely new realm if you are writing fantasy, or it simply might be the seedy underbelly a detective must travel in crime fiction. Often a new character will be introduced to guide the character through the new world.

Introduce the B-story to the plot. This might be a love interest in a thriller or mystery. The B-story should might seem separate from the main thrust of the plot, but it should weave its way into the A-story throughout the novel.

Fulfill the promise of the premise by listing scenes which will showcase the unique and exciting qualities of the book. For example, author J.K. Rowling showed Harry Potter getting his first wand and attending various classes on magical spells. A mystery shows the detective learning important clues and uncovering information. These scenes should incorporate the protagonist's flaws, showing how the protagonist must change in order to reach the end of the journey.

Create a dynamic shift with the midpoint. If things have been going well for the protagonist, introduce an event to throw things into a different direction. The midpoint will keep the plot from becoming stale. It often offers an obstacle the character must deal with. The antagonist might start closing in or even face off with the protagonist in a small conflict.

Create a ticking clock or speed up the clock. Thrillers often set the ticking clock in motion early in the story, like a spy who must stop a nuclear bomb from going off. But even if the ticking clock has been introduced, at some point the clock typically gets sped up to increase tension. The middle should end with the protagonist seemingly failing to stop the crisis. She might be incarcerated or the case might go cold, but just before all is lost, she should come up with a solution, sometimes with the help of the B-story.

End

List the steps the protagonist must take in order to reach the final conflict. Throw obstacles at her as she races against the clock.

Describe the final battle. It can be a little vague, but it should capture the climactic event, where the protagonist must face off against the antagonist.

Wrap up loose ends from the various subplots. Not every one needs to be neatly concluded, but the important ones should be dealt with in some manner. If the novel is a stand-alone book, the ending should bring some conclusion. The first book of a series should set up the following book.

Tips
  • Be as detailed as you feel necessary in your outline.
  • When writing the book, refer to the outline regularly and make changes when necessary.
  • If you're unsure where a chapter or scene might go in the book, write it on a note card, which you can insert later.
  • If you want to prepare even more, each chapter can be outlined.
  • Include bits of description and dialogue in the outline, if you want.
Warnings
  • Don't start writing the novel until the basic story structure has been outlined.
  • Unless you know how the protagonist's journey will end, it can be more difficult to build his arc.
  • If you don't vary your scenes, mixing up positive and negative events, the story can begin to feel stale.
References
About the Author

Anthony Szpak started writing professionally in 1998 as an undergraduate. He has sold television pilots to Castlerock, FX and 20th Century Fox. He has also inked a development deal with Paramount Television and his fiction has been featured in the "Rockhurst Review" and on Short-Story.net. He received his Master of Fine Arts in fiction from Columbia University.

Photo Credits
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