Friday, March 18, 2011

Roman Numerals Are Not The Enemy

If you're like me, when you think of outlining, you think of Roman Numerals.  Of chalk squeaking on chalkboards, black-and-white essay books, of excruciatingly long days in high school with goofy guys hogging the teacher's attention...

(Yeah, I know it's blurry.  Much like my own memories of high school. Thank goodness.)

Many writers prefer "pantsing" a novel, that is, writing it by the seat of their pants.  It's free, it flows, it's Bohemian and liberating and wild!

Photo by prozac1 at FreeDigitalImages
It can be wild, all right. It can also lead to the Half-Novel to No Where.

I knew an extremely talented writer.  Her
pages were lyrical, poetic; the dialogue blended well with the narration, the pacing was excellent, and everyone loved her characters.

But, she didn't want to use outlines. She trusted the story to lead her where it wanted to go.

And she had a stockpile of 5-6 novels written to about page 200-300, and then abandoned, because she didn't know how she wanted them to end.

For most writers, we need to know where we're going. And most types of novels: mystery, sci-fi, thrillers - need structure.  Genre romance, in particular is very structured: we need to meet the Main Characters by page X, and the first kiss must occur by page Y, and so on.
A good outline is like a blueprint of your story. The same way an architect would never start building a house without first knowing where he was going, neither should a writer start building his story without first knowing where it's going. (from
Outlining doesn't have to be the drudgery it was in your school days.  It can be an exciting part of planning your book.

Work on the Possible Twists and TurnsThe advantage of writing a book outline is that one can get the opportunity of discarding or changing the developments of the story line, well before going into the explicit details. It can save you a lot of effort which would be wasted, if you would have fleshed that story line and then realized that it's not getting anywhere. At every point in the story, there are many possible alternative developments, out of which you must choose one. If you are writing a mystery novel, then you ought to put-in tantalizing and misleading clues, which you can plant right in the outline. Put in points in the story, which you could expand at a length, later on.

Make Chapters And Link Them 
Chalk out parts of the story, which can become individual chapters. Write out chapter headings. It may so happen that one part of the story or chapter is very clear to you and feel like writing it immediately while you are in the flow. Do that! It often happens that you start with one part of the story directly and then write the past and the future linking it into a whole. As one goes on writing, one sends a lot of imaginative shoots in the past and future, creating an imaginative space in your mind. To write a book outline is to bring all these off shots together, and tie all the loose ends. The outline will serve as a guide when you start fleshing up the novel and writing in details. It will give you an idea as to how much you have done, where you are and how much more remains to be done!
Writing a book is like climbing a mountain. So you need to plan your trek to the top and that is what writing a book outline is all about. A novel is a fictional journey on which the readers are going to accompany you. To make the journey enjoyable to you and the readers, one must put in a lot of effort!   
Photo via Salvatore Vuono at FreeDigitalPhotos
Mind Mapping
This technique is very effective and a lot of fun. Mind mapping, is graphically mapping your imaginative outbursts on paper. Take a sheet of paper and draw a circle in center and write the central idea of a chapter in it. Then draw smaller connected circles which are the various ideas and developments of the main concept. This way you can have a mind map of your thoughts about the chapter, which will help you in writing every chapter. Then piece together the chapters through a mind map for the whole novel! Try it out! 

e-How's got two good articles - this one suggests: 

Sort out your ending. Figure out where you want the story to go even before you begin. This is a tried and tested method of writing good novels. Many writers say that you must write a story backward. Once you have a strong ending, it is relatively easy to set up the events to suit the ending rather than vice versa.
Yes yes yes!  You, the writer, have to know where the story is going.
Grab your reader with your beginning. Ensure that you have captured the audience's attention by beginning with an exciting sequence of events such as a rescue, a bank robbery, or a car chase involving a protagonist or antagonist. 
I would add, make sure your opening "fits" your genre.  If your book is a thriller or is action-based, a car chase works.  If it's an introspective philosophical tome - not so much.
Tweak your ending or beginning if you need to. This likely won’t present any big problems because you have a clear outline of where your story is (or was) headed.
eHow's other article is more about writing a book outline as a proposal, than as a writing guide, but may also be helpful.

Rekha Ambardar has some fabulous ideas on Writing World for the actual nuts and bolts of outlining.  No Roman Numerals required.

"W" Folder

This is a simple low-tech method. All you need is an ordinary manila file folder, a pen or pencil, and your imagination to create a visual representation of your story.

Open up a file folder and write a large "W" over the entire folder -- one V on each side. Your story starts at the first leg of the "W". Your initial crisis is at the bottom. The top middle indicates the point where problems may be resolved. The bottom of the next V is the blackest moment. The story is completely resolved by the top of the last leg. Scenes and other notes can pencilled in along the legs of the "W". With this method you can insert information that is missing. The folder can then double up to hold your research and other information necessary to your story.


You can use your good old Excel program for a simple chart. If nothing else, a spreadsheet can hold vast amounts of information, so it beats pasting things on your wall. For example, columns can be used for each chapter for fifteen or twenty chapters, ad infinitum. Your rows could be your main characters and the minor characters that influence your plot. Or else your columns could be the chapters and the rows could be the pivotal scenes in each chapter. And you could add, delete, and move scenes around. As you start writing you could pinpoint exactly where a particular character appears in a given chapter without thumbing through hard copy to look up something.

Index Cards

Color-coded index cards are helpful in keeping track of whether or not your story has a balanced amount of goal, motivation, and conflict. The cards may be coded as follows:

  • Pink= Heroine's POV
  • Blue=Hero's POV
  • Purple= Goal
  • Yellow=Motivation
  • Green=Conflict
Put down scenes as they occur -- no details, just enough to know what it's about Write scenes in any order, keep adding cards and scenes till you can't think of anymore ideas. Now organize your cards and keep them in order. The scenes should move n a linear fashion -- Event A should occur before Event B. Decide what scenes are most exciting to the main storyline.  
Add details at the back of the cards, such as Location, Time -- what day and time is a given scene taking place? Characters -- list all the characters who will appear in the scene. Main POV -- each scene shoud have only one POV character. Main POV character's goal in the scene -- what is this character trying to achieve?
Photo by twobee at FreeDigitalPhotos

Post-It Notes

Post-it notes can be smacked on a big chunk of bulletin board paper, and like index cards, post-it notes can be color-coded. Using a yardstick mark off columns on the bulletin board paper -- a column for each chapter. Jot down important scenes on colored post-it notes and move them around as you construct your story. Do you see too much of one color? Separate them and place them such that your story is in balance with the goal, motivation, and conflict of your main characters.
Go the the article for more on the Three-Act Structure.

As I work on my most ambitious novel to date, with shifting Points Of View, a timeline, and various locations, I can't imagine trying it without an outline.  I'm using a spreadsheet, but also colored markers, to make sure I am balancing the different POVs, not having too many chapters occur in the same locale, and also using the timeline to introduce time clues in each chapter. 

One character, for example, is very much interested in gardening and trees, so in every chapter told from her POV she notices what is currently blooming, needs to be pruned, or seems neglected.

If you want to write a novel that is as satisfying as a well-balanced, seven-course meal, learn about outlining, and put it to work for you.

What's your favorite method of outlining?
Got more good links?
Please share, in the comments, below.