Outlining Your Novel
If we want to write a novel, we can go about it in one of two ways. We can plan out our plot in advance or we can just write and see where it goes. There are successful authors who subscribe to both ideas.
In the novel I am writing, I was trying the second path and I thought things were going smoothly.
As Weiland points out, outlining does not have to be an elaborate production with layers of points. The goal is to improve our writing, not impress a teacher.
As I read Weiland’s book, I realized that my novel needed serious help. I began looking back and found incongruities that needed correcting. As a result, my work in progress became a better story.
As I began editing, I developed a simple plan to keep track of each chapter. I want to share it with you. Do the following for every chapter and your novel will be smoother and will prevent a lot of heartache in the end.
I don’t claim that this plan is earth-shattering, but it is a guide that might help someone.
1. Characters – Write down each person or place mentioned in every chapter. If we are not careful and do not have an over-riding plan, we can mix-up the names of minor characters. A man could be Bob in chapter three and Harry in chapter seven.
In my own story, I mentioned a minor character in the first two chapters that I planned to use again in the final chapters. Yet, in the process of going back and examining my story, I realized I had forgotten her. She works with the main character, so I needed to seed her throughout the story, so the reader did not forget her.
This plan will also help us feel more confident adding characters for flavor because we have a grasp of everyone involved. Accordingly, we can plan ahead and enhance foreshadowing, pacing and variety.
2. Pacing – When someone opens our novel, we want them to be moved, engrossed and changed by our vision and story. If they cannot put it down and they are changed somewhat, we have made a difference. However, none of that can occur if they put the book down. Accordingly, our first goal is to keep them reading.
When we read, we are pulled along by mystery — what will happen next? Why should we care? We have to do our best to provide powerful motivations for our readers. We write smooth, grammatically correct sentences and abolish all of the mistakes and inconsistencies so we do not pull our readers out of the story.
To accomplish this goal, we write down the lead in and lead out sentences of each chapter. What are your first and last sentences — the first and last impressions that we will give our readers? Why should they read this chapter? What do we promise them in the next?
This is a very important point. No matter what we think of James Patterson’s books, he has mastered the lead-in and lead-out. He keeps his readers turning pages because Patterson is always driving them forward with action, internal and external.
3. Substance – We cannot keep our readers in our story if nothing substantive happens. We must move them from one place to another at a brisk pace, so their interest will not wane. An involved reader will create opportunities to snatch a few minutes reading time. Our job is to give them that motivation.
Write down a summary of each chapter. List the scenes and settings, as well. What is happening? Where is it happening? Why are things happening in this order?
When we do this exercise, we may see that our action is dwindling or too frenetic. We may discover that we have mixed up locations. Maybe we have a restaurant with two names or we have neglected a subplot.
If we track our scenes and settings, we can plan ahead and do timely research. Maybe like me, you have a real city as your setting. We need to be accurate and make sure that our readers accept our geography and descriptions.
Charting them gives us ultimate power so we can have a better vision and can spend more of our energy dreaming and planning as we create something special to offer the reading world.