Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Outline Your Novel the Incredibly Easy Way

By Laurence MacNaughton, @LMacNaughton  

Part of the How They Do It Series (Contributing Author)

I've never met any writer who really loves to outline. But a good outline can help you write a better book and finish it faster. Over the years, I’ve developed my own outlining method that is super simple, quick, and (dare I say) fun.

Plus, it's easy. You don't have to read a thick book full of instructions. You don't need spreadsheets or special software. You don't even need to have that much of your novel figured out yet.

All you need is a few ideas, a pencil, and a pack of index cards. (Or yellow sticky notes, if you prefer.)

Ready? Let's do this.

Step 1. Start with your biggest problem.

Take a card or a sticky note and write down the single biggest problem your main character faces.

Something is wrong in this character's life, career, or relationships. Or maybe there's something wrong with the larger world the character lives in. Maybe the villain has done something terrible that must be undone. What is it?

Write it down as a single sentence.

Here's how this sentence might read for the books in my Dru Jasper series:
If you're feeling stumped, remember that in practically every story, the main character either wants to gain something they don't have, or else stop something bad from happening. What does your character want to achieve or avoid?

Step 2. Fix that big problem.

Now, mentally fast forward to the end of the story and imagine how that problem will be resolved. How do things look different at the end of the story? If the first card was the “before” picture, what’s the “after” picture?

Grab another card and write that down.

Don't worry, this doesn't have to be complicated. If you get stuck, just look at your first card and then write down pretty much the opposite.

Again, here's how I could do it for my Dru Jasper series:
  • She breaks the curse, saves her boyfriend’s soul, and averts doomsday. (It Happened One Doomsday)
  • She defeats the undead, outsmarts the necromancer who created them, and saves the world. (A Kiss Before Doomsday)
  • She breaks the evil enchantress’s spell and brings the world back from the brink of destruction. (No Sleep till Doomsday)

Step 3. Fill in the blanks.

Now it's time to connect those two cards together. What are the most important events that happen between the beginning and “The End”?

Chances are, your head is just chock full of ideas of what could happen in this story. But right now, it's important to focus just on the biggest problem. Don't worry about any subplots: the romance, the buddy story, the supporting character's story, or what have you. Concentrate just on this one big problem.

What are the important steps in this journey? Are there any startling revelations, interesting discoveries, fights, chases, plot twists?

Write down each idea on a separate card. They don't have to be in chronological order. Just get everything out of your head and down onto the paper. Good ideas, bad ideas, it doesn't matter right now.

Don't worry too much about the details, either. Keep it simple, like this:
  • Dru discovers that Greyson is afflicted by an ancient curse.
  • Greyson transforms into a monster and starts tearing up the city.
  • Dru traces Greyson's curse to a possessed muscle car called Hellbringer.
And so on. Just a sentence or two for each idea. The point is to keep this process as quick and easy as possible. Stick to the basics.

Keep going until you’ve written at least 10 cards. (You won't necessarily need all of them, but it's good to have plenty of material.)

Step 4. Plan out the subplots.

A subplot is simply a plot that is subordinate to the main plot.
When you think of it that way, your subplots become much easier to manage.

A subplot could be a love story, a minor mystery, a journey of personal growth, a family drama, or anything else you can imagine.

Pick one of your subplots and repeat the first three steps. State the problem, fix the problem, and then fill in the blanks.

It may help to use a different color of pen or paper for each different subplot. That will help you keep track of them later.

Subplots won't use as many cards as the main plot. You could sketch out a minor subplot in just two or three cards. But feel free to use as many cards as you need.

Remember, just write down the most important events. One or two sentences per card. Don't get caught up in the minor details. That will only slow you down. We want to keep this process easy.

Step 4. Put on your thinking cap.

Spend some time thinking about the cards you've written. Ask yourself a few questions:
  • Which cards are your favorites?
  • Which ones absolutely must appear in the story?
  • Which ones should you maybe leave out?
  • Which ones inspire new ideas?
It may help to carry your cards around with you as you go about your day. Flip through them occasionally. Shuffle them. Mull them over.

Also, this is very important: write down new ideas as they come to you. Add them to the stack of cards. You'll be amazed at how quickly you grow your collection of ideas.

