Monday, May 5, 2014

Outlining: How to Write Your Novel in Three Pages or Less

In order to help new writers get started, I’ve been talking about the basic building blocks of the novel. I started with the three “ins” to the story – protagonist, setting/subject matter, and plot. Then there’s the list of characters who populate your fictional world, and the roles they play for your protagonist. After that, there’s distinguishing plot points from events. Now it’s time to tie all those together in the “planner” writer’s favorite document: the outline.

Many writers shy away from creating an outline. Some feel it hurts their spontaneity and creative flow to figure out the entire story beforehand. Others have no idea where the story is going and hope their characters will tell them. And others are just plain not that organized.

There’s no hard and fast rule that says you have to write an outline. But for beginning writers, who want to tackle a novel but might be overwhelmed by the length it requires, getting all the major plot points down can help break the project into manageable chunks.

So let’s get started. First, what’s the plot? Remember, the main plot involves the actions your protagonist takes in order to meet her goal. (A subplot is usually something emotional that ties into the main plot.) Last week I talked about a typical chick lit plot -- a baker who’s working to open her own cupcake shop. The subplot would be something romantic… maybe the owner of the shop next door is driving her crazy. (The subplot usually addresses the protagonist’s emotional needs – maybe she needs to stand up for herself for once in her life.)

So that’s the first point on the outline: Casey decides to open a cupcake shop. Maybe she’s a cashier at McDonald’s or a sous chef at a fancy hotel. Those details don’t matter now. They can be fleshed out later. Right now, we’re just getting down the plot points.

Surprisingly, the next step isn’t figuring out Casey’s next step. The next step is figuring out the ending. There are four choices here: Casey fails at the shop and fails at love. Casey fails at the shop but finds love. Casey is successful with the shop but fails at love. Casey is successful with the shop and with love.

By looking at these choices, you can easily see which endings fit in which type of genre. The lose-lose choice is a straight drama. The two middle choices are standard women’s fiction. The last choice is chick lit. Since this story is chick lit (and since I like an empowered woman who gets what she wants), our ending is that Casey gets the shop and the guy.

So now we know some additional points for outline. She has to meet the guy. She has to do everything it takes to secure the shop – loans from a bank or the bank of Mom and Dad, finding the space, coming up with the business plan, quitting her current job, trying out new cupcake recipes, fighting with the new guy, going out on dates with the new guy, etc. And with every step forward, there’s a smaller step backward.

And even though we’ve signed on for the “win-win” ending, we need one big moment near the end – a moment where Casey thinks she’s lost the guy and the cupcake shop.

So putting it all together, we start off with something like this:

Casey has an awful day at work; decides to open a cupcake shop.
Casey tells her family and friends, who are alternatingly supportive and dismissive. Casey has second thoughts.
Casey finds a space that would be perfect for her cupcake shop. Unfortunately, the realtor representing it is kind of a jerk.
Casey whips up a batch of cupcakes for the jerk. He isn’t convinced yet, but he’s getting there. He refers her to a friend who can help her with a business plan.
Casey and the jerk’s friend write the business friend. The friend is a very nice woman and thinks Casey and the jerk would make a perfect couple.

These plot points represent the first third of the book. And notice that many of these points encompass more than one scene. They can be broken down even further, if that’s helpful. For instance, the point about Casey telling family and friends can be further described as Casey’s mom pooh-poohs the idea and tells her to concentrate on finding a boyfriend. Casey’s dad immediately whips out fifty bucks to invest.

For me, there is something about getting these points down in a clear, linear fashion that makes the resulting 75,000 or so words I have to write seem less daunting. And at this point – with a clear outline for the first several chapters – I would feel comfortable starting the writing while continuing to work on the outline.

So, there you have it. The three ways into a story, the list of characters, how to develop a plot, and how to write the outline. If you’re a beginning writer with just a kernel of an idea and no real guideline on how to get started, I hope these blog posts have helped!

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