This post is for those of you resistant to the novel outline. Fellow writer, I feel your pain. I was a dyed-in-the-wool pantser for most of my writing life until I figured out a way to have the best of both worlds. Yes, Virginia, you can have it all: the exhilaration and freedom of pantsing with the structure and methodology of outlining.
Interested? Good, let’s take a look:
What puts most pantsers off of outlining is the sheer level of detail. We don’t want to be tied down to every tiny detail in the story right up front. The trick to making an outline that doesn’t restrict your creative muse is to keep it as simple as possible. Here’s what I use for my Hero’s Journey stories:
One: Introduce Hero
Two: Give Hero a Problem
Three: Change Direction
Four: Hero Explores A New World
Five: Crisis in the New World
Seven: Impossible Victory
Eight: Hero Finds Power
Nine: Hero Fights and Wins
This is the barest of bare bones outlines. To take it a step further, read on:
If you want to go deeper into your outline (and I did), you can set up three or more chapters under each heading. Let me show you exactly what I did. Below is the entire first act from my upcoming novel.
ONE: INTRO HERO
Chapter 1: Intro (Egill, Gudrun and Rurik introduced)
Chapter 2: Inciting Incident: Baleyg requires Rurik to give up his pig, Helga for sacrifice.
Chapter 3: Reaction: Rurik refuses to give up the pig Baleyg asks Egill for Rurik’s life instead
Chapter 4: Reaction (set up) Egill ponders whether or not he could live without his son, gives his permission for Rurik to be sacrificed; Gudrun is so upset she must be removed from the hall
Chapter 5: Action (conflict) Gudrun returns to the hall and begs for Rurik’s life. Baleyg is annoyed and agrees but with a caveat.
Chapter 6: Consequence (Resolution) Rurik is made a vampire, to thirst for the blood of sacrifice as long as he shall live.
THREE: CHANGE OF DIRECTION
Chapter 7: Rurik is imprisoned in the village while Egill figures out what to do
Chapter 8: Pinch (conflict) PLOT TWIST Graeinn kills Helga to blame Rurik; Runa and Rurik escape the village to Ulfborg.
Chapter 9: Push (resolution) Gudrun and Egill ride to Ulfborg to intercept Rurik, who was exiled from the village.
In the expanded version from my Vikings novel outline, notice how there is only a one-sentence synopsis of what I thought might happen at this point of the story. I map out the conflicts and plot twists without going into too much detail about how I’m going to accomplish them.
The great thing is, when my characters acted outside of script (as pantser characters often do), I was able to write the changes in while keeping my story on track with appropriate set ups and resolutions.
I noticed when writing to this kind of bare-bones outline, my story was more compelling for having had a flow to follow.
Did I stick to everything I put in the outline? Uh, of course not. In fact, my ending was entirely different from the one I outlined and some minor characters ended up with more to say than I’d originally thought they would.
Change was easy to accomplish since I hadn’t put a lot of time or effort into nailing down every little thing my characters were going to do. It gave me the freedom to go in any direction my muse sent me while still having guidelines within which to work.
For example, I might change my plot twist entirely, but I still know that I need a plot twist in that section of my novel to move my story along. My resolution might be different because there is always more than one way to resolve an issue, but I still am accountable to having something to resolve the issue at hand and prepare my protagonist for the next step in the story.
Once you have your story idea, it’s time to decide whether to pants or outline. I’d recommend a hybrid of the two for a happy medium. If you’re ready, go ahead and begin fleshing out your story’s path using my bare-bones outline or a more detailed version.
There are numerous “beat sheets” or novel outline writing spreadsheets online. Some are tailored to different genres, so if you’re writing a romance, mystery or thriller you might want to search for those specifically.
Two of the most popular are “Save the Cat” and “Story Engineering” and here’s a fantastic list of example beat sheets from popular novels and television. Of course, once you get the idea, you might find yourself creating your own version.
See you on the next page!