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Outlining a book (re-post)

Harry Potter outline - J K Rowling
Harry Potter outline – J K Rowling

Sixty, seventy, eighty thousand words or more. That’s your typical novel. Somehow you have to get to there from a blank page. Unless you’re an accomplished free-writer, that’s where an outline can help.

The outline is the bare bones summary of the book, not for any reader, for you the author. It’s how you structure that brilliant idea in order to demonstrate how brilliant it’s going to be when it’s finished. Themes, plot, character, incidents.

Some writers are obsessive ‘plotters’ (Hemingway, Rowling), producing highly detailed charts, schematics and diagrams. Others are buccaneering, ‘seat of the pants’ free-writers (Atwood, King), who leap off the diving board of a single idea and see where it takes them.

At the top level, the outline is an aide to visualise the big picture, and to keep the story on track as you write. Adding more detail, it lays out the scenes in the order they’ll appear. It can also present the arc of character developments.

It can help to clarify the half-formed idea, as much as it can help clarify the clutter of plot and character. It may or may not help with writer’s block down the road, but at least you’ll know what it is you’re supposed to write.

The downside of an outline is that it sometimes constrains that free-flowing creativity in a self-imposed straight-jacket. The plot can look formulaic and the characters made to look inauthentic under plot-driven choices.

The outline might be a paragraph or two. It might be a page. It might be ten or twenty. It’s whatever you need in order to realise the overall shape of the book to be. As such, it could take many forms:

  • Bullet list of plot points, characters, themes
  • Formalised document template – neatly laid out with headings and boxes, like a pro-forma issued by ACME office supplies
  • Mindmap – bubble diagrams with arrows linking everything together
  • Chart – time on the X-axis and incident on the Y-axis

While we’re talking about fiction, the same techniques apply equally to non-fiction.

Over the next few posts, we’ll look at outlining in more depth.