outlining a novel

I’ve long considered myself an outline-dependent writer. When I sit down to write, I generally have a bulleted list of things to cover in the first few chapters. Scenes I want to include, bits of dialogue, thoughts for the character to consider. If I’m deep into a historical novel I create extremely detailed outlines – but here I’m talking about the first stages of a new novel, a new draft.

However, lately I’ve been hearing about people who REALLY outline: an outline of every chapter, figuring out the entire book (or at least the first draft of it) from beginning to end. I’ll admit that I rarely know the end when I start – I don’t get that far in my outline. With historical stuff, yes, the end is unavoidable, but exactly how I’ll get there and what form it will take is something I figure out once the writing is well underway. But these writers start with an outline, get all the way to the end, and even revise the outline before they start writing. I don’t mean to sound like “this is crazy talk” – in fact, it’s not, I think it’s a fantastic idea. It just strikes me as funny that I’m really not as much of an outliner – at least for early drafts – as I had imagined.

I’m not really sure exactly how much detail I should put in this outline – should I pin down each scene? Each bit of dialogue? And I worry that once the outline is complete I will be completely drained of inspiration and have no interest in actually writing the book. Still, I think it’s a worthy exercise. Any writers who have advice, please post!

Published in: on August 12, 2010 at 12:45 am  Comments (2)  

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  1. Hi Alisa,

    I’m no expert, but with each novel I’ve written, I have become more dedicated to writing a thorough outline. I write about 3/4 to one page per chapter, starting with the setting–time of day, location, distinguishing features of this scene–because I think it is important to ground the story in its setting. Next, even though I write fantasy, I note true-to-life facts that will help make my story believable. I note the MC’s mood, summarize the main conflict, and make sure I have an ending that will make readers turn the page. I only jot down dialogue if I come up with something special and don’t want to risk forgetting it. I also put in pictures of anything I may want to describe in that chapter.
    I stray frequently from my outline when inspiration strikes. Writing an outline has never squashed creativity for me. In fact, it does just the opposite, freeing me from the worry that my story will never go anywhere.

    • Vonna, thank you for this advice! I’ve been wondering how much detail to include…but I figure I’ll try to cover as much as possible. That way, as you said, I’ll have a lot to work with when I start to write!


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