The most common advice I give to authors, especially those whose manuscripts struggle with consistency or completion, is to adhere to an outline. But then I always get that follow-up question: What is an outline, and how do I make one? Simply defined, the outline phase of writing is when the author plans how the book will be written from beginning to end. Let’s dive a little deeper.
The purpose of an outline is to keep the author plot-driven while writing. Without a guide from beginning to end, characters are bound to lose their connection to the plot, storylines go rouge, and we often lose visual of the mission behind why we started the book in the first place. The outline helps keep us focused on the overall picture.
Of course the story should flow naturally, and the characters will develop into who they are meant to be all on their own. But the events of the story need to be purposeful and conflicts need to be resolved. Outlines consist of the substance that fills the gap between start and finish.
How to Outline
Outlines can vary based on what works for you as an author. I recommend following this basic formula: Start > event > event > event > Finish. Use as many events as are necessary in between the beginning and end to achieve completion. This formula can be applied in a detailed chapter-by-chapter map of the book like this:
In the book False Cathedrals where character development drove the plot, the outline looked like the Serpinski triangle (a mathematical structure of an equilateral triangle that is made up of smaller equilateral triangles):
Other outlines can be a simple checklist of required events.
You can tailor your outline to what works best for your plot, your thought process, and/or your writing style. Include as much detail as necessary to ensure clarity and consistency in the writing process.
What if I Don’t Outline?
Every author has a process for preparing a story to be written. But, if you want to wing it instead of plan it, you’re more likely to end up writing a novel full of developmental issues. Developmental issues mean you will need to hire a developmental editor, which can be costly. I tend to catch developmental errors and suggest edits while I beta read for authors, but not every beta reader offers that insight. So, I guess the question you need to ask yourself before you determine if you need to create an outline is this: Are you capable of being consistent with and in control of your manuscript at all times while writing? If you’re like most of us authors, you will be sensible and answer “no”.
Creating an outline will keep the book on topic and aid the author in maintaining a steady storyline throughout the novel. Without it, your manuscript may get the best of your wallet.
Already use an outline while writing? I would love to see your process in the comments below! Thank you for reading.