Writing Tips: Outline Fiction The Easy Way

You’re frustrated with your fiction. Perhaps you need some writing tips to help you to outline your fiction because you’re like me, a natural-born pantser.

(A “pantser” is someone who prefers to write by the seat of his pants; sans outline.)

I’ve had requests for outlining tips. So, I thought I’d resurrect my article, “6 Tips For Writers Who Hate Outlines”. It’s helped many authors over the years — I hope you find it useful.

Here we go, with minor edits…

Writing tips for fiction authors who hate outlines

Hate outlines? I know many authors do, because I often get questions about outlining fiction. It’s a real challenge for many writers, and I sympathize. Way back when I started writing fiction in the 1970s I hated outlines with a passion.

That was way before Amazon and ebooks, so if I wanted to sell my novels to publishers, I had to outline. When I whined about it my literary agent at the time told me: “just write an outline. It’s a sales tool — you don’t have to follow it.”

Outline fiction YOUR way

That was the best advice I’ve ever received: you don’t have to follow your outline. Your outline is just a way to make your novel real to you. In traditional publishing, it helps you to get a publishing contract.

Over the years, I’ve pantsed/ outlined my way to many, many novels. These days, I rarely think about outlining at all. It seems as if my outlines just magically appear — I think about a novel, and before I know it, I’ve created a workable outline.

This magic will happen for you too — persist with your version of outlining, and sooner or later, writing novels (and nonfiction too) will be easier, because you outline automatically.

Let’s look at five writing tips which will help if you hate outlining fiction. No stress. As my agent pointed out, you don’t have to follow the outline you create. You almost certainly won’t, because a good outline kickstarts your thinking. Your final novel will be much better than it would have been without an outline.

1. Start with text: your creative brain thinks in images, not linear outlines

Want to outline? Just start writing.

Yes… I know it sounds simple, but stick with me.

Let’s say that you’re writing a romantic mystery novel, with super-glamorous billionaires. Or whatever you like. Choose your favorite genre.

Click your timer, and write for five minutes. Start off this way: “I’m writing a romantic mystery, with billionaire. My heroine is Tessy Anne Smith. She’s just won an internship at the hottest public relations company in New York city. She’s scared she won’t fit in… yadda yadda…”

Not an idea in your head? That’s OK.

Here’s a simple character template:

Name + Age + Occupation + Major Attribute + (optional) Big Problem

Viz: Tessy Anne Smith, 21, PR intern, ambitious — big problem: evicted from her apartment, staying with friends.

Another example: Megan Summers, 31, resident at a city hospital, love medicine — big problem: someone’s killing patients. She’s blamed.

Tip: stop TRYING. Just write. Allow whatever words pop into your head, without judgement.

2. Mind map from the text you’ve generated, then write, or dictate

Create a mind map from the text you’ve generated. Mind map programs abound online. Find one, or just mind map by hand.

Put the name of the character you’ve generated in the center of your mind map, and add the information you’ve generated.

You can create more information from your mind map if you like. Interview your main character. Ask her what she likes, dislikes, and why her big problem is so scary, and you’ll grow your plot.

3. Focus on your characters: readers want to know what happens next to your story people

Create more characters. In the Tessy Anne Smith story, you could create Tessy’s boss, the aunt with whom she’s crashing, and her best friend. At this stage, you just want a bunch of people. You can create new characters at any time — feel free to delete characters too.

4. Got the glimmer of a story? Write your BLURB now — it’s your working outline

Once you’ve created a bunch more people, you get the glimmer of a story. Tessy Anne’s PR firm is doing the publicity for a “marry a billionaire” reality TV show, and she’s sent along to the set as a researcher. A photographer accompanies Tessy Anne. All she needs to do is interview the show’s producer, and the show’s stars. She finds herself attracted to the billionaire’s business manager.

OK… With this much information, you’ve got enough to write your blurb (book description) for your novel.

Remember: your main character must have a goal which is very important to him or her. It’s a matter of life and death that your main character achieves the goal. In Tessy Anne’s case, she wants to make a success of her internship, and get hired by the PR company, so that she’s no longer homeless.

Many writers hate writing blurbs. That’s fine. Write anything you like — your novel may differ in many ways from your blurb. You can fix your blurb later. Your blurb just helps you to stay on track, so that you remember what your story’s about while you write it, because novels have a tendency to morph, no matter how many outlines you create.

5. Outline the high points (turning points) of your story

Your novel has this basic structure:

  1. Setup
  2. Midpoint
  3. Twist
  4. Dark moment
  5. Climax — think of it as the big bang, the culmination of everything. In a mystery, the climax is always the big reveal: the sleuth unmasks the killer.

For now, just write the structure on an index card, from 1 to 5. At this stage, you may or may not know what happens at those points. You don’t need to. I’m around 60% through a novel at the moment. I have no clue what the Twist will be, and I don’t care.

I’m focusing on my scenes.

6. Outline your scenes as you write: just one scene, or outline ahead

I know writers who outline each and every scene of a 60 scene-novel. Kudos to them; I admire and respect them. Unfortunately, outlining so intensively never works for me. I get bored, and I stop caring about the characters.

Here’s my process. When I’m writing the Setup, which is around 25% of a novel: introducing the characters, the situation, and the main character’s big problem, I outline scene by scene — and I use the term “outline” loosely.

All I want to know is:

  • Who’s in the scene?
  • What’s the main character’s goal for the scene?
  • Where does the scene take place?
  • What can I do to make the scene memorable — does it take place in an unusual location? Are the characters doing something unexpected?
  • (Vital) Why does this scene matter?

Keeping your blurb in mind, by the time you’ve finished the Setup, you’ll begin to get ideas for the Midpoint, and the Twist you want at around the 75% point of the novel.

The best writing tip: outline YOUR way

On some novels, you may outline each scene intensively. When you get lucky, you’ll have an occasional novel which “writes itself”. You can’t count on this, but it’s lovely when a book takes off. You can forget about outlining and generating text and mind mapping, and just write.

The tips above work for just about any novel. Keep them in mind, so that you have more fun with your writing.

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