Step 4. Make a big mess.

This is where the magic happens.

When you're ready, find a large table and lay out your cards in chronological order, from the beginning of the story to the end. Assemble them into one massive timeline.

Whenever something doesn’t make sense, leave a gap. Or create a new card. Rearrange things as needed. Give yourself permission to set cards aside if they don't fit. Save some for later.

If you get stuck, just stack up your cards in order and ponder your story some more. You'll come back later with more ideas.

By the time you’re finished, you will have a thick stack of cards that starts at the beginning of your story and proceeds straight through to the end, like a super-condensed version of your novel.

It may look suspiciously like an outline. Because that's exactly what it is.

Voila. Just like that, you outlined your novel. Not too shabby.

Step 5. Type it up.

This final step is optional: sit down at your keyboard and type up your outline, straight from your cards.

Typing it gives you another opportunity to refine, polish, and add more details to your outline. Plus, you'll have a text document that you can keep improving over time.

But it’s not absolutely necessary. If you want, you can just look at your cards and start writing the manuscript. Whatever works best for you.

By the way, if you intend to write a synopsis of your story, this outline may prove invaluable.

But for right now, you can bask in the glow of knowing that you’ve done an amazing job of writing your outline the incredibly easy way.

What do you think of this method? Have you ever tried using index cards or sticky notes to help your writing? Leave me a comment below, or contact me at www.LaurenceMacNaughton.com.

Laurence MacNaughton is the author of more than a dozen novels, novellas, and short stories. His work has been praised by Booklist, Publishers Weekly, RT Book Reviews, Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. He lives in Colorado with his wife and too many old cars. Try his stories for free at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

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About No Sleep till Doomsday (Dru Jasper, Book 3)

An inexperienced sorceress must retrieve a priceless artifact from the enchantress who stole it, break the curse on her half-demon boyfriend, and stop her friends from turning on each other before the enchantress calls down doomsday.

When a wicked enchantress steals a cursed doomsday amulet, crystal sorceress Dru Jasper has only twenty-four hours to get it back before the world will come to a fiery end. With this supernatural amulet in hand, the enchantress intends to break the sixth seal of the apocalypse scroll--making the seas boil, the stars fall from the sky, and the earth itself split apart. Overall, bad news.

Dru must hit the road to get the amulet back. But she suspects her half-demon boyfriend, Greyson, and his demon-possessed muscle car, Hellbringer, are hiding a dark secret. Can she trust them to help her stop doomsday? Worse, tracking down the enchantress runs Dru smack up against a pack of killer shape-shifters, the grim mystery of a radioactive ghost town, and a dangerous speed demon even more powerful than Hellbringer.

As the clock runs out, Dru is locked in a high-speed chase with the enchantress, fighting a fierce, magical duel she can never win alone. Can Dru and her sorcerer friends unravel Hellbringer's secrets, outwit the shape-shifters, and retrieve the stolen amulet before the dawn of doomsday?

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  1. Great idea. I recently went the index card route and found the "make a big mess" part incredibly helpful. My plot was feeling flabby until I realized that mixing up the narrative order of events (my story takes place over the span of thirty years) would create suspense and keep the reader hooked.

    I've always been more writer than storyteller. With each new project, I find myself devoting more effort to plotting. Once I do, putting down the words becomes even easier.

    1. That's a good insight, Karent! I think the middle of almost any work in progress is flabby. But it sure is easier to rearrange cards BEFORE you write the book than it is to rearrange chapters afterward. Have fun writing!

  2. A toast to your outlining technique: white bread, as I don't drink.

    High school English teacher Mrs. Hackett might well agree with it. High school English teacher, a Harvard graduate, might have apoplexy over it.

    But I think it is the best method I've seen. And I'm an old man.

    1. Thanks, bloggerjim! That's high praise. I raise my white bread to you, too. : )

  3. Thank you for these great ideas, though you nearly lost me at 'make a big mess'. (I spent 30% of my time of cleaning up messes.) I've pinned this to my board for future reference

  4. Oh. My. God. that was so easy! I have a wip and now know I can fix it and get the story back on track towards the ending. all the other outlines out their were overly converted or way too vague, this fits things perfectly, thank you! Laa!