Outlining A Novel (Without Dying Of Boredom First)

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Stephen King famously admitted that he never outlines (as confessed in his own book On Writing – an excellent read, well worthy of any aspiring author’s time). And you can’t really knock the success he has enjoyed. I quite like a Stephen King novel too, so he must be right, right?

Sometime after reading Steve’s book, I took James Patterson’s Masterclass (in fact, I am still taking it, because I am still working on the novel idea I came up with when I did the first few assignments). James does the complete opposite. He always outlines – and not just a couple of pages of notes of where the story goes, but a kind of novel-in-miniaturette that takes him months to craft, only then writing the full novel when the outline is at the requisite standard.

So who is right?

Outlining Your Novel Provides Reference And Structure

I have written two novels with zero outline, and I’m now writing a novel that has an outline. Is the process different? Hell yes. It feels more regimented, less spontaneous, less meandering. Less… creative somehow. But the results – I think the results are better already.

The story has purpose, it has unknowns already weaved into the correct chapters. It has a sense of being a real novel before I have even written it. And not only that, it’s a really useful reference for the story, as I write it. I can look at the outline and in a few seconds bring the entire story back to mind, as I envisaged it when I wrote it up.

Tip: write an outline when you’re in the first flush of enthusiasm about a new novel idea

Now, I think I could actually write a fairly convincing article on why not outlining your novel is better for you and your writing, but you know what? Today I’m all for an outline, so here’s how to get yours done – and then use it – without wanting to bash your head against the wall from boredom.

Step 1 – The Concept

Sum up your story in a couple of sentences.

You do know what your novel is about, don’t you?

Well, write it down, at the top of a blank page. Here’s a couple that I thought up on the spot:

Novel #1 Concept

Kate rents a flat after a messy relationship break-up. In the back corner of the bedroom cupboard she finds a handful of creased and dusty wedding prints with a very beautiful bride and groom. Her landlord turns up and it’s the man from the photos, but he looks older, haggard, grey-haired and grumpy. She wonders what happened to him. They develop a relationship over a long period and it turns out his wife was a sociopath who tried to poison him (fun working out what poison). They fall in love and after a series of obstacles (both emotional and circumstantial), they end up together.

Lots of scope for longing and love, plus a fair bit of evil and plotting, depending on how much I want to go into the past. Perhaps that was their starter flat and I could weave the evil ex-wife into the tale in scenes from the same room but in a different time.

Hmm. Or maybe this:

Novel #2 Concept

Jack hates all women. He lives alone, farming llamas in a place where llamas are successfully farmed (check where). Then Katrina enters his life, buying the farm next door to his and setting up organic fields and orchards. She is kind, and forgiving of his rudeness. He thinks he hates her, but soon realises that his hatred comes from a past event that he has to overcome. Just when it seems that they will never work things out, Jack plays the part of the hero and they fall in love and live happily ever after.

Lots of themes I can mirror in this story – the seasons reflecting their emotional journey, the fertility of the earth and their new love. The parallels between working on the land and working on a relationship.

STEP 2 – The events

Got your concept down?

Great.

The next step is to chunk it down into “things that happen in the story”.

You can just do a sentence for each of them. They can be single scenes (often when we think of a novel, we already have a scene or two in our heads and the rest comes from there), or general events.

They don’t have to be in order – just write down the bits of the story.

So, as an extract from novel #2 above, we might have:

  • The farmer next door to Jack is old, and the farm is neglected. It annoys Jack. Everything annoys Jack.
  • The farmer next door dies.
  • Jack sees the farm next door go up for sale.
  • Jack tends to his Llamas. Tenderness for them – he’s not a bad man.
  • Jack and Katrina meet for the first time.
  • Jack is rude and ignores her.
  • Katrina finds escaped llamas in her fields after a storm and they have eaten loads of her crop.
  • J and K argue, and she is angry that she finds him attractive.
  • Jack’s past – what happened with his mum (or ex-wife, or whoever) to make him hate women
  • Katrina’s past – she left the city to follow a dream
  • Katrina hears people talking about Jack’s run-in (multiple run ins?) with the police at the town store
  • What happened with Jack and the police – perhaps he had a drinking problem for a while
  • etc.

Don’t get hung up on how long this list should be. Just keep writing down things that you want the story to cover. We’re not outlining the novel here, we’re just making a list of all the things that we are so keen to tell the reader. Everything that’s in the beginning, the middle and the end.

STEP 3 – The order

Arrange your events!

This is the fun bit that doesn’t involve any writing. Jiggle your events and storyline around into a good order. Remember that stories do not have to be told chronologically, they need to be told in an order that makes sense to the reader.

This is where all the things you want to tell the world are suddenly coerced into a structure that you can write from without worrying about whether your story is proceeding how you want it to. By jiggling around your event list into a logical order, you are outlining your novel with minimum fuss and maximum enjoyment.

For example, I could disclose Jack’s past upfront, or hold it back until Katrina discovers it. What will work best? How can changing the order enhance the story? What will add “readability” and make the story compelling?

Perhaps some of Jack’s past should be available early, but something else important should be revealed later? Readers like “good” surprises, and they like to discover things themselves, so perhaps I could think about what they might be thinking and run the story along those lines but with a little bit of deviation.

Arranging your outline might take you a while, and you can come back to this task a couple of times to be sure that you’re happy with the order of everything.

STEP 4 – The chapters (optionaL)

You’re almost there. At this point you’re probably looking at a list that would fit quite nicely into a list of chapters.

If you want to put chapter headings in your outline now, go ahead. However, for me this is a step too far. I am never sure exactly how much story is in an event – sometimes it can be said in a few words, at other times it needs a softer touch and a lot more time.

So here’s where I suggest a little bit of creativity. If outlining your novel is not a natural process (it isn’t really for me), then feel free to slot in the chapters as you see fit when you work through your list. James Patterson writes out his chapters and then fills in the gaps with words. For me, that is too regimented and stops me from writing with the flow that I have always loved about telling stories.

The beauty of the work that you have done to this point is that it makes your story coherent right from the beginning. It annoys me when I read a novel that starts out beautifully and then drops off towards the end, feeling like it was rushed, or just written to get it over with. I think outlining can prevent this kind of sloppiness in the second half of a book. As well as giving you a really useful reference for who has done what and when (rather than relying on memory, which is notoriously bad for most of us).

STEP 5 – Get writing!

You know and I know that there really is only one way to write a novel, whether you are outlining it from the start, or not.

Good luck, and if this helped you, let me know in the comments.

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Whether you're a natural planner or not, outlining your novel doesn't have to be a chore. Here's how to write a novel outline quickly and painlessly.
Whether you're a natural planner or not, outlining your novel doesn't have to be a chore. Here's how to write a novel outline quickly and painlessly.

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