Tuesday, September 30

Why and How to Outline

By Kiki Sullivan, @Sullivan_Kiki

Part of the How They Do It Series

Every writer has their own process, and many of us (most?) are trying to find ways to improve that process. Sometimes that involves trying something new, or trying a new way to approach what we already do. Kiki Sullivan takes the podium today to share how she learned to write an outline, and why this might be a useful tool to try.

Kiki Sullivan is the author of The Dolls series. Like the main character Eveny Cheval, Kiki used to live in New York and now calls the American South home. Unlike Eveny, she finds it impossible to keep her rose garden alive and has been singlehandedly responsible for the unfortunate demise of countless herbs. She may or may not have hung out with queens of the dark arts, strolled through creepy New Orleans cemeteries at night, or written the first book of this series with a red-headed Louisiana voodoo doll beside her computer.

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Take it away Kiki...

Ah, the book outline. Some hate it. Some love it. Personally, I swear by it. Here’s why:

When I wrote my first book all the way back in 2003 (!!), I really didn’t know what I was doing. Sure, I’d read some books about how to write a novel, and of course I was an avid reader myself. But while those things helped fix the basic structure of a novel in my mind, I still didn’t understand the mechanics of how to actually get there. How on earth was I supposed to start with a blank page in front of me and proceed to write 90,000+ words?

So I decided to teach myself. I sat down with three of my favorite novels in my target genre (which was chick lit at the time; now I write mainstream women’s fiction and YA), and I outlined each of them. In other words, I read chapter one of Book A, then I sat down and wrote a paragraph or two detailing what had happened in chapter one. I read chapter two and did the same, and so on, until I’d finished each book. At the end of this, I had three short outlines of three successful books. Then I started to pick them apart.

I realized that while it was tough to grasp the structure of a book in full form, it was much easier to understand when I was reading the chapter-by-chapter summary of each novel. So I read and re-read each outline until I had the rhythm down. I had sense of what I needed to accomplish in chapter one. I had a feel for where I needed to be by the end of chapter two. I had an idea of where and how the action should rise and fall.

Finally, I was ready to write my own novel, and it was simple; I just reversed the process. In other words, after all three of the other outlines had been sufficiently imprinted in my brain, I sat down to write my own outline for the book I planned to write. I went chapter by chapter, and following the rhythm of the other outlines, I wrote a couple of paragraphs detailing exactly what I planned to say in each planned chapter. That gave me the skeleton of my own book, and this time, when I sat down to write the first word of chapter one, I could already see my way to the end. It made the whole thing feel very doable.

And it was. I wrote my first book based on that outline in 2003-04, and it came out in 2006. I’ve never written a book without an outline again. In fact, I used to teach “How to Write a Novel” classes, and I insisted that my students outline their ideas before writing, even if they hated me for the duration of the outlining process. I’m that convinced that it’s vital (even though it can be tough).

So how do you do it? Just like I did. Sit down with your favorite successful book in your target genre and pick it apart, chapter by chapter. After each chapter, stop and summarize what happened in a page or less. Make sure to note whether there is conflict is happening, how much background is included, which new characters are introduced and whether there is a new storyline introduced or concluded.

For example, if you were reading the first chapter of my novel, THE DOLLS, you might write that the main character, Eveny Cheval, 17, is in a car bound for Louisiana in the middle of the winter. We learn that her mother committed suicide 14 years ago, and that she’s been living in Brooklyn, N.Y. ever since. Now, she’s with her Aunt Bea, returning to the place it all happened, even though she doesn’t want to. We learn she has long red hair, and we get our first glimpse of Carrefour, the mysterious Louisiana bayou town where Eveny was born and where this book will take place. As they pass the town’s shadowy, misty cemetery, Eveny is hit with a strangely vivid memory of a man – who she thinks is her long-lost father – trying to tell her something, but the image slips away before she can understand what it means. They pass a gorgeous guy, who’s jogging around the cemetery, and as Eveny’s eyes meet his, her breath gets caught in her throat. There’s just something about him… The chapter ends as Eveny and Bea pull up in front of the house Eveny was born in, which turns out to be a sprawling, gothic mansion. “This is ours?” she asks in disbelief.

Now briefly, you might then note that in chapter 1,
  1. we meet Eveny and Bea,
  2. we find out what Eveny looks like and how old she is,
  3. we learn she’s moving from New York to Louisiana and that her mother’s suicide still haunts her,
  4. we see Carrefour in detail for the first time,
  5. we get an idea that something’s “off” in this town,
  6. we learn a bit about her long-lost dad,
  7. we’re given a glimpse of a cute guy who may be important later,
  8. and we’re left with the idea that Eveny has arrived home – to an opulent mansion she wasn’t expecting.

