May 17, 2022
by Samantha Hoffman
The question of whether or not to outline your novel is probably explored more often than any other writing topic.
I do not outline, I just write. I have an idea in my head, something I've thought about for a long time, and I begin. I know the beginning, middle and end of my story, and the two or three main characters, and the rest is a process of discovery.
That worked for my first (published) book and it has sort of worked for books two and three (unfinished, unpublished). When I'm stuck, however, when the story has gone off the rails or the ending isn't working, or I'm wondering if certain characters are necessary, I think, I should have done a damn outline. And then I think, well, I still can so at times I try that. I'm not good at it. I set out to lay the nearly-finished book out in a linear way. My thinking is that I will be able to see it all as a piece and figure out what's wrong.
Seems like that should be easy since I know so much of the story by that time, but it's not. One of the problems is I'm not sure I know what an outline should be. There are lots of different methods How to Outline a Book in 7 Easy Steps, various recommendations How to Outline a Book, lots of models 12 Best Novel Outlines.
For my "outline" I try to write one or two lines for each chapter describing what's happening or what should be happening. (I also put in the time of year or how much time should have passed since the last chapter, because it's really hard to keep all that straight as you go along.) That's been helpful. Not the resolution I feel like it should be, but helpful.
She also says that your outline should begin with a tightly crafted premise sentence that can answer the following questions:
Who is the protagonist?
What is the situation? What is the hero’s personal condition at the beginning? How will that condition be changed, for better or worse, by the hero himself or by the antagonistic force?
What is the protagonist’s objective? At the beginning, what does the hero want? What moral (or immoral) choices will she have to make in her attempt to gain that objective?
Who is the opponent? Who or what stands in the way of the hero achieving his objective?
What will be the disaster? What misfortune will befall the hero as the result of her attempts to achieve her objective?
What’s the conflict? What conflict will result from the hero’s reaction to the disaster? And what is the logical flow of cause and effect that will allow this conflict to continue throughout the story?
Maybe even more than the outline, I think that crafted premise is essential.
If you don't outline, and have no desire to, try this: Can you describe your novel in two sentences? I can't. Not yet, but I'm working on it. Best selling author Ann Garvin says you should create your elevator pitch as early as you can, two sentences that, when someone asks what your book is about, you're ready with the answer.
That's brilliant. It's a mini-mini-mini outline. Having that in your head as you're writing helps you focus on the story.
I'm curious, and I'd love your help. If you're inclined, please answer these questions and maybe we can help each other.
Do you outline?
If not, why not?
If an outline is essential to your process, do you have a template you use?
If you write to discover, are there exercises or tricks you use to keep the story moving?
Writer, editor, artist, personal assistant, private chef, runner (8-time marathoner), film and theatre buff, traveler… Author of What More Could You Wish For (St. Martin’s Press).
V.P. of the Chicago Writers Association, Executive Director of Let’s Just Write! An Uncommon Writers Conference.
Visit me at www.samanthahoffman.com
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