Outlining: Your Novel’s Skeletal System

5323e_dancing_skeleton“Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.”

Some writers outline, some don’t. It’s all a matter of personal preference and what fits best with your writing process. Although I would love to be able to plunge into a novel with no structure, outlining my plot from beginning to end reins in my imagination and keeps me on track. I like to think of them as bare bones, ready for the fleshy meat, veins, and tissue that together form a complete story. Carnal, right? Well, when you think of the story as a living breathing organism it all makes sense.

The process of outlining is unique to each writer as well. My finicky taste leaves me somewhere between the old-fashion corkboard and index cards and digital notebooks to map my plot so I use them both. If you’re new to outlining I suggest giving both options a try to see which works best for you. With corkboards, you have the opportunity to literally be hands on with your story’s moving parts. (Darla G. Denton’s blog has great instructions for setting up your corkboard here.) Digital notebooks are all about convenience and speed. These tools make organizing your story as simple as creating a page dedicated to each step of your plot structure. Remember, you don’t have to choose between these two mediums. There is plenty of room here on the fence with me.

I like to outline based on my protagonist’s development. When I create my main character, I build my structure based on where I want them to end up when the story concludes. What do I want them to learn, become, defeat or accomplish? The beginning and end of that character arc (character arc post coming soon) serve as the cranium and phalanges of my skeleton. Now I add all the dominos in between.

Even though outlining by chapter is my preferred method, when I’m done I organize those chapters into the three parts of the Hero’s Journey story arc. This is the common structure for fantasy/sci-fi plots. The hero’s journey segments are broad: the call to action, the trials, and the triumph but I find the chapter by chapter outline helps with pacing through each segment. After these steps, my outline is starting to look like a proper structure.

Now that I know where my character is going and why, I add settings and supporting characters to help them achieve my master plan (insert diabolical laugh here.) I add these to my outline last to save the time it takes to trim the fat during the editing process. It’s easier to avoid non-essential elements that fail to move your story along when staring at the bare bones of the big picture. Each setting is the right place and time for your characters to move through that segment of your story and you have fewer “Why did I write this?” moments when reading over your first draft. Now my skeleton is complete and dancing the charleston.

“Now shake dem skeleton bones!”

But, there’s a twist. Outlines aren’t created with hammer and chisel because alterations are inevitable and encouraged. Characters have a mind of their own (despite the protests of their creators, tsk rebels) and when you get down to the feverish writing your character may jump right off your outline and dig their own path. It’s important to remember your outline is a list of suggestions, not instructions. Your outline should give you direction but it shouldn’t be so rigid that it restricts your creative expression. If necessary, you can always revise your outline as you go.

Do you outline your stories before you write?


4 thoughts on “Outlining: Your Novel’s Skeletal System

  1. This is my first novel (WOW, so different from short stories, who knew? LOL), and I started outlining instinctively from day 1. I happened upon a technique that’s worked really well for me: temporarily naming the chapters or scenes with a few words that describes what happens in them. Since I have multiple POV characters, I also stick that in the title to keep track. Then I use the Navigator function on OpenOffice Writer to see what the outline is so far. I can easily see when I’m missing some crucial bit of plot or if I have too much of the same mood in one place, and move scenes and chapters around until it works. Or sometimes, move them to the end under the “Cut?” heading. I never delete them though – just in case — and sure enough, I’ve brought a scene back up from the Cut floor before.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I do a rough outline, I need to have an ending first, and then some scenes that will lead to it, roadmarks of a kind. The rest I tend to work out as I write, to fill the novel with flesh and avoid any plot holes (that usually requires introducing minor characters/more scenes).


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