Drawing up the outline of what will be my next novel is one of the most exciting events in my writing process. This is because my outline is a mini version of the novel, the blueprint that keeps that novel on track from day one of writing until the bitter end, and it is the closest reflection of what that finished product will be like.
It also changes constantly throughout the writing process.
My outline is a seething mass of notes, colours and page references, an animated beast living on my computer where it is fed daily with the most up-to-date ideas, notes and questions, and it doesn’t rest until I push the button to publish the completed novel.
I know that many writers hate the idea of an outline because they believe that it stunts creativity and ties the author to a dull plan, rather like a prison sentence. I can understand why they feel that, but I prefer to think of my outline as a road map.
If you plan a road trip between two cities, it makes sense to research all the possible stops along the way, print out some maps and have a rough itinerary with an end date, notes about where to buy petrol, and a few ideas about the places you’d like to visit.
For me, a really good road trip is not a race to see how fast you can get to the next city, but a meandering adventure in which you explore many places along the way, stopping unexpectedly in small towns you might never have heard of but which beg further investigation because they look interesting. Likewise there will be places you thought sounded good on paper, but on reaching them, you decide to move along and see what else the road offers.
Before I became a writer, I used to think that a novel was just a very long short story; an extended version of a single idea, a single goal, a single concept. But a novel gets boring if it’s nothing more than an over-lengthy short story. When you read a book which bores you and you can’t quite put your finger on why, it’s usually because nothing new happens in the emotional development of the characters. They may reach their goals but it takes them so long to do so, that the reader is bored by the end and no longer invested in the story.
The secret is to have the characters’ goals constantly changing along the way. This is not to say that the characters are unable to make up their minds, but rather that circumstances around them keep interfering, blurring their focus, and forcing them to adapt to new problems.
For a good story, the goals of each character have to be buffeted by the machinations of the plot, and the emotional reactions of those characters to the plot make them constantly re-think their original goals. Just as they settle into a new path, the next plot development shifts those goalposts again, and they have to adjust once more.
And so on. The combination of external plot conflicts and characters whose motivations keep changing to form new goals, is what makes the reader want to keep turning those pages until it all comes together in the end with all the characters emerging older, wiser and hopefully better off than when they started.
Yes, it’s that simple. But also very complicated, which is why someone like me needs to have a proper outline before she can start to write the novel.
So how do I do this? My first step is to copy and paste my one-page synopsis into a new blank document, embolden all the major plot points – the places where external plot conflicts have a knock-on effect for one or more characters. Then I write a few lines beneath each plot point about the effect it has on the characters concerned. How do they react emotionally? How do their motivations change? How does this affect the evolution of the previous goal? Are there any new developments to insert into the story, either at this point or later on?
Once I’ve done this, I modify the document into an outline, and I start looking for possible cliff-hangers and high notes on which to end the chapters. Each chapter is given a number, and the name of the character from whose point-of-view the action is to be seen. When it all makes sense and reads like a mini novel, I’m ready to start writing.
As I write my first draft, I have two MS Word documents open on my computer the whole time – the outline to refer to, and the manuscript I am writing. As I follow the basic points listed on the outline for each chapter, I make a note of what page each chapter starts on, and how many pages each chapter is. In the manuscript itself, I always start each chapter on a new page, using the “Page break before” facility.
The outline grows as the novel grows, because on it I make daily notes about the text, such as new ideas or questions that I feel the characters might need to ask themselves. I also keep a general tally of my word count and the dates on which I finish each draft.
The most exciting thing about an outline is that it remains a living, breathing, evolving animal with its own way of telling the story. Despite working this out as far as possible before I start the actual writing of the novel, it will constantly change, so my outline is never printed out. The length of each chapter can adjust daily, so the number of pages in each chapter is adjusted on the outline as I work. This means that, at any time when I need to insert a new idea into the text I can pinpoint almost the exact page I need within a certain chapter, without having to scroll through more than three or four pages.
As the drafts mount up I get adventurous with highlighting on the outline. Bits that need to be researched, expanded or fixed are highlighted in red. I keep track of flashbacks or historical sections in different time frames by highlighting those chapter headings in the outline in either blue or green. If I have more than one point-of-view character, each has their chapter headings on the outline highlighted in a different colour too.
As I write drafts, every second draft consists of a light read-through, in which I make only slight adjustments to small things, and add more notes to the outline (in red) about what needs work in the following draft.
Some writers give each chapter a new document, but that would be too confusing for me. I like to have a sense of the whole thing at all times, and my outline and way of working allow me to do that.
I know every writer is different, but this is what works for me. If you are a writer, what works best for you? If you’re a reader, what is your opinion? I’d be interested to hear.