This week, as an extended Bank Holiday Bonus, we will be looking at how to outline your novel:
Taking the time to outline your novel can save you grief in the long run. An outline helps keep your story on-track and progressing past the initial thrill of beginning your work. Maybe you can’t wait to start writing, or maybe you’ve already started but are running into problems. This guide will explain all the techniques you’ll need to craft an effective outline for your novel.
Assess Your Plot-in-Progress
While your outline is still in its rough, overview state, it’s good to check that the plot is working. To make sure the plot flows, check for gaps both chronologically and dramatically.
A chronological gap occurs when an underdeveloped story jumps over a period of time. It can be disconcerting for the reader if your character is sweating it out in the middle of summer, and then, in what seems a few days, is at home trying to get closer to the fireplace.
Reassess your plot and check for unaccounted days, months, weeks or years. The significance of missing time is relative. If your story spans a period of a year or more, a few days or weeks won’t matter so much.
To fill the gap, you could think of an event to develop a character or a mini obstacle for your protagonist to overcome. Of course, you always have the option to tell your reader that a few uneventful weeks or a busy month passed with no plot progression. Doing this too often can be distracting, but at the same time you don’t want pages of nothing happening.
“References to time and day (or month or season or year) are necessary to keep readers linked with story events and hold them deep inside the fiction” – Beth Hill
A dramatic gap occurs when the tension of your novel declines when it shouldn’t. The best way to identify these gaps is to draw the story arc as a graph line. Use different colours for subplots to check that the main plot isn’t being overshadowed.
You may encounter lulls in tension shortly after an obstacle is defeated. This is where dramatic lulls are okay as long as they don’t last too long. Overall, the main plot should be increasing in tension as it heads towards the climax.
If you’ve decided to use 1st person perspective, or are considering it, draw the arc from both a generalised view and then from the 1st person narrator’s perspective. From here you can see whether the delay or lack of knowledge from the narrator’s perspective creates a better dramatic arc. To fill dramatic gaps, build more plot points in strategic places and work on increasing tension.
If it seems that your story isn’t working, trust your instincts. Readers can tell when something is a bit off and, as a writer, you’re a reader too. Be honest if something isn’t working – it’s easier to fix now than later.
If you can’t identify the root of the problem, take a break or ask some trusted writing buddies to look over it. Also research the genre’s conventions. If you’re writing genre fiction, look into a tried and tested outline such as the hero’s journey or the eight-point arc.
Identify the Core Message (Theme)
Novels have a core message, whether it’s clear or not. You could successfully write your novel none the wiser of its deeper meanings. Yet, by knowing the core, you can write a stronger novel.
Identifying your core helps when you need to decide between two possibilities, and keeps the novel feeling as one whole piece of work.
“Novelists, just like filmmakers, need to truly understand the story they are trying to tell and what impact or take-home feeling or message they want to leave with their readers” – C. S. Lakin
Your core message and themes emerge naturally with your story and can be a phrase, a word or a question. You’ll instinctively know when you’ve hit on your novel’s core or when you’re getting close to it. Here are a few ways to help identify your core message if you don’t already know it:
- Identify 1 – 4 central or important themes
- Look at your protagonist’s goal / desire or main obstacle
- Sum up your story in one sentence (i.e. “pitch”) keeping note of the above two points
- Make a list of published novels you think are similar. Can you identify their core messages?
- Share your story premise with others
Once you’ve identified your core, it’s helpful to go back and tweak plot points or characters to align with this. Be careful to not undermine your story by making the core too obvious or preachy.
Consider if there is a motif or style that is appropriate for your core. There’s a chance that you may not like the core message you identify. At this point you have the option to run with what the story says, or rework the aspects of your story that portray the undesired core message.
If you are enjoying this post and finding it useful, then don’t forget to check back tomorrow for the next instalment…
You can find the previous parts here: