Steering Your Book With a
Novel Outline

Do you need a road map to write your book? Then use a novel outline. Just remember to be flexible about its form. No two novels will be exactly alike. So no two outlines can be, either.

Where do you start with your plan?

The plot, of course. Most of your outline will be plot points. You may need to jot character notes, too, but the majority of your plan will be mapping out how to tell your story.

Where Are We Starting?

I've described the basic outline of a plot on my " developing a plot " page. Rather than repeat it all here, I'll elaborate on it, instead.

You've heard it before, but you need to hook your readers right away. That means dropping them into that runaway vehicle, at a point of tension or conflict. This is the inciting incident that fires the engine for your entire novel outline.

How do you figure out where your book really begins?

I do it by asking "what if". You can do the same.

Say your protagonist (that's hero or heroine, you know) is a new cashier at a fast food restaurant. His first night isn't going so well. He keeps confusing orders and forgetting where to punch the keys. (I know. Pretty lame. I'm sure you can do much better.)

Now, play what if. Don't be afraid. No one's going to laugh because you're the only one who'll see your game "pieces".

What if he ticks off a customer?

What if he ticks off the same customer, trying to fix his mistake? Two or three times?

What if that customer's had a bad day and decides to hold the helpless cashier at gun point?

See. You can go crazy with this until you find where the plot grabs you. Then start there.

Don't Get Lost On The Way

The middle of your novel outline should have all the turns needed to get from point A (the inept cashier at gun point) to point Z (the gunman gets off the hook at his trial, for instance).

So how did you get from gunpoint to free of charges?

First, you figure out how to get the cashier out of the gunman's relentless grip. Then... what happens next? This, by the way, is what your readers should be asking at every turn of the page. If not (if they're saying "so what?"), then you've taken a wrong turn.

Now, you need to ask what happens next. As many times as you need to in order to drive through the entire route until that cliff you're about to drive over is in sight.

Don't be lazy here. Middles can be hard to construct well, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't plot till you drop. We're not talking fluff and fill, here, though. Stuffing the middle full just to make it "long enough" isn't going to do anyone any good. Least of all your novel.

So plot your points carefully. But give yourself plenty of detour room. In chapter sixteen, you may find your outline doesn't go in the direction you need to go. That's fine. The outline is just a suggested route to get you pointed down the right road. If your "vehicle" takes a sudden turn, follow it. It'll probably work out as well or better than what you plotted cold.

Crash and Burn

Okay. You've tightened the belt under the hood of your "vehicle" until it purrs like a cat. What's next in your novel outline?

Yup. It's time to crash and burn. Time to let the cops catch up with your speeding protagonist and see if he can extricate himself. If you've done your homework well, your rising action will point the way and your crisis will reveal itself.

If not, go back and rework your route until you can go nowhere but straight to... you know. (At least it'll be hell on your protagonist, if you've done it right.)

The End of the Road

And now... the moment you've been waiting for: the climax.

Your novel outline has two more "turns" you need to make. The climax, which better be THE cliffhanger of your entire book (or you've goofed, and need to go back to the beginning); and the resolution, where your protagonist wins, loses (or if he's an artist, draws?).

Don't make the mistake of making this obvious. Your readers want you to lead them on until the very last page. So aim your "vehicle" right at them and make them jump out of your convoluted way at the last second. They'll thank you for it.

Happy mapping!



By the way, if you feel you need a template for your novel outline, I've created two styles to try. See if either helps you create your next novel outline more easily. They're both free to download below. Just click on the links to download either or both.

Outline Template 1 (Story Arc) - Fill in your inciting incident, your major plot points for the rising action, your crisis, climax and resolution. Adjust as needed. Feel free to add Plot Points to your rising action as required.

Outline Template 2 (Chapter by Chapter) - Fill in each chapter's plot points, beginning with an inciting incident, adding enough chapters to maneuver through your rising action to your crisis, climax and resolution chapters. Be aware that the crisis, climax and resolution may happen entirely in one chapter, or three. Write what works for your book.

NOTE:

You will need Adobe Reader (the latest version is recommended) installed on your computer in order to open and view or print these files. You can get Adobe Reader here (a new window will open so you can download without leaving this page).

If you want to open the file in your browser window, you can just click on the link. However, if you want to download the file to view later, then right click on the link and choose "Save Target As" or "Save File As." Then select where you want to save the file on your hard drive.

Once you have saved the file, locate where you saved it, and double click to open.

In order to print, open the downloaded file, and select the "Print" option from your menu.



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