Nanowrimo prep: Outlining your novel

Nanowrimo

Nanowrimo is a month and a half away, and while technically the rules state that you can only start planning a week in advance, I say fuck the rules. If you want to end November with a novel you can actually do something with, you need a plan.

Nanowrimo calls them planners and pantsers (as in, flying by the seat of your pants), although I’ve heard the latter called “organic” writers too. The idea is that there are two kinds of writers: those who outline, and those who make it up as they go along. There are benefits to both sides. In 2004 I started the month with absolutely no idea of what I was going to write about, and every word I wrote was a surprise to me. Where does the first scene start? Well, let’s pick a random room and say it’s in a bathroom. A bathroom where? In a church. What’s the character doing there? He’s at a funeral. Why isn’t he at the funeral itself? Because he doesn’t want to see his late best friend’s family. And so on. I love discovering the story at the same time the characters do. You don’t know what’s behind a door until you open it and find out what your brain has come up with.

Of course, pantsing means you end up with a massive, meandering novel that takes a lot of false turns before it finds its way, and that means there’s a lot of editing in your future. If you’d rather end up with something more coherent, you should have an outline. This can be anything from a vague series of scenes you know you need, to a specific scene-by-scene analysis. In 2009, I decided to outline my novel to within an inch of its life before I started. Oddly enough, this didn’t work very well. When I actually sat down to write, all the joy had been sucked out of the process. The characters felt wooden. The dialogue seemed unnatural to me because it couldn’t flow naturally when it had to follow a strict route. My novel ended up much, much shorter than it was supposed to, because I’d followed each point in the outline without any improvisation or tangents.

Over the next few years, I figured out how to have a plan that didn’t wring the fun out of writing. Here are a few suggestions for routes you can take. You’ll probably have to try a couple before you see what works for you.

The tentpole method:

You know a few key scenes in advance, and all you have to do is figure out how the characters get from one to the next. At the very least, the scenes you need to know should be the inciting incident (the event that sets the novel in motion) the turning point (what makes the protagonists start acting against the antagonist instead of just reacting) and the resolution (the final showdown or the event that resolves the plot). As you write, you’ll probably figure out more scenes that you need in order to get from A to B to C. I like to keep a running list of what I know I need to include, deleting the ones I’ve done and adding the new ones I’ve realized I now need.

The snowflake method:

This one’s a pretty famous method of outlining. Basically, the idea is that you come up with a short, one sentence summary of your story; then expand that to a paragraph; then expand each sentence of the paragraph to a paragraph of its own; and so on. Follow the link above to read the detailed explanation. If you’re someone who likes really specific outlines, this might work for you.

The story structure method:

Larry Brooks came up with this on StoryFix.com. I like this one a lot, and I’ve used it a few times. It’s a very formulaic way of plotting your story. Roughly, the scenes you need are:

  • the opening of your story
  • the story hook within the first 20 pages, that makes your reader get invested
  • the first plot point at the 25% mark of the story, where important information is revealed that changes what the hero knows
  • the first pinch point, where the antagonist shows their strength and acts against the hero
  • the mid point at the 50% mark, where the hero changes from reacting to acting
  • the second pinch point, where the antagonist shows that they have learned from their past mistakes and are stronger than ever before
  • the second plot point at the 75% mark where the final information needed to solve the problem is revealed, and the hero finally has everything they need to go against the antagonist
  • the final resolution

There’s a lot more to it than that, and I recommend you check that out at the link as well.

So with that in mind, what method do you think you’ll use?

 

Next time: character development.

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3 thoughts on “Nanowrimo prep: Outlining your novel

  1. Pingback: [Plotting About] Where Weavers Daire: First draft is done. – RKB Writes

  2. Thanks for sharing the different methods- I hadn’t heard of all of these before. Personally I’m using the snowflake method, but when I got stuck there, I found The Hero’s Journey to be extremely helpful. This combination has allowed me to grow an idea from something small into something I think I can really write 50,000 words at least about. I also feel like they still give me a lot of space to experiment and have fun with the story.

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    • The hero’s journey is a great one too. It’s similar to the story structure method. I think it can be helpful when you have a formula like that to work with. It really helps with getting the right pacing in a story.

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