We are continuing with the Preptober theme on Writers’ Corner! Today our guest writer is Sean Fesko who will give us tips and hints on how to outline your NaNoWriMo novel. Sean writes short stories, novels, and even non-fiction. His latest short story, Let’s Be Legends, was published in February 2019.
With National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, also referred to as NaNo) just around the corner, you may want to explore using novel outline strategies and how one can enhance your novel. By getting all the legwork done ahead of November 1st, you’ll be able to focus all of your creative energy on the manuscript itself rather than worrying about “what happens next.”
Why Use Novel Outlining Strategies
There are a number of reasons why utilizing novel outline strategies is helpful. For one, you have the opportunity to identify plot holes as you look over your outline—you may notice there are large sections of story between major scenes that will need to be filled, or perhaps you’ll find that your pacing is much too fast and what you think will be the midpoint of your novel is actually in the first quarter of what you’re planning on writing.
The writing strategy opposite outlining is called “pantsing.” This means writing by the “seat of your pants” and letting the story take you wherever it seems to go. This isn’t an inherently bad strategy, but it always pays to be prepared; an outline is the best way to give yourself some structure.
Let’s take a look at three novel outline strategies and how you can employ them as you prepare for NaNoWriMo. I’ll use the plot of my novel All Things Together for some tangible evidence.
Chapter Novel Outline Strategy
A chapter outline is the simplest way to plot through your story. The idea is to get a 30,000-foot view of the plot by figuring out what will happen in each chapter of your book. The number of chapters doesn’t matter here; you could plan on 10 long chapters or 30 shorter ones. You might choose this number based on the genre you’re writing.
The layout for a chapter outline strategy is similar to a book’s table of contents. If you give your chapters names, begin with what you think it will be called and then provide a short synopsis. Here’s an example:
- Chapter One: Paige and her father James spend an awkward day at his home in Chicago.
- Chapter Two: Paige returns to Boston.
- Chapter Three: Paige meets Savannah and Jesse at the House of Blues for his concert.
- Chapter Nineteen: James visits the graveyard and attends an AA meeting.
And so on and so forth until the end of the story.
Scene Novel Outline Strategy
The scene novel outline strategy is more in-depth. Rather than going chapter-by-chapter and writing out what will happen, you go scene-by-scene to provide yourself with more information.
This is a great way to see if your story is too top-heavy or bottom-heavy. Are you spending too much time building up to the inciting incident? Is the denouement an afterthought? A scene outline can help you determine this.
For All Things Together, I chose to use a scene outline for the second and third drafts. I chose this method because the first draft was so condensed (approximately 37,000 words) that I needed to find places where too much time passed or things didn’t flow nicely.
When the story was complete, the first 10 scenes looked something like this:
- Scene 1: Paige and James spend time in Chicago
- Scene 2: Paige flies home and meets up with her mother
- Scene 3: Getting ready for the concert
- Scene 4: The concert itself
- Scene 5: Afterparty and the crash
- Scene 6: Paige’s reaction
- Scene 7: James calls Paige and his AA sponsor
- Scene 8: Paige’s next day
- Scene 9: James arrives in Boston and plans the future with Paige
- Scene 10: The funeral
And so on.
This strategy lets you leapfrog around and place major plot points into their spots first, and then fill in subplots around those major ones. Try utilizing an Excel or Google Doc spreadsheet as you can easily cut and paste scenes around in cells. You’ll also be able to see where sections need to be filled in.
If you’re having trouble figuring out where the major points should be in a story, check out “The 15-Beat Method for Writers,” based on Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. While the book was written for screenwriters, the plotting information it contains easily translates to fiction writing. Pay special attention to the way Snyder breaks up the story into four quarters. These can serve as the anchor points to fill in around.
Paper Novel Outline Strategy
The paper novel outline strategy combines aspects of the previous two but is even more in-depth. In this strategy, you can choose to focus on chapters or scenes, but you can add additional details such as weather, character appearances, dialogue you have already thought up, etc.
The final product will look something like an outline you may have written for a high school or college research paper. Here’s an example from chapter one of All Things Together.
- Chapter 1 – Paige and James spend an awkward day in Chicago
- Weather: chilly and rainy, sunny
- Locations: El Train, James’ apartment, Navy Pier
- Characters: James and Paige (alternating viewpoints)
- Key points: James silent interaction with woman, Paige’s phone call
- Begin showing tension between Paige and James, Paige and mother
- Dialog: “I will as soon as you will.” (reference to Paige forgiving her father, spoken to her mother)
This is the most intense strategy, so don’t be alarmed if you feel overwhelmed. It may be something to save for a second draft—the important thing is to get the story written first. If this feels like a roadblock, choose one of the other options instead.
Plotting a NaNo novel is a big but important task, and using novel outline strategies is a good way to help get your idea into a tangible form before writing. Freeing up your mind from trying to remember everything that will happen allows your brain the chance to focus on actually writing the story rather than spinning in circles and accomplishing nothing.
Each novel outline strategy has its own pros and cons. Which one do you think is the most helpful for you?
About The Author
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