Do you have a story churning in your head, and it wants out? Does it play in your imagination like a movie? Then you might be a plotter. Or a screenplay writer. Either way, you’ll need an outline.
Or, if you have characters talking in your head, you could be A) schizophrenic, B) a writer who should start with character sketches, or possibly C) both A and B.
Back to starting your book by writing an outline. If you know the main events in your plot, start there.
1. Jill is attacked by zombies.
2. Jack, Jill’s boyfriend, tries to save her and is turned into a zombie.
3. Jill tames Jack with a bag of Cheetos and lives happily ever after with her zombie boyfriend.
Now I outline my book by filling in scenes.
1-A: Jill works the late shift at the diner. She’s depressed Jack hasn’t proposed yet.
1-B: Jill finds the kitchen infested with zombies.
1-C: Jack arrives to pick up Jill for a date. He has a ring in his pocket.
2-A: Jack sees broken glass and follows the noise to the kitchen.
2-B: Jack fights the zombies and is infected.
2-C: Jill can’t bring herself to kill him and takes him home. She finds the ring.
Do this in order or not, it’s easy to skip around. Just fill in what you know based on cause-and-effect or the classic plot arc (conflict-climax-resolution). As you organize your plot, ask yourself:
- Where are the scenes set?
- What is the conflict, and where is the climax?
- Where should events be foreshadowed and where do I resolve each story line?
- Do I like the pacing? Consider tension/relief and action/dialogue.
- Did I allow moments for backstory and reflection?
- Where should comedic or romantic moments go?
- Do my protagonists and antagonists make a journey and experience change?
- Are my secondary characters supporting the main characters and furthering the plot?
As the structure of your story takes shape, refine the details of your outline to fit the theme of your story. Are all the elements unified?
Outlining gives you a foundation, framing, and roof. Writing the scenes might feel like adding in the cupboards, choosing the paint and installing the faucets. Voilà, you have a novel!
Does this make sense to you? Does all this planning and outlining make you want to get started? Welcome to the world of “plotters.” You are a fastidious, confident bunch. Plotters often invent elaborate, ingenious methods of outlining which also allow for creativity. As a “pantser” – meaning I write by the seat of my pants – I am in awe of you plotters and your sparkly, shiny plots. You clear-visioned masters of thrills and spills, you.
Time out, you say? Plotter whatsit? And what do pants have to do with writing? You might have heard writers debate “plotters vs. pantsers.” Versus is the right word, because a plotter is baffled why anyone would approach writing a complicated work of fiction without having the structure in place.
Conversely, as a pantser, when I try to outline, I stare at the blinking cursor until I admit I simply don’t know what will happen in the story until I get there. It unfolds as I go; I need the creative freedom. That’s a fancy way of saying I take dictation from the characters talking in my head, and I’m a clinical definition away from certifiable.
Granted, I have to either juggle all the character and plot details in my brain or [massively] edit them in later for consistency. I love editing to a maniacal degree, so I don’t mind. It’s how I roll.
Although writer’s block can afflict any author, it seems logical to assume plotters at least don’t get stuck wondering what should happen next, and I don’t think they steer the story in a direction that doesn’t work. Sometimes I feel I’ve driven my plotmobile into a swamp, and I have no idea how to tow it out. Keeping the big picture in mind can prevent these story-killing mistakes.
You don’t have to outline everything detail. You can, if that’s your style. It seems most writers plot to some extent. Yet another school of thought adopts a plotting-pantsing-hyrid. Any variation can be successful; find what works for you.
Here’s an article from writing.com about the pros and cons of each style. Urban fantasy author Suzanne Johnson blogs about character vs. plot here. I like this article by Thomas A. Knight about famous authors who are plotters or pantsers.
Are you a visual learner? Don’t miss Kat Latham’s blog article on organizing your plot and filling in plot holes.
Want a direct approach? Here are four simple steps for outlining plot by Glen C. Strathy. I admire Melissa C. Alexander’s well-organized and thorough approach for plotting. She’s made it a science, or is it an art form?
If all this talk about plot arcs, conflict resolution, and secondary characters has you hiding under the table, this might not be the right approach for starting your book. If you know your characters better than you know the plot, read my article on beginning with character sketches. How to get started if the idea for your book came to you in a dream? Sit tight, visionaries, your method is next.
Getting started is half the battle, right? So get started!