How To Prep A Novel, Part Three: The Fiddly Bits

A treasure map

Warning: X may not actually mark the spot. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All right, now it’s time for the picky parts. I’ve tried a metric assload* of different ways to outline novels, and I have learned the following:

1. When people discover that you outline, they look at you like a zoo animal that’s learned to type.
2. No one method works for every novel.
3. Often combining methods is the best way forward.

But you’ve got your events and you’ve given some thought to the big questions, yes? You did the homework? Good. Then let’s move on.

Step Seven: Write That Shit Down

What, you thought you could skip that part? This is an outline, not a dream. Pick up that pen, grab some paper, and let’s begin.

An outline is a way to organize the information you have so that, one, you can make sure it makes sense, and, two, you can see what you’re missing. Because you are missing things, and some of them you will only discover when you write the novel.

Start like this: write down the very first thing that happens. See? That was easy. That’s the what. Now answer me the why: why is this happening, and why should we care? And neither why can be answered by ‘because that’s what has to happen’ or ‘because I said so.’ Those are not answers, as you learned as a child. Those are excuses. Harry Potter does not get a Hogwarts letter because he’s the main character and something interesting has to happen to the main character; he gets a letter because he was born a wizard. We care that he gets a letter because his family are child-abusing douche-canoes. Very different things.

One final question finishes off the event: what next? And, again, not ‘what does the plot demand next’, but ‘what is set in motion by this event that cannot be undone’? Harry’s letter means he’ll meet other wizards and go to new places and, significantly, make enemies. It also means his aunt and uncle are very unhappy, and will try to stop him. One of these things is probably your next event.

Take that event, and start again.

The nice thing about this system is that it can be as broad or as specific as you want to make it. Your can hit all the events, or just touch on the big ones. Whatever works for you. I like a lot of detail in my outlines**, so I tend to zero in and go scene by scene. But it works just as well if you go chapter by chapter, or act by act. Get whatever you need to write the story

These are the building blocks of your outline:
What happens?
Why?
Why should I give a fuck?
What, because of this, has to happen next?

Go on like that until you come to the end. Then stop. Look at what you’ve got. Do you like it? Does it make sense? Does it provide you with a way to get from A to B, preferably while detouring through the nether pits of C on the way?

Now it’s time to start writing. Good luck.

*Standard unit of writer measurement
**Not that I always follow it, mind you.

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5 thoughts on “How To Prep A Novel, Part Three: The Fiddly Bits

  1. Very good advice. I would even add that at the end of each scene, not only ask yourself what would happen next, but throw in some ‘buts’ (hehe butts) and ‘therefores’. This is what adds some tension to your story and was a suggestion from the South Park gents.

    e.g. Daryl steals some important documents from his coworker, BUT he’s caught in the act by another coworker, THEREFORE he’s now blackmailed by that coworker… and so on and so on.

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