Your Outline Starts as a Guideline

Your Outline Starts as a Guideline

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As you know from reading the blog, I’m all about learning to write faster. One way to accomplish that is avoiding re-writes. My current novel is at about 107,000 words instead of falling short like earlier ones. I give all the credit to writing an outline first. The recommended outline length is one tenth the length of your novel. The original outline for “Book 5” came to about eight thousand words, so the novel was a little short in the early revisions. What have I learned about planning a novel? What’s my plan for the next novel?

The Synopsis

Tell your story in about 1000 words and you’ve written a synopsis. Skip this step and the first document you’re going to be revising is the 10,000 word outline. I skipped the synopsis on this novel and the price I paid was two months of revising the outline when I was halfway through the first draft.

Once you’ve finished your synopsis, it’s time to revise it. But not immediately. You need to take some time to visualize all of the characters as if they were real people. How are they going to act in the scenes you have planned for them? Can you picture what they look like, how they act, and what they do in every scene? If so, you’re ready to revise your synopsis.

You want it to be full of action. That applies to every genre. Even though you don’t have room for every scene in a synopsis, you need to put in some important ones. What are the hooks in the first line, paragraph, and chapter that will make readers want to read your novel? A description of that first chapter is the first paragraph of your synopsis. How does the story wrap up at the end so that all the important questions are answered and the reader will feel like it was a great read. A description of the ending is the last paragraph of your synopsis.

The body of your synopsis shows all of the questions that will be brought up and how they will be resolved. You will need some minor questions besides the main story question so that you have lots of tension to keep readers hooked.

Since your synopsis needs to be limited to about 1000 words, your imagination is going to be working overtime getting it all in your head. Do as much as you can. A 100,000 word story can be difficult to imagine completely. When you think you’ve done as much as you can with 1000 words, it’s time to move on to the bullet outline.

The Bullet Outline

This is my own invention and is little more than an expanded synopsis. It provides a way to find out what chapter a scene was in when you need to look something up. The one for my current novel is only 1700 words.

A bullet outline has the chapter number, one or two sentences describing the chapter’s scenes, and a tag with a list of any characters not mentioned in the description. While a synopsis may need to describe two or more scenes in one sentence in order to stay within the 1000 word limit, the bullet outline can add a little more. It’s a step by step walk-through of the novel you’re about to write.

Once again, you should spend some time on revision. More of the story is revealed here and you may see some problems that weren’t clear in the synopsis. When you think you’ve got it, it’s time for the outline.

The Outline

While a 100,000 word novel is the ultimate goal of this whole process, the 10,000 word outline is the most important. Write a sloppy outline and you’ll be re-writing everything it affects in the novel. Write a sloppy chapter in your first draft and you’ll only be re-writing that chapter.

At this point you’ve given lots of thought to your story. Writing the scenes should be easy. The more visualization you did while working on the synopsis and bullet outline, the faster your outline will go.

The outline needs to fully describe everything significant that will happen in every scene of your novel. One paragraph per scene should do it. If you’re writing a page-turner, that’s one paragraph per chapter. Keep working on the outline until you have 10,000 words.

If your outline comes up short, the answer is not more description. You’ll need to add more complications. This is an excellent opportunity to add tension to your novel. A good story has problems piling up for the main character as the novel progresses. More scenes will be needed to present the problems, attempts at solving them, and their final resolution. Keep piling them on until you have your 10,000 words.

When your outline reaches 10,000 words, review it and remove any extra description. Yes. You may be back to needing more scenes. Would you rather add them now or after writing the first draft and finding your novel is too short?

If your outline comes up long, extra description is the first thing to go. Still long? What are the extra questions you have that might go? Are there any characters that could be dropped? For example, maybe the protagonist’s building security guard could also be their martial arts instructor allowing you to cut some scenes at the karate club.

Once you have between 9,000 and 11,000 words it’s time to give it a rest before revising. Think about the story for a day or two before coming back to it.

Now read through your outline and visualize each scene. Take your time. You want to imagine every character as if you were seeing them in a movie. See any inconsistent behaviors? The more important characters should be at least two dimensional. If you planned for them to go against expectations or it’s part of the character change, great. If not, now is the time to fix it.

Your outline is a guideline more than anything else. You want it to guide you correctly through writing the first draft. The more time you spend reviewing and revising your outline before you start your first draft, the faster you will be able to get your novel to the finish line.

Late Revisions

Your outline can still fail as a guideline after all of those revisions. Your novel is ten times as long. Minor characters, lovers, kids, friends, and extra events added for flavor will pull your story in different directions. When this happens, you will be glad you wrote an outline.

Without an outline, changing the story means printing it out and organizing chapters and pieces of chapters.

When you have an outline, you can revise it using red text and continue writing your first draft to the end. Make those changes part of your novel’s second revision.

What If You Don’t Want to Do All This Prep Work?

No problem. Many prolific writers have written their books in one draft with no prep documents and no revision. They only needed to write about ten novels worth before they got to where they were able to sell their work. If you’re a fast typist with a good imagination, you might get there just as fast as the majority of people using the multiple draft method. Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game) estimates it takes about three years to write a novel. He’s talking about someone using the multiple draft process for sure.

If you write 1000 words of single draft novel each day for three years, you will have written more than one million words. One million words also happens to be the estimate of the number of words you need to write to become proficient as a writer. You may even be ahead of the multiple draft writers. They’ve only written 100,000 words plus re-writes during those three years.

On the other hand, creating all of the preliminary documentation also means you get practice at crafting an interesting story. Many of those single draft prolific writers write pulp fiction quality stories. If your novels lean more toward action than character, it may be a good way to go. If your novels lean more toward character and are more literary, multiple draft is probably necessary.

I’ve gone on long enough. What am I writing here? A book?

Article by Ivan Izo.

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