Three simple steps for outlining a novel

Posted: October 27, 2014 in writing
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Preparing for NaNoWriMo has meant planning the novel that I’m going to write, or at least start writing, in that month. So yesterday I sat and planned my novel, currently titled City of Blood and Steam. As other people will also be planning novels right now I thought I’d share my process, in case it’s useful.

My planning process has three basic steps.

Step 1: fundamentals

I start with the fundamentals – what and who is the story about, and what plotlines does that give me? City of Blood and Steam is about a pair of priestly detectives investigating a murder in a steampunk city where people believe that machines have souls. So plotlines will stem from these characters and the case they are investigating.

The character plotlines are the most important ones – they’ll make sure that the characters have interesting issues and dilemmas to face, and that there’s a sense of progress in their characters. So arcs include their relationship moving from one of resentment to one of trust, the older character’s battle with the effects of age on her body, the younger character’s search for a sense of purpose, and their relationship with the church authorities.

The investigative plotlines are more numerous. I have a central backbone to the case, through which are threaded subplots in which they investigate each reason the victim might have ended up dead, each major strand of suspicion and mystery. I have no idea if this is how mystery writers normally work, I’ve never written a full length detective story before, but this approach has worked for me with other stories.

The investigative plotlines also include a conflict with a lawyer who’s getting in the way of the investigation because of the vested interests it upsets. So there’s an antagonist in play as well as a murderer to find.

Step 2: breaking down the plots

Step one normally leaves me with about eight different plotlines for a novel. For a short story it’s only one or two. For this mystery I’ve got fifteen, which means lots of work on step two – breaking down each plotline.

I map out each plotline separately without thinking about how they relate to each other. For this I use Dan Wells’s seven point story structure because it’s got a nice rising and falling rhythm to it and it’s what I’m used to. Click the link to that previous post if you want to know more on how it works.

In terms of pure practicalities, I do this on an Excel spreadsheet. So by the end of step two I have a grid containing a column for each plotline and a row for each of the seven beats in Wells’s structure. And each cell in that grid has a one or two sentence explanation of what happens at that point in the plot.

Now comes the tricky part…

Step 3: putting it all in order

Finally I work out how the steps in the plot strands relate to each other, spacing them out into roughly thirty chapters.

I usually do this by printing out my spreadsheet, cutting out the cells and then manoeuvring them on the dining room table. Yesterday I didn’t have that option so I used two windows in Excel, copying and pasting from the existing plot point sheet into a new chapter breakdown one.

I start by spreading out the most important arcs – in this case the character development and the main plotline of solving the mystery. I want those spread fairly evenly through the book, with the most important ones starting right at the start and finishing in the final chapter. Looking at them together sometimes highlights things that should happen in the same chapter – for example a major setback in the investigation might make a natural trigger for a crisis of confidence in a character’s personal plotline. I’m looking for story beats that fit naturally together, while keeping each plotline in order.

Having done this with the main plotlines I then do the same with the others, again looking for connections to fit them together. Does one strand of investigation take the characters to the docks, and another need them to spot someone there? Then let’s put those two together. Are they going to get told to drop the case in classic cop show fashion? Then lets do that after they’ve gone poking around in someone important’s business, kicking up a political shitstorm. And that would be a great point for a confrontation with the meddling lawyer.

I usually have to make a few tweaks at the end, removing empty chapters and splitting up over-crowded ones, but fundamentally that’s it – at the end I have a plan of thirtyish chapters with a satisfying beginning and end and several things happening in each chapter, which I’ll turn into a chapter plan as I get to each one.

Thoughts, questions?

That’s my approach to planning a novel or other fiction writing project. I expect I’ll do more posts like this as NaNoWriMo takes me at an accelerated pace through the writing process. If you’ve got any questions or thoughts then leave a comment.

How do you plan a story? Got any recommendations for other guidance? Share your ideas below.

  1. everwalker says:

    I do something similar, but I use Trello rather than Excel. Trello’s a free online thing that the raptor showed me, and is basically advanced post-it notes in software form. Because you can add images, colour code them, shuffle them around, link them to each other, etc, I find it a very versatile way of mapping plotlines.

    • glenatron says:

      Oh yes! Another good use for Trello!

      I use that a whole lot for many different things- a really good, simple, tool.

    • That sounds good – I’ve bookmarked it for next time.

      I’m currently playing with a free trial of Scapple, a brainstorming program from the makers of Scrivener. Also handy for moving stuff about, haven’t tried anything like colour coding yet. Apparently it can connect up with Scrivener, which would have advantages for me.

  2. Wow, this I call structure! I’m always too eager to get to the writing, I forget to do the paperwork first. This means loads of editing afterwards. Thanks for the tip, will have a look at this right away 😀

  3. 21stcenturyvictorian says:

    Thanks for this – this is a very helpful strategy! I’m like Helena – I just dive right in, but tend to get lost about thirty pages in… Not the best plan!

    • I know there are plenty of pros who take a more ‘making it up as I go along’ approach, but I find that advance planning not only structures my work but helps me keep writing, as I don’t have to pause to plan what to write next.

  4. mjtierney1 says:

    This article is very helpful as I’m in the midst of plotting in preparation for NaNoWriMo. My natural tendency is to just start writing and see where it goes, but I’ve learned that I really need to get some structure down first or it all goes wibbly-wobbly.