You also might note that the first chapter is filled with action and dialogue, and that background has been kept to a minimum. There’s just enough to give you the idea that Eveny’s past is going to catch up to her now that she’s back.

Do this for the entire novel. Then, sit down to write your own, based on the outline you’ve just done. Begin with a scene that centers around your main character, gives us a chance to get to know her and her life situation, and gives us a good idea of her personality and lifestyle through dialogue, action and interaction. This scene should be fast-paced and take place before the main storyline of the book really kicks off, because you want the reader to be fully on board with your character and in her corner before anything very important happens. Follow that scene with a second scene, moving your main character to another location to show us a different aspect of her life. Bam – you have a chapter one!

Now, continue outlining, chapter by chapter, using the outline you wrote for the already-published book as a blueprint. Your scenes don’t need to match those of the outline you’ve already written – in fact they shouldn’t – but use it as a guide for when to introduce plot points, characters, conflicts, etc.

Each intended chapter should take up a half-page to a full page of your outline. As a VERY rough estimate, you should have approximately 25-30 chapters, each comprised of 2-3 scenes (although some will be one long scene; some will be 4 short scenes). Of course there are exceptions for different sorts of books; a middle grade novel would have fewer chapters, while a novel modeled after a James Patterson book would have many more chapters (although they’d be much shorter). Use other books in your genre as a guide for how many chapters to include and how many scenes to include per chapter.

In general:
  • The beginning of your book should start with a bang and introduce us to your main character. By the end of chapter 1, the reader should feel drawn into the story. By the end of chapter 2, the reader should be fully on board with your main character. Don’t weigh the first and second chapters down with background. Only give us the essential parts of the backstory, and save the rest for later. We should arrive, relatively soon, at a dramatic plot twist that kicks off the main action of the book.
  • The middle of the book will deal with a big challenge (and smaller associated challenges) your main character is facing and how she deals with them and learn something in the process. It should include a sort-of up and down pattern, where she solves some problems while trying to work through the main conflict, but she also runs into other problems along the way, many of which are of her own making or stem from the main issue at hand. The conflict should keep getting more complicated until the middle section of your book concludes in a climax that leads us to the end.
  • The end of the book is where things get resolved and where the questions you’ve laid out throughout the book get answered. Your character should have grown and changed by now, as a result of what she’s gone through, and her responses to situations will show that change. This is your chance to conclude storylines and tie up loose plot threads. And remember, a satisfying ending doesn’t always have to include all the characters living happily ever after. But your main character, at least, should be better off at the end of the book than she is at the beginning, as a result of the way she has grown and changed throughout.

Happy writing!

*Note: Some of this comes from tips that you can find on KikiSullivan.com. Check out my site for more. (I’ll be updating it soon!)

About The Dolls

Welcome to Carrefour, where long-buried secrets simmer like heat over the bayou and whatever you desire most can be yours—for a price.

Eveny Cheval has just moved back to Louisiana after spending her childhood in New York with her aunt Bea. Eveny hasn’t seen her hometown since her mother’s suicide fourteen years ago, and her memories couldn’t have prepared her for what she encounters. Because pristine, perfectly manicured Carrefour has a dark side full of intrigue, betrayal, and lies—and Eveny quickly finds herself at the center of it all.

Enter Peregrine Marceau, Chloe St. Pierre, and their group of rich, sexy friends collectively known as the Dolls. From sipping champagne at lunch to hooking up with the hottest guys, Peregrine and Chloe have everything—including an explanation for what’s going on in this town. They want to bring Eveny into their circle, share their darkest truths with her, introduce her to handsome, enigmatic Caleb Shaw. And Eveny doesn’t trust them one bit.

But after murder strikes in Carrefour and Eveny discovers that everything she believes about herself, her family, and her life is a lie, she’s forced to turn to the Dolls for answers. Something’s wrong in paradise, and it’s up to Eveny, Chloe, and Peregrine to save Carrefour and make it right.

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  1. EXCELLENT POST! I'm in the middle of outlining the 4th draft of my WIP--maybe if I'd follow this formula earlier it wouldn't have taken me so long to discover my story. I'll share this with my writing students. Thanks so much.

  2. I've never outlined like this, but it's a great idea. Thanks.

  3. Reverse outlining a published book, thats a great idea. Think I'm gonna try this myself. I will probably pick a couple of thin books from my shelf, e.g. The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway and Lanzarote by Houellebecq >:)

    Cold As Heaven