The most important pre-writing step a writer should take, next to character sketches (which I wrote about in more detail here), is outlining. Any writer who tells you they don’t use some form of outline is either lying or insane, or maybe a little bit of both. Just to stress how important this step is, let my draw from personal experience for just a second.
If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve probably noticed (maybe) that I was working on a novel through almost the entirety of this past year. You also might have noticed that I have since stopped working on that novel and picked up a different thread instead. There are a few reasons why things just weren’t clicking with that particular story – for one, I think I’m just not at the right point in my life to be able to (successfully) execute the concept. Two, I didn’t have a solid outline, but went ahead with the writing part anyway.
When I used to teach creative writing in my past life, I would dock major points for students who either didn’t do an outline at all or had no evidence to prove they ever had one in the first place. But here I was, like an idiot, completely ignoring my own advice and everything I knew to be true about the process of writing. After starting and stopping more times than I can count over almost a year, I finally hit a wall. I had no idea what I was writing or why and I had no map to get there. While I had an idea of where I wanted the characters to end up, I had no clue how to get them there because I didn’t have a chapter outline beyond chapter ten, when I was planning on writing about twenty. It was a mistake of epic proportions and one that cost me nearly a year’s worth of work.
So, in order to avoid that inevitable pitfall, here are some things your outline absolutely must include:
- An ending. I know it seems backward to write the ending first, but you really do need to know where you’re going to end up before you can figure out how to get there. Some authors don’t work this way and I’m sure there are other methods to this madness, but when I’ve actually finished a novel, this is the first step I’ve taken in order to see it through to the end. So many other aspects of the novel can be fleshed out once you know the ending: character development, foreshadowing, whether or not to add flashbacks or flash-forwards, prologues or epilogues…everything is influenced by how you decide to end your story.
- A beginning. Once you’ve got an ending, you can start to figure out what the first step is, literally and figuratively. What kind of introduction do you want each character to have? What tone do you want to set? How much character development do you want to give away in the first chapter and how much should you save for later? Opening lines and opening chapters are a beast all on their own , and you can’t just jump into it without thought (as a side note, I’ve rewritten the first chapter of my current project about three times, but that’s a post for a different day). This is the first glimpse your reader gets of the characters, setting, tone, and plot. You have to put your best foot forward so you don’t lose them before you can even really start.
- Chapter plans. This can be as free-wheeling as you want, but you still need to have it, especially if you want to finish. Different pieces can be moved around, added to different chapters, or removed entirely, but the point is to have an idea of how much plot is in each chapter. This gives you an idea about pacing, tone, and the all-important character development piece. If something doesn’t feel right in one chapter, that’s probably because it isn’t, and so you’ll have to troubleshoot the problems. Maybe one section of your chapter plan should really be later on in the book because it rushes the pace forward too quickly or maybe things are unfolding too slow and you need to beef things up a bit. Either way, knowing what’s happening in each chapter, even if all you have is basic bullet points, is going to keep you on track and help you stay motivated to move on to the next chapter.
- Flexibility. Nothing in your outline should be set in stone. Anything can be changed, moved, or thrown away entirely because stuff happens. You might have an eureka moment in the shower and decide to completely change course (which would also mean changing your outlines to reflect that). Maybe something just isn’t working and you need to regroup. Whatever the cause, it’s okay to change your outline as long as it still exists in some form. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer or that your idea sucks; it just means you changed your mind. That being said, if you decide to scrap any part of your outline, I would keep it tucked away somewhere for safe keeping just in case you change your mind later. For me, I just copy and paste sections I’m not sure I’m going to use or want to save for later at the bottom of my document so they’re still easily accessible.
It’s really that simple and that difficult. But, trust me, taking the time to build this foundation now, along with your character sketches, will pay off in the long run.