Some writers don’t plan or outline at all. You may be lucky if this works for you. Working without an outline might feel like more creative freedom, and for some writers it is unbearable to know how their story will end before writing it. But you may regret this, as the initial spark of inspiration may not carry you through to the end of your novel. Writing over 50,000 words without a vague plan is risky. Working without an outline, or ‘pantsing’, can create problems later on; a lot might need changing, there might be big plot holes and inconsistencies, and the necessary revisions might start to become overwhelming.
A good outline won’t hold you back. A loose framework is likely to encourage your creative energy rather than dampen it. Outlining will also help you overcome the daunting blank page. Many creative people work better within restrictions. Or perhaps it is better to say, within an established dramatic form. Shakespeare wrote many of his famous poems within the strict poetic form of the sonnet. But your outline doesn’t need to be as rigid as a sonnet. The novel is more flexible. You could try starting loosely and progressing towards a workable plan, which will help you move from the initial emotional conception to a concrete plot.
Where to start?
Try listing scene ideas that come to mind, write freely and quickly. Try listing characters you know you would like to include, and any images that come to mind – a character in a certain situation, a line of dialogue, a time, a place. If you write down too many ideas, that’s fine at this stage. Go back and scrutinise your ideas and keep the few that stay with you, the ones you really can’t throw away. Create scenes that inspire you and that you know you will be excited to sit down and write. When you have this range of scene ideas and key moments, start to look for the pattern in them; something is going to connect them. If your ideas are working, you will find something that connects them, some line that goes through them all. This line can be developed into your plot.
Your scene ideas and events must connect properly to build the arc of your story. The pattern you are looking for should link the ideas in a chain reaction. One thing leads to another, and events are connected by causality. In relation to this, you should check for superfluous scenes and events. Does the scene add to the story and do we learn something more about the characters? If not, consider cutting it. Be warned against getting attached to any of your ideas for the wrong reasons. Remember to ‘kill your darlings’.
How are you going to keep the reader with you, how are you going to pull them through the story?
Does each scene or chapter have an element of conflict, conflicting character motivations, or something going against the main character as they try to achieve their goal? If the main character has no deep desire or want, it can make the novel feel meandering and boring; people might say, “It’s well written, but it doesn’t go anywhere.” But also consider burying the plot; if it is too obvious, the reader will be less involved, or will feel they saw things coming and the mechanics of your story were too exposed.
Rewrite drafts of your outline until you are happy. Break down your outline to inspect each character’s arc or journey, and make sure it’s interesting and that it makes sense in terms of character motivation. Look out for where your story dips or gets repetitive – keep it alive.
Writing an outline makes it easier to identify problems. Most importantly you won’t write half a novel and run out of steam, and become frustrated knowing a good story is not going to be finished. Outlining might not be the most enjoyable aspect for a lot of writers, but it can certainly be a creative, imaginative process that will provide you with a flexible framework. It’s something to turn to, something that will support you as you write.