Lorraine Mace answers questions on writing plot outlines – and just getting down to writing!
Nigel from Edinburgh is getting grief from his online writing group because he writes from the seat of his pants. I am the only one of my group who admits to not having a plan for my novel. I started it with an idea and a character and sort of know how I want it to end, but haven’t a clue what’s going to happen from one chapter to the next. Everyone says that’s the wrong way to write a novel, but really, how necessary is it to have an outline for each chapter? Also, if it is something I really need to do, could you give an idea of what should go into an outline?
Writers come in two basic categories (although there are probably hundreds of subcategories) – plotters and pantsters – and both believe their way is the right way. In point of fact, in writing there is no one size fits all. What works for one will be the literary kiss of death for another.
For my crime novels, I tend to have the characters in place, know what the crime is and who commits it and can visualise the ending. As I work through the first draft, I write outlines, but only for what is coming up in the next chapter. If my characters take over and do things I hadn’t planned, I update my chapter outline to reflect that. So I suppose that puts me in the subcategory of panster with control freak tendencies.
If you want to work with an outline from start to finish, there are a few things you need to decide upfront:
- Decide if you want to write the story in first or third person
- Which characters (in addition to the main ones) are going to appear in each chapter?
- Create a list of characters to fill these places
- Know exactly how you want the story to end, so that you have a goal to work towards
This is the minimum you need before you start. The more you know about the story you want to write, the easier it is to compose chapter by chapter outlines. In each chapter you should have a beginning (the hook), a middle (story development) and an end (a cliff hanger to make readers turn the page).
Chapter outlines will help you to remember scenes, without having to read through everything you’ve written so far to find out where and when you last mentioned someone or something.
As you write, you’ll probably move things around, so will need to update your notes, but I find my outlines invaluable as the novel progresses. (I know, I’m writing the outlines at the same time as I’m writing the novel, but I did say there was no one size fits all.)
Here are some pros and cons of outlining the complete novel before writing it.
- You will always know what to write. With a plan in place, every time you open the file you will know where your characters are going and what they need to do.
- You can easily spot flaws and plot holes and fix them before they rear their ugly heads.
- If you come up with a brilliant idea, you can slot it into the relevant chapters fairly easily because you will know where and when to insert additional scenes. This is much harder to do if you’ve been writing without planning, or noting what happens in each chapter.
- You’ll get the first draft written much faster than if you didn’t have an outline to follow.
- It can (for some writers) take away the creative fun. If you are one of those, why not give my way a try? You can be creative, but also organise notes as you go along.
- You might spend hours, days, weeks, or even months, meticulously planning a novel and then realise it isn’t what you want to write after all.
- It cramps your writing style – you simply want your brain to free flow the novel into being.
Bottom line? Use whatever works for you and ignore any well-meaning advice (including mine) if it doesn’t chime with how you want to write.
Felicia from Sutton is finding it hard to knuckle down. She writes: I know it’s a cliché to say I have a book in me, but it’s true. I have all the ideas, know exactly what I want to write, have even written out a plan of the novel, but just can’t seem to get down to writing it. Setting aside time to write is almost like asking my brain to go on strike. I am so overwhelmed by the thought of having to write 90,000 words that I can’t even start.
The answer to this is simple. You don’t need to write 90,000 words all in one go. Why not break the task down into smaller chunks? I’m quite sure you could write 500 words without feeling overwhelmed. If you did that every day for six months, you would go over your target by 1,250 words. If you wanted to keep weekends as writing-free zones, it would still only take 36 weeks to reach your target by writing 500 words a day Monday to Friday.
Lorraine Mace is the humour columnist for Writing Magazine and head competition judge for Writers’ Forum. She is a former tutor for the Writers Bureau, and is the author of the Writers Bureau course, Marketing Your Book. She is also co-author, with Maureen Vincent-Northam of The Writer’s ABC Checklist (Accent Press). Lorraine runs a private critique service for writers (link below). She is the founder of the Flash 500 competitions covering flash fiction, short story and novel openings.
Her debut novel for children, Vlad the Inhaler, has now been followed by the second in the trilogy, Vlad’s Quest (LRP).
Writing as Frances di Plino, she is the author of four crime/thriller novels featuring Detective Inspector Paolo Storey: Bad Moon Rising, Someday Never Comes, Call It Pretending and Looking for a Reason (Crooked Cat Publishing).