Many of the manuscripts I see as an editor need a lot of tidying up—and no, I’m not talking about misplaced commas. While there are certainly plenty of those as well, today I want to focus on macro-level messiness: pieces that don’t fit together and loops that remain unclosed. When I talk to those writers, most of them share the common trait of hating to outline.
There’s a lot of talk online about plotting versus pantsing, and I want to be clear that both are entirely valid options for a first draft. You know best how to get those initial words on the page. (And if you don’t, experiment with different methods to see how to make the words flow faster.) But I do believe that at some point, it’s helpful to create an outline of what you’ve written to give you a different perspective on your work and allow you to see things you might miss when you’re immersed in it line-by-line.
To further illustrate, here are a few things outlining can help you discover:
1. Dangling Plot Threads
Writers generally see the primary plot all the way through, but often subplots get left behind. Readers can easily become invested in minor characters, and you don’t what to undercut your happy ending by leaving the reader wondering what happened to your main character’s sister after she had that big fight with her husband.
2. Character-Driven Narrative Arcs
Successful stories are more than just a succession of events; they’re comprised of events that build in intensity to a climax, and these events are driven by your main character’s actions. (For more on active characters, check out this previous post.) When you list the main action in your book, it’s easier to see how each incident is leading to the next.
3. Disconnected Subplots
Even if you’ve tied together all the threads of your subplots, those plots may not be well connected enough to your main plot. If you’re trying to outline and can’t figure out how the subplot fits in, that’s a sign that it’s too tangential.
4. Timing Issues
Timing is tricky for so many writers. You’re already juggling all these characters and plot threads, and now you have to worry about a calendar? But nailing the timing—both providing logic for the internal story events and marking external events like holidays or school breaks—can really help with your book’s pacing.
So how do you outline to avoid these problems? If you’ve only ever outlined for an academic paper, you may be imagining a sheet of paper with roman numeral headings—you’ll probably be pleased to know that’s not really the most effective method for novels. Here are a few ways to outline, before or after you’ve written your first draft.
If you read my previous post on plot, you know I’m a fan of the good old-fashioned plot pyramid. To take that a step further, I really love this resource on the three-act structure. Put that diagram on a page and then place the events of your novel along it. If you prefer to come at your novel from the character angle instead of plot, the same principles apply; it’s just a slight shift in your mindset to think in terms of how your character changes. You might also write the events on notecards or post-its if you sense some things need to be shifted around.
2. Beat Sheets
Another way to break down the three-act structure is to create a spreadsheet of the events in your novel, called a beat sheet. This post is a good overview of what that might look like. I highly recommend Googling more if this seems like a useful tool for you; there are a lot of resources out there. One popular version of this is Save the Cat!, which released a book about their method geared toward novelists.
If your novel depends heavily on timing, print out a calendar and put the events on it. Mark holidays, your character’s birthday, etc. This is the perfect way to make sure you’re accurately accounting for the passage of time.
4. The Snowflake Method
This method is pretty involved and comes at your work from more of a narrative angle, helping you build from one sentence into a one-page overview into character charts into a massive scene breakdown. It can be a little overwhelming, but several of my clients really love it. You can read more about it here.
I’ll be discussing one final method that I successfully used with a client in my newsletter next week, so be sure to subscribe if you haven’t already. And if you have any favorite outlining methods, please share in the comments!