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.

To Plan or to Plunge

That worked for my first (published) book and it has sort of worked for books two and three (unfinished, unpublished).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.

I Google this subject often and this article by K.M. Weiland Writer's Digest is one of the best I've found. She says: 

"Outlines are not meant to trap you into preset ideas or sap your creativity before you start the first draft. Outlines are also definitely not meant to be lifeless Roman-numeral lists."

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?
Once you’ve answered these questions, combine them into one or two sentences: 
Restless farm boy (situation) Luke Skywalker (protagonist) wants nothing more than to leave home and become a starfighter pilot, so he can live up to his mysterious father (objective). But when his aunt and uncle are murdered (disaster) after purchasing renegade droids, Luke must free the droids’ beautiful owner and discover a way to stop (conflict) the evil Empire (opponent) and its apocalyptic Death Star.

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?

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