Do you find outlining fiction a challenge? Many authors do.
Authors want to:
- Hook readers from the first page… This makes the first scene important; it freezes authors into endless procrastination;
- Avoid reader-boredom in the sagging middle of their novel, so procrastination strikes again.
Outlining fiction: the most important tip
Please don’t let your inner editor take charge, telling you what you “should” do.
Nothing comes from nothing.
When you write, you’re moving forward. Yes, you might write a woeful opening scene, in which your main character wakes up. (See below.)
That’s OK in your first draft, because you’re getting to know your characters and the story. Write the scene anyway, even though you realize that you’ll write another scene to replace it once you’ve completed your first draft.
To reiterate: write, then fix it later.
These tips will make outlining fiction easier for you.
1. Make something happen right away
Let’s look at some opening scenes to avoid. (In later drafts. Anything goes in your first draft.)
- The “waking up in the morning” opening. If you publish a novel with this opening scene you won’t make sales — unless your main character wakes up with a space alien bending over her, or beside a corpse.
- The “poor me, I’m having SUCH a bad day…” scene. Romance novelists love this one. Sadly, we don’t care if your main female character spills hot coffee over her new silk blouse, then rear-ends a car, and then gets fired… You can make it work: maybe your character is pretending. She’s running a con of some kind, and you let the reader in on it.
- The “bang, bang, you’re dead…” scene is (usually) a mistake too. In this opening scene, people die — this opening is beloved by new thriller authors. You can make this work, but only if you know precisely why you’re doing it, and how you’ll get readers to care.
Your novel is a STORY
… start with the story (not the plot.)
There’s a difference between story and plot, so always start with story — don’t try to plot until you’ve got the story straight in your mind.
Before you think about your novel’s first page, think about the novel, as a whole. What happens? What’s the story?
Mysteries usually involve a crime of some sort, often murder. So, who’s your victim? Why was he/ she murdered?
How was he/ she murdered? Where was he/ she murdered?
At this stage, you don’t need a complete plot, you just need enough material to become enthusiastic and inspired.
Choose a genre (category) and dream up some situations which would be appropriate for the genre you’ve chosen.
2. List your milestones: they’re the bones of your outline
Once you’ve chosen an opening situation, list your milestones:
• The setup (at the 25 per cent point of the novel);
• The midpoint, where everything changes, at 50 per cent;
• The OOPS milestone: the kick in the pants. Think of it as a sharp jolt, or the dark moment. It occurs at the 80 per cent point.
You don’t need to know what happens at these milestones yet. Just be aware that you’ll need a major plot twist at each one.
3. Choose your primary Point of View character: your novel starts when his life changes
Your Point of View (POV) character is the eyes and emotion of your story — you’ll tell your story from the perspective of this character.
For example, in a mystery, your POV character is usually the sleuth. In a romance, the female protagonist is usually the POV character. Occasionally, it’s the male lead character
You may choose to create an “unreliable” main character. An unreliable narrator/ character is common in psychological thrillers. Think Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.
Outlining fiction fast start: list several scenes and start writing
Got your main story, and POV character? Excellent. Jot a couple of scenes in your outline.
Alternatively, just start writing.
Your process may change with each novel. My goal is always to start writing as soon as I have an intriguing idea for a story, plus a main character, because I know that ideas will develop while I write.
Your own method of outlining fiction will develop as you write too. Trust yourself. Keep writing — and have fun, of course. 🙂
If you think you can't outline, you're wrong. You can create wonderful outlines which work for you: write more, and publish more.
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Copywriter and marketing pro Angela Booth maintains a busy copywriting and ghostwriting practice. Fascinated by online marketing, she wrote one of the first business books for internet marketing, published by Allen & Unwin. She’s been an enthusiastic blogger since the late 1990s.