1st Drafts / Research

Types of Outlines

If you’re new to “Summer’s Ultimate Novel,” click here to read the first post (listing ideas in a notebook), here to read the second (choosing the right idea), here to read the third (themes and one-line synopsis of your novel), here to read the fourth (one-paragraph synopsis), here to read the fifth (research and settings), here to read the sixth (character questions), or here to read the seventh (character charts).

What did you think of the character charts? Fun or annoying? Easy or hard? I hope you learned more about your characters!

Now that you’ve researched settings and characters, it’s time to revisit plot. We did the one-paragraph synopsis four weeks ago, but you might want something more detailed than that. How much more detailed? Well, that really depends on your personality. Methods of plotting/outlining vary with different writers, so you might need trial-and-error to decide what works best for you. I’ll throw out a few options, and you can think about where you fit on the scale …

1. No outline.  Yeah, some writers do this. If you’re one of them, your artistic name is Pantser; you write by the seat of your pants. If that idea terrifies you (as it does me), move on to #2.

2. Vague outline.  Maybe you wrote the one-paragraph synopsis, and in the past month you’ve jotted down various ideas. You have fuzzy plans for sustaining the plot. You don’t want any more details or the thrill of writing will be gone for you. 

3. Big picture outline.  You know the beginning, middle, and end of your novel. You know where the main character ends up and how he/she got there. But maybe you haven’t figured out the subplots or how many chapters you’ll need. You’ll figure that out as you go along.

4. Short-but-complete outline.  For each chapter, you write two or three sentences about the plot in that chapter. You know where Acts 1 and 2 end. You make something exciting happen in each chapter to maintain a fast pace. 

5. Long synopsis outline.  You take your one-paragraph synopsis and turn each sentence into a paragraph of its own (which gives you an approximately one-page synopsis of your novel). Then you take each paragraph and turn it into a page of its own (resulting in about four pages of synopsis). Now you know the big picture and enough little details to sustain it.

6. Excel outline.  You use a spreadsheet to make a list of every scene in your novel. Each row will have one sentence to describe a scene. Maybe you add columns to label the POV character (if you have multiple POVs), how long the scene might be, and which chapter the scene goes in. Later you can delete or add rows, or change their order. Your artistic name is Plotter.

All these examples have variations, but I hope this introduces you to the basics. You may be a pantser, a plotter, or some combination of the two. Examples 5 & 6 are based on the Snowflake Method if you want to learn more.

Remember: each writer is different … and even the same writer can change for different stories. For example, I did a long synopsis and a spreadsheet for my first novel. But for my second novel, I used the short-but-complete outline. I’m not saying one method is better than another; I just wanted to try something new to see which worked best for me. You have to find that perfect balance between preparation and overkill, between wasted time and not-enough time. I wish I could spell out a magical formula for each person, but I can’t. The only thing I can suggest is starting low on the scale and working your way up. If you get to a point where the fun is fading fast, perhaps you’ve reached your outlining threshold. 

I fear I’m being very obscure. If you’d like some clarification, here’s an excerpt of the outline I used for my second novel, THE RIVER’S EDGE. Not word for word—since that would give away my secrets—just a summary.

Ch. 1:  Kari arrives at new setting and meets three new people. Her plans change. Hint of pending disaster. 
Ch. 2:  Introduce Kari’s best friend. Tiny bit of background. Problems with Blaine at work.
Ch. 3:  Major problems at work. Kari makes a split second decision that changes everything. DISASTER.
End of Act 1

I won’t bore you with more vagueness. To summarize, Act 2 is full of detours, disappointments, and bumps in the road (conflict!). Act 2 ends (after Ch. 10) with a fork in the road:  what will she decide? The consequences of her choice show up in Act 3, which leads to the black moment and the epiphany. Kari is forever changed at the end of the story (Ch. 16). A brief epilogue wraps up the loose ends.  

Think about your book. Are you writing a MG (middle grade) novel or a YA (young adult) novel? Not sure which one? Read this post about distinguishing between YA and MG. Technically speaking, MG books are often labeled “ages 9-12” and YA books are labeled “ages 12 and up.” But an author friend of mine said that protagonists of YA books should be in high school (NOT 12 or 13). Young readers, you tell me: do you prefer stories with protagonists older than you? Because that seems to be the trend in the publishing industry.

So based on the age of your protagonist, you’ll get an idea of whether you’re writing YA or MG. Then you can figure out how long your novel should be. Chuck says, “MG novels run 20,000-40,000 words, while YA is 40,000-65,000.” There are exceptions to these rules, and the exceptions are usually fantasies. But your odds of getting an agent or editor are better if you stick to the guidelines. If you’re looking at your favorite books and wondering how many words they have, consider this:  the average page of a novel has 250 words. Let me grab the closest book, which happens to be the YA book GRACELING—it has 470 pages, so it’s approximately 117,500 words (wow, can you say exception?! And this coming from a debut author!). It has 39 chapters, so each chapter averages 3000 words. That’s probably a normal chapter length, though my chapters average 5000 words. But that could be a flaw on my part. Anyway, chapter length doesn’t really matter at this point—what matters is that you write something!  🙂

Please let me know if you have any questions about outlines or plots! This week, complete the outline for your novel. Next Saturday is the last one in June, so we’ll finish up all the details before writing begins on July 1st! I’ll discuss word count goals and how to stick to them. Remember to leave me a comment if you want to sign up for “Summer’s Ultimate Novel!” 

SUN contest rules: Sign up for SUN—the deadline is midnight on June 30th. Then comment every Saturday in July to report your weekly word counts, and comment on August 1st with your final word count. It doesn’t matter if you fall short of your word count goals; it only matters that you try. Those people who sign up and comment consistently will be entered into a drawing. I don’t know yet what the prizes will be … books or Amazon gift cards or something. I don’t know yet how many prizes I’ll give away—it depends on how many people enter. Somebody will win something. How can you resist that, right? LOL.


One thought on “Types of Outlines

  1. Pingback: First Draft Goals « E. M. Rowan’s Field Notes

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