Yesterday, after I mentioned on Twitter that I’d just finished writing a 4,000 word outline for a new novel, several people contacted me to ask how I’d done it. They were hoping for some tips. The trouble is, outlines are tricky things, and what works for me won’t necessarily work for you.
Let me explain what I mean.
Some authors like to plot out the entire book in advance, so they know exactly what’s going to happen in every chapter before they start writing. Others prefer to wing it, to let the characters guide the story, and make it up as they go along.
There are pros and cons to each approach.
The former can be useful if you need to write your novel quickly, as you know you won’t get stuck because you have it all worked out in advance.
Paul Cornell, author of the Shadow Police series, says the outline he’s working on for his next book currently stands at 15,000 words, and it’s still not finished. “Basically,” he jokes, “I just need to add ‘he said’ and ‘she said’.
“I exaggerate,” he continues. “It’s 100 numbers, with a paragraph of described action for each. It’s going to take a bit more work to fill in 1000 words of prose for each of them!”
Author and comic writer, Cavan Scott takes a similar approach. “It all starts with my trusty journal,” he says, “scribbling down notes, and more importantly questions: ‘Why does the hero do this?’, ‘What would happen if that spaceship explodes?’ and so on. These usually morph into mind-maps with ideas spiderwebbing everywhere and sometimes even doodles.
“When I’ve worked out the general direction of the plot, I break everything down into scenes, using index cards. This used to be physical cards but now, more often than not, I use the virtual index cards in Scrivener on my mac, or an Index Card app on my iPad. These get swapped around and sorted into the order that the story will run until I have an outline I can work from.”
The downside of writing a detailed outline like this is that such a meticulous structure can feel constraining, with no room for creative digression. And if you take it too far, you can exhaust the storytelling impulse before you’ve actually started writing, leaving the book itself as an uninspiring exercise in joining-the-dots. For instance, an editor I know remembers the time an author handed in a 70,000 word outline for a 90,000 word book, and then had to somehow turn it into a novel!
Perhaps with this in mind, Stephen King recommends the latter approach in his book, On Writing. He likens stories to fossils that you have to unearth one painstaking sentence at a time. This gives the author total creative freedom to follow the story in whichever direction it wants to go, which can be great for writers who like to let their characters guide the flow of events, but it can lead to problems (and major rewrites) if you don’t stay aware of pacing and dramatic structure.
For some people, a Post-it note will suffice. For others, half a dozen handwritten pages. Some plot each scene on an index card, so they can shuffle them around (something you can do electronically with software such as Scrivener), or just scribble the basic plot points on a napkin or cigarette packet.
Personally, I’ve written outlines in notebooks and Word documents, on scrap pieces of paper, and even once on the inside of an opened-out takeaway pizza box.
With my ‘Macaque’ novels, my outlines were two or three pages outlining the basic events of the novel. “They go to the parallel world, grab the Zeppelin and return.”
For this latest outline, I’ve gone into more detail. The book I want to write is a thriller taking place in a confined space (sort of like the movies Speed or Phone Booth), and so the plot needs to be worked out before I start. I need to know how the main character is going to survive and fight back before I start, otherwise there’s the danger I might accidentally paint him (and myself) into an inescapably tight corner.
In order to do this, I started with an Excel spreadsheet. I created two columns. In the first, I wrote the numbers 1 to 50. These were my chapter numbers. In the second column, I wrote a paragraph about each chapter, describing the significant events. I told myself the story, starting at chapter one and working my way through to the end, jotting down these notes as I went.
Once I had it all written down, I began to see the structure. Certain events made more dramatic sense if they happened before others, and so I was able to switch the cells around until I had everything in the right place. It felt like editing a movie or TV show, swapping the order of the scenes around in order to build suspense. Then, when I was done, I cut and pasted the whole thing into Word.
What I’ve ended up with is a numbered list of 50 paragraphs, which between them break down my story into significant events. And if I write 2,000 words for each of these fifty chapters, I’ll end up with a book 100,000 words long.
I know I won’t stick to this outline with total rigidity. New ideas will occur as I’m writing, and characters will go off in unexpected directions. But this document will form the foundation on which the rest of the book can be built.
If you want an analogy, I see outlining as akin to planning a journey using a satellite photo. You can see the major landmarks and the general lie of the land, so you won’t get lost. But, when you actually start walking, there’s still plenty of scope to discover new and exciting details along the way.
And when I’m ready to submit the finished novel to my agent or publisher, that outline can (with some tinkering) form the basis of the synopsis I’ll need to include with the manuscript.
The main thing to remember is that different authors prefer different approaches. Some like to plot in advance, others like to fly by the seat of their pants. It depends on the individual, and sometimes on the type of book they’re trying to write, and it may take some experimenting before you discover which method works best for you.