Friday, September 11, 2015

Winning Nanowrimo: Creating an Outline

I hate outlines.

They remind me of essays in English class, with a thesis statement, three supporting arguments, and a conclusion at the end. What a bother. I'm what's known as a Pantser: I don't know what I'm going to write until I've written it; I fly by the seat of my pants. In English class, I always wrote the outlines after I finished the essay.

But for Nanowrimo, I write outlines.

Or rather, I brainstorm ideas for my novel, so that if I hit a blank wall during Nanowrimo, I still have something to write. And then I try to organize those ideas into a logical sequence, so I don't get confused. That's my outline.

Outlines don't have to be permanent. That's what I like about them. At any time I like, I can ditch them and go off script. But if I don't have a script and get stuck, that's when panic sets in and panic can be deadly.


My plot outline is simple. I need at least ten important events. These events should take the form of scenes and should, if possible, take place in the present. No flashbacks, no backstory.
Event #1 should be the inciting incident--the thing that gets the ball rolling. Whatever that first idea that popped into your head was.

Somewhere between Event #2 and #9, you should include two reversals. Things seem to be going along in a straight line, then, bam, the road turns. The lovers are about to admit their feelings, when, bam, in waltzes the jealous ex. The detective thinks he's discovered the murderer when, bam, that suspect ends up dead. Death, betrayal, loss, scandal, secrets... these things work well.

Event #9 and #10 should probably be the climax and resolution. The resolution is optional, but the climax is not. What is the high point in the novel? What's the big action blowout, the big reveal, or the heart-wrenching emotion?

  If you can figure out Plot Points #1-10 (or #1-20, or #1-64, or whatever) in one sitting, congratulations! You can outline better than I ever could. I get, at best, halfway down the list before I get stuck and then it takes me until the end of October to figure out the climax.

As a rule, the more specific, the better. Your climax might be: good guy kills bad guy, and that's great. But why does he kill him? And where? And how? What makes the scene new and exciting and dramatic?

I like to bombard my scenes with as many questions as I can think of, in order to give myself the clearest possible picture of what's going on. 

Once you figure out at least some of the events, the next thing to do is figure out what order they go in and how they connect together. This often takes a while. You might know for sure that Andy and Melissa meet in Oklahoma, but two scenes later, they're dodging assassin’s bullets in Paris. Great! Just figure out how it happened.

Have ten key events? Know how they fit together?

Congratulations. You have an outline.


Of course, a novel is more than a plot. There should be solid characters at the heart of any good stories. In fact, the more you know the characters, the better chance you have of getting the plot to work.

The best way you can get to know the characters is by asking them questions. You can find some thorough character questionnaires out there, asking you to fill in everything from their favorite music to their blood type, but we don't have all day, so I've boiled it down to the essentials.

What do they look like?

Age and gender are always good. After that, focus on any physical trait that might be crucial to the story. Like if, say, your girl has wings. Or if your warrior is missing a hand. Even things like height and build might be important in an action story.

Who/ what do they love?

When a character loves someone, anyone, they become very relatable and we empathize with them. Love also gives them stakes. What are they willing to do for the person they love? How will they act if that loved one is in danger?

For a villain, you might twist this around into, "Who do they hate?"

What do they desire?

This gives the characters motivation. Motivation is crucial to the story, because it forces the character to take action. Without action, a story dies.

What do they fear?

If the character isn't motivated by action, they may be motivated by fear. Also, knowing the character's fears gives you a good idea of what kind of obstacles to present them. Putting a character with a fear of heights on a cliff adds to the drama.

What do they believe in?

Belief helps when it comes to developing a book’s theme. Usually a belief will be tested, and either triumph or lead the character to change. A minor example might be the heroine who thinks she'll never fall in love, right before Prince Charming sweeps her off her feet.

What's their background/ history?

You don't necessarily have to share this with the readers (and you certainly don't need a big flashback) but a little personal history will help you understand why the character acts the way he does. Look at family and defining moments in his life.

What’s their greatest secret?

Secrets are so useful. Hint that a character has a secret and your audience will be fascinated. Reveal a secret, and you cause shock, scandal, betrayal, angst, and other fun emotions.


When you look at setting, you might want to start by getting a broad view of where and when you are. For example, you might consider thinking about:

Time Frame

how long does the story take place: days? months? years?
any noticeable time gaps?

Physical Landscape

city, suburb, or country
the shape of the land: mountains and valleys
bodies of water
nature: plants and animals
buildings and man-made environments

Era/ Culture

clothes: how does it express their culture?
objects: what things are commonly used?

Seasons/ Weather

clothes: how does it protect them from the elements?

But after you have a general idea, it helps to take a closer look at three specific places where scenes take place. This could be anything from a house, a room, a cafe, a fortress, a spaceship, a volcano. Whatever catches your interest.

Try developing three specific places. You might already know how these places play a role in the plot or you may not. It might help to develop the place first and figure out what to do with it later.

Look around your specific place. What objects surround you? What can be used to help or hinder the hero? Is there anything that holds metaphoric value? How might landscape and weather affect the hero's actions?

 More Information?

If you want to learn more about my brainstorming techniques, see this article "Brainstorming: Finding Where Your At"

If you need more to go on for an outline, Book in a Month by Victoria Lynn Schmidt gives a pretty good map.

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