So, I talked about Pantsing your novel. Now it's time to discuss the idea of an Outline. The big complaint about outlines is that they "restrict" an author's creativity and produce a stale story.
I once attended a (really fantastic) screen writing conference. While I was there I attended a class on writing adaptations. The man hosting the class said something very important that I have consistently applied to my use of outlines (and not just my approach to adapting novels into screenplays). He said when he started an adaptation he would read the book over and over, at least five or six times, making notes about the themes that really appealed to him, getting to know the characters and their motivations inside and out, learning the twists and turns of the plot like the back of his hand. Then he would put the book on the shelf and write his screenplay without looking at the book again until the first draft was done.
I do the same with my outlines. Why? Because just like screenplays and novels are different creatures, outlines and novels are different creatures. An outline is a tool that is part of a method that builds a Plot gradually. As a tool it should be used when it is useful and ignored when it isn't.
"Well," you say. "I guess I could try it. But aren't outlines complicated?"
Sometimes, but they don't have to be. Here are the components of a successful outline: a Beginning, a Middle, and an End. That could be a single sentence for each part or a paragraph or a detailed twenty page bulleted list of every important plot-point. The key here is: whatever works best for you.
I like to sketch out the main beats of each chapter in my outline. Here's an example.
Keiran Fennel comes to the zeppelin port seeking passage to London
Despite the threatening weather he sets off with the crew of The Hind
Part way through the crossing the weather turns violent
Captain Hart enlists Keiran's help stoking the engines in the hope the ship can outrun the storm
While in the engine room Keiran sees his father's shade
The shade indicates that he (Keiran should go out on the upper deck)
Captain Hart tells Keiran it's dangerous and he's likely to go over the edge
Keiran insists, says it may the only thing that will save the ship
Hart is reluctant but is not in a position to argue
Keiran goes out on the upper deck
A brief conversation with the shade who points out a shape in the storm that is not natural
Keiran struggles with the monster (aerolis?) and succeeds in driving it away before being overcome with exhaustion
Keiran wakes to find that The Hind has reached London
Captain Hart talks with him a bit, says he saved the ship and the crew
Three other zeppelins were lost in the storm
Keiran tries to play it off, pretend that he had nothing to do with the safe passage but Hart tells him he saw the storm monster
Hart wants to know if Keiran knows why the monster was there in the first place but Keiran tells him he has no idea
He does say that The Hind was likely not the target as they were only on the outer edge of the storm and the monster retreated quickly when attacked
Hart agrees and he tells Keiran that when he wants to return to Eire he should seek them out and The Hind will give him free passage back
Keiran thanks him for the offer but says he doesn't know how long he will be in London, perhaps a day or so, perhaps weeks
Keiran collects his bag and departs The Hind
In total that outline was about nine pages. Every chapter was sketched out and it took me about three days to work through the whole thing.
"Nine pages! Three days! But that's too long," you say.
True, three days is a big chunk of time. Especially when the Big Shiny Idea is banging on the door begging you to just start writing already. But that three days saved me countless hours of staring at the screen trying to figure out how to get my Plot back on track. For me, it's a sacrifice I'm willing to make. Because I've tried it out and I know that having an outline saves me more time in the long run. If it didn't, I wouldn't keep using them.
"All right. I see your point," you admit. "But what about that organic energy you mentioned about Pantsing? Doesn't the outline kill that?"
Now we come back to my opening anecdote. Outlines can be restrictive. But they don't have to be. If you get to a point where it seems like the story wants to go in a different direction you have a choice: keep writing according to the outline or follow the new path. This is not any different than writing without an outline. You will always have moments where you realize the story could go differently. And you have to make a choice about which path you want to take. Whether it's the one highlighted on your map/outline or just a fork in your mental road.
An outline shows you one way to get from Point A (the Beginning) to Point C (the End) while passing through Point B (the Middle). But it doesn't show you every way.
So. If you feel like trying something different, here's the way to begin an outline. Figure out where the Plot starts (remember this may not be the same point as the beginning of the Story) and write that down. A good Beginning should give the reader some sign or clue about your MC's normal life plus drop them into a situation that is outside their normal experience that presents them with a problem.
Next, consider how that situation (usually referred to as The Inciting Incident) will effect your MC's life. What will they do next? Is there a possible resolution to the problem they are facing.
FREX: Your MC is framed for murder. A possible resolution is that they find the true killer. Now you have a Beginning and a possible End. How do they get from Point A to Point C? Hire a detective. Investigate the murder themselves. There are a number of possibilities about what happens in the Middle. Write them all down. Then see if any sort of pattern or order suggests itself.
The amount of detail you put into the outline depends on how much you feel is necessary for you to start writing your rough draft. I find lots of detail helpful. You may need only a paragraph to get the gears turning.
Remember what I said about digging the Story out of your head? Well, just like asking questions about your characters, the outline is meant to get you thinking about how the characters will solve their big dilemma and what's at stake if they fail. As you figure out how they'll try and make things right you'll start to see how the story can progress.
One final thought about outlines. I like to think of them as a very rough draft. It's like the draft of the story before I start adding all the frills like dialogue and narrative and description.
What about you? Do you like to spell out every chapter? Hit the main turning points? Maybe your outline is just a logline that says "Punk girl discovers industrial conspiracy and teams up with washed cop to reveal the truth before the whole planet starting mutating into frogs." Or something. What do you need to know about a story before you start writing?