Why You Should Outline Your Novel
Welcome to the course!
My name is K.M. Weiland, and I’m the internationally published and award-winning author of historical and speculative fiction and acclaimed writing how-to books such as Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success.
Over the next ten days, you’ll learn how to take your story from an idea to a powerfully realized novel.
Today, we’ll talk about some important basics about the what, why, and how of outlining.
What Should Your Novel Outline Look Like?
There are a surprising number of options authors might be talking about when they say they’re “outlining.”
Here are the top three:
1. Does Outlining Mean Listing Scenes?
This is probably the most common understanding of an outline. It harks back to those crazy Roman numeral outlines we were required to complete in high school.
For example, here’s an excerpt from my medieval novel Behold the Dawn:
I. Gethin confronts Annan in Italy, and Annan follows him to the Crusade.
II. Roderic hires Annan to kill Matthias, Gethin, William, and kidnap Mairead; Annan agrees only to kill Matthias.
III. Roderic is unsure how to take the news of Annan’s “accepting” the job.
IV. Annan is injured in the siege and taken prisoner.
V. He is nursed by the wife of his one-time mentor, who is dying.
Scene-list outlines often give writers the willies. Just sitting down and creating a list of events that might happen in your story seems mind-numbing. How can that not inevitably sap all the joy out of actually creating and discovering the story? If you have to follow that dry old outline while writing the first draft, where’s the fun of storytelling?
This understanding, by itself, is single-handedly responsible for scaring many authors away from outlining.
2. Does Outlining Mean Creating Story Structure?
The second most popular—and much more accurate—approach to outlines is the idea of creating a viable story structure for your novel before you actually start the first draft.
In essence, this approach actually isn’t that different from the scene list. But instead of randomly listing one scene after another, you’re focusing on the major plot points and other structural moments and making sure they’re all accounted for near their proper timing.
This approach is a part of outlining. But by itself, it isn’t outlining. By itself, it too creates far too great a risk of sapping the creativity and spontaneity right out of your process.
3. Does Outlining Mean Brainstorming Your Story?
If outlining isn’t simply listing scenes or figuring out story structure ahead of time—what is it?
● Outlining is brainstorming, pure and simple.
Outlining isn’t a process of sitting down for thirty minutes and coming up with a list of scenes that fits the Three-Act structure. Not at all. No wonder people get scared and bored by outlines if that’s how they’re approaching them!
● What outlining should be is a process of discovery.
When you sit down to outline your story, you are entering an exciting zone of creativity in which you’re embracing and sorting through all your story’s vast possibilities. You’re asking informed questions to help you narrow down your story’s best possibilities so you can enter your first draft equipped to write it in the best way.
Why You Should Learn to Outline Your Novel
The best approach to outlining is really all three of the above approaches rolled into one. Eventually, as you refine your outlining process, you’re certainly going to be brainstorming story structure and scene lists. But if you try to create scenes and structure without entering through the door of creativity, you’ll be setting yourself up for several major pitfalls, including:
● Stilted stories
● Boring first drafts
● Loss of interest in the story
● Painful preparation
If you’ve experienced any of the above in previous outlining attempts, you can now breathe a sigh of relief.
Your outlining is about to get really, really fun.
The outlining approach I use and teach is seriously in-depth. Some finished outlines can run as much as 50,000 words in their own right and take several months to complete. Some writers choke on this. But aside from the fact that all this time spent on outlines is just plain fun, it also spares you the doubt and frustration of first drafts that don’t work. Your first drafts will flow, and even better, they will usually require very little in the way of major revision.
Good. Tomorrow, we’re going to dive into the best ways to maximize your creativity, answer your novel’s most pressing questions, and create an outline that will deliver solid first drafts.
And the best part? You get to pick and choose which pieces of this method work for you and your specialized mix of plotting and pantsing!
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