An Easy Way to Outline Your Novel

There are many approaches to writing a novel. Some writers like the “seat of the pants” approach. They take an idea and start writing to see where it will go. I tried it. I ended up with a 70,000-word first draft that may or may not get edited and published. It was exciting writing it, but the result was a mess that will require a lot of rewriting. I prefer to plan novels, and here is the simple approach that I have used a few times.

Novels should generally have structure. That structure often includes these elements:

  1. A compelling event.
  2. Plot point one at about 1/4 through the novels.
  3. The midpoint.
  4. Plot point two at about 3/4 through the story.
  5. A dark moment, one or more scenes after plot point two.
  6. Resolution

The novel has a beginning, middle, and ending divided at plot points one and two. This means that the beginning and end of a novel are about a quarter of the story each. Half of the story is in the middle, that great void between plot points.

You may meticulously plan the novel, and in the adventure of writing it, find a wonderful path you never considered in your planning. Take it.

The plot is a series of scenes. Scenes are what I consider the building blocks of a story. A scene is a portion of the story in which characters interact in action or dialog. I usually plan scenes to be around 830 words. This goes back to writing novels for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), where I was writing a 50,000-word first-draft novel in 30 days. At a word count of 830, I would write two scenes a day and stay on track. You can use that word count to plan the length of your epic work. If you want 100,000 words, plan 120 scenes, 30 scenes for the beginning and end, and 60 scenes for the middle.

Since I am an accountant, and the solution for everything for accountants is a spreadsheet, I use Excel for planning. If I plan a 100,000-word novel, I pull up a blank spreadsheet and set up a column numbered 1-120. Then I add a second column called “Description”. In row number 30, I indicate that it is the first plot point in the description column. At row 60, I show the midpoint, and at row 90, I indicate the second plot point. That is the easy part.

The hard part is coming up with two or three-line descriptions of 120 scenes that will carry my characters and readers from the compelling event to the story’s resolution at the end. I usually have at least a vague idea of what the plot will be. I typically know the compelling event of the story. That will generally be the first scene because you use it to hoodwink the reader into engaging in the story. Whether I have a good idea of where the story is going or not, I will usually write vague, tentative scene descriptions for the plot points, the midpoint, and an ending. It is easier to concoct 30 scenes that get you from scene one to the first plot point than to think about how you will get clear to the end. 

This process may seem to be rather rigidly structured, but it shouldn’t be. The scenes can be shorter or longer. The number of them could be lesser or greater. You are free to change the plot points, the midpoint, or the ending. This approach is a guide, not a constraint. You are free to use whatever artistry serves the telling of the story. Sometimes you are in for a surprise. You may meticulously plan the novel, and in the adventure of writing it, find a wonderful path you never considered in your planning. Take it.

Check out my book, “Trail to Peril”, available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback.

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