October is one of my favorite months. As a lifelong procrastinator, October will forever be highlighted in my calendar as the time that I begin to create my fiction outline before November. To writers, November can be the most hectic 30 days of the year. November is National Novel Writing Month (more well known as NaNoWriMo). If you are a fiction writer and a “Planner” like me, October is your last chance to pull together your overall plot and characters before the big event. This is the time to create your fiction outline. In this context, October becomes affectionately known as “NaNoPlanMo” or “Plotober.”
Of course, I only mention NaNoWriMo because it is October. Outlining is an immensely useful creative tool for any time and for any book. Not only can it be used to solidify your ideas during the planning stage, but it can give you direction during the writing process and reduce opportunities to get stuck. With an outline, you do not have to write your book in chronological order. You can approach your book with the confidence of knowing where it is going.
For some, the most difficult part of the writing process is getting started. Now that we know one of the best ways to begin your novel is with an outline – how the heck do you outline?
Your first step is to decide where you are going to create your outline. You can be “old school” and scribble it out by hand inside a notebook, or you could decorate a blank wall with post-its, note cards, or a whiteboard. Alternatively, you could use software such as Microsoft Word or Scrivener.
These days, most of us will be writing our manuscript in Microsoft Word or a similar word processing program. With Word, you can keep the formatting simple and easy to follow using bullet points for each section and plot point. Since virtually all computers are compatible with Word, you have access to cloud storage opportunities with One Drive, Drop Box, etc. Keeping your outline in the same place as your manuscript is probably the safest option. I would suggest keeping your outline in a separate file from your manuscript so that it is easy to find, easy to read, and most importantly, easy to edit.
If you are looking for something a little more advanced, you might want to look into using website and see if it would be a good fit for you. In the context of outlining, Scrivener allows you to break your manuscript up into sections. You can have a folder for “Part One” and then smaller sections that contain the text of your scenes. To make an outline, you can pre-make these sections with a synopsis of what needs to be accomplished in that particular chunk. When it is time to compose your manuscript, you can write directly in these sections and still view the structure of your outline on the left side of the program.
There isn’t a rulebook that tells you exactly where you should start or in what order you should create your fiction outline. Personally, I like to create my main character first. Your plot is going to be influenced by this person and the choices that they will make. There also isn’t a right or wrong way to create your character per se, and not all novels will follow the format that I will be describing. You will be able to make the decisions about keeping or rejecting these elements while crafting your manuscript. For outlining purposes however, I believe it is a good starting point.
In a traditional plot, the events and the main conflict of your story should transform your character in some way. This is called a “dynamic” character. They start the story with a distinct personality, goal, and beliefs. By the end of the story, one of these things should change. While there may be some “static” (unchanging) characters in your novel, main characters are almost always dynamic in traditional storytelling. You want your reader to stay invested in your story and to understand your purpose in writing it. If your main character does not have some sort of transformation by the end, your reader probably won’t either (if that is your intention).
What motivates your character and what do they want? Your character should have a goal – even if that goal is for things to stay exactly as they are. This makes the character relatable if not likeable. Your reader should have an interest in whether that goal is achieved.
Next, you’ll have a reason why the character can not attain that goal – at least at first. Something is in their way. What is it? This is the “conflict” of your plot. It could be some external force that prevents your character from getting what they want, or it could be an internal flaw with the character themselves.
Flaws are what make your characters real. You may have heard the term Mary/Gary Sue – this is a character without flaws and is laden with clichés. Everything goes perfectly for them and the reader is wondering why they are in this story in the first place. Avoid Mary/Gary Sue at all costs. Flaws are often the main cause of the conflict in your story – and never forget that a story without conflict is not a story at all.
If you wish for your novel to be character driven in such a way, you can consider creating character sheets as a part of your planning process. Scrivener has some character sheet templates pre-built into the program that can assist you with this, although it is customizable so that you can include information that is relevant to your story.
You can create a similar sheet in Word. Another classic technique is to conduct an “interview” with your character to discover their motivations.
These are only the raw basics of character development, but hopefully it is enough to get you started. While your character’s goals might change over time, it will give you something to explore in the opening of your novel.
Section One: Introduce Your Character and Set the Events In Motion
Now that you have a general idea of who your character is (and possibly a rough idea of what you are going to do to them) your first section should go a lot smoother. There are a few milestones that you should tap along the way. Each of these milestones should be a bullet point under the first section of your fiction outline.
Both readers and writers view the first chapter as the most important. The first chapter shows the reader why they should care about your character and the things that they have to say. If you are writing in an unusual setting (such as fantasy or science fiction), you need to introduce enough of your world to have a functional understanding but leave room to reveal more later.
Once this is established you can move on to the “inciting incident.” This is when you disrupt your character’s everyday life and force them down the path of change – the beginning of the conflict. Don’t give them the option of returning to their previous life. As much as we would like to think so, the human psyche (or I should say humanoid for those fantasy/scifi folks) does not change easily.
Section Two: The Middle Part That Few Actually Like Writing
It might be just my own experience, but the middle of the novel is the hardest part. Planning a new novel is exciting. There’re new characters, new places to explore, and of course, the big reveal at the end. Documenting the beginning and the end but neglecting the middle is like eating dessert first – and who doesn’t love dessert?
Without a doubt the middle of the novel is the juicy steak and creamy potatoes. It can be bland if you don’t treat it right. Give it some spice, however, and it’ll be your favorite part of the meal. This is where the drama happens. The Sturm and Drang. You know, the good stuff.
Your character reacts to the inciting incident and it all goes wrong. This section is full of plans which are subsequently destroyed. This constant stress is what forces your character to slowly realize their flaws and consider the change that is needed to attain their goal.
In your outline, create a few bullet points or sections with separate, smaller incidents and think about how your character will react to each one. Start small and build the intensity. Add some peaceful moments to create an emotional roller coaster. Make your reader feel like they should put their hands up as they wind their way through the narrative.
The section finally ends with the last torment – the lowest point of the book where all plans have failed, and your character is faced with only one choice: change. Literary scholars often refer to this point as “the bottom of the well.” Once you have reached the bottom, the only direction to go is up. The low point will allow you to smoothly transition into that ending you’ve been so excited to write.
Section Three: Metamorphosis and The Conclusion
By now your character has (hopefully) overcome or at least recognized their flaw. It is time to revisit their original goal. Can they still achieve this goal? Has the goal changed too? You should now be able to resolve the conflict of your plot.
Even if you plan to write a series, there should be some question from the beginning of the book that is answered by the end. If this is truly the end of the journey, give your reader a chance to reflect on how much your character has grown.
Because of this, reread the first section of your outline before or during the conclusion. Find the loose ends and fix them. If this is a series, fix enough of them that the reader will be satisfied that progress was made, but leave enough to continue the journey in the next installment.
This doesn’t always mean that your ending is going to be happy. There is as much to be gained from your character’s failed plans and unrealized goals – perhaps they never deserved their goal, or it was not meant to be. Your character is free to discover that what they wanted was not what they needed.
Here is a fun thought: everything that I just described is not law. There are no stone tablets telling you what you can and can’t do with your plot, and there isn’t a governing agency enforcing this structure. It is up to you to find your individual style and preferences. Hopefully this is enough to inspire you to get started.
Creating an outline is only one of many tools that are available to you, but it is certainly one of my favorites. I sincerely wish you a successful NaNoWriMo season and I hope to see you on the other side of a completed manuscript. My Word Publishing is here for you at any stage of your fiction writing journey.
Kerry Roepke is a genre fiction writer and a publishing consultant at My Word Publishing. She has a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Metropolitan State University of Denver and has a background in editorial journalism.