  5. glenatron says:

    Do you ever worry that with all the beats and focussed rhythm ( not just in this planning process, really I’m thinking in general ) that a story can end up a little bit too tidy? This is something I sometimes notice when I’m reading, particularly with modern genre writing, that everything fits together neatly into something that, when you look at it on the whole, becomes a little too self-evidently a story?

    I’m not quite sure what I’m getting at here and I often regard these things in somewhat idiosyncratic ways, but particularly when I am reading a story with a lot of threads that all start to tie themselves smoothly together, it really breaks my suspension of disbelief. Like yes, fine, machines have souls and possibly their soul is united with the city itself, and there are giant dream eating moths or whatever I can get on board with that, but all these plotlines turning out to be interrelated and associated with the core narrative of the story? Too much!

    • That hasn’t bothered me in anything I’ve read yet, so I guess that’s a no, though as with a lot of your insights I’ll now be looking out for it and probably find an example next week and be sat there going ‘damnit, he was right!’

      Speaking for myself and my writing, I don’t necessarily make the conclusions of all the plot threads tie together – though the nature of a detective story means that for this one almost any plot closing advances the main plotline. But I do like there to be at least a thematic resonance, a sense that the story is a coherent whole. The rough edges tend to come up in the details – the side characters, small events and bits of background I find I need to add when I’m writing the chapters, and that imply a wider world and other events that I’m not dealing with here.

      • glenatron says:

        I think that is kind of what I am thinking of- one thing you see maybe more in old detective stories that are about the puzzle more than modern ones that are about the characters is that they used to throw out a lot of red herrings. I think maybe it is that when things are too self contained it feels as though the world is about these characters, but most of everyone – including most of the people the main characters are interacting with – are busy with their own problems, which have nothing to do with the events in the narrative and will almost certainly never have any idea about it. Unless you are working in a closed box setting, those people are what gives the impression of a living world rather than a flat set carefully choreographed to the movements of central characters.

        One example I can think of where this really annoyed me was Robin Hobb’s Liveship books many people have a lot of affection for those, but to me the structure was so self-evident and so obviously going to neatly tie itself together that it really got in the way of my enjoyment of the stories. I think maybe it was more noticeable because it was all in the third person too- certainly I found the Assassin books ( which I read subsequently ) to be a lot more real even if Fitz is the most annoyingly whingey character since Covenant.

        To me, there is something about allowing your reader to sift out what is important ( and consequently giving them the opportunity to completely miss it ) because not everything that happens in the story is. That also gives you corners to set up bit part characters, locations and events that you can call on and give more weight to later, should you wish to return to the setting.

        • I think your point about not making everything revolve around the characters is important. The people they meet have to have their own lives and motivations that exist beyond the protagonists’ stories, or they won;t seem quite real. There has to be an implication, however slight, of other things they’re up to and care about – totally agree on that.

          I have to say, you’re not making Robin Hobb sound appealling though!

          • glenatron says:

            I probably do her a disservice- she’s a very good writer and she writes well drawn characters in a well-realised world. She does have a slight tendency to make her characters flawed to the point of annoying and her plots are often so dark that you begin to wander into the borders of “awful things happening to awful people” territory, which is not something that I enjoy. I don’t mind a bit of darkness in my fiction, but if there is no light to be found anywhere it starts to make you wonder why they’re bothering at all…

            • That’s why I’ve struggled to get far with Breaking Bad. It’s impeccably made, but it’s so very bleak that my gut reaction is to cower away from it and hide. That can work for a film or a short story, but for however many seasons of television or a series of novels I need some light.

  6. Thanks for posting this and pointing to the videos. I watched them all and used the technique to really pull together my different story lines. I had the basic plot and subplots, but using the 7 points, I laid them all out in Excel like you talked about, tightened them, and figured out how to order and align them for greater tension and impact. Still more work to do, but this really helped!

    • Glad I could help. I’d be really fascinated to hear how you get on having followed this, so do let me know how it goes once you start writing from that plan.

      I tend to use the same seven point structure when writing individual chapters, again just to give myself some structure, and I’ll probably write another post about that later.

  7. I’m a plotter. I have a planning grid, rather than a spread sheet, but you’re planning stage is not unlike my planning stage, which is rather fascinating. How do you go if the plot ‘twists’ while you are writing it? Do you plan for flexibility, or does that throw a spanner in the works? (Pun intended.)

    • Honestly, my major plotlines don’t tend to twist away from my original intention, as I’m pretty excited about where they’re ending up by the time I write them down. The deviations tend to come from unexpected characters, places or events popping up – the sort of rough edges I mentioned in a comment above – and wanting to run with them. As I tend to plan the details of each chapter just before I write it, turning two or three story beats into a mini-plan for the chapter, I work those in at that point.

      So for example in a novel I should now be editing about a fantasy version of ancient Rome, one central character is an ex-legionary, and in the first chapter we see him with some fellow legionaries. They were just throw-away characters to fill out a battle scene, but I showed that chapter to my wife and she told me that she really hoped those characters would reappear as she liked what she’d seen of them. I could see a logical point for them to return later in the novel, so I noted it down in the grid and brought them back in then, using their reappearance as part of another planned story beat, triggering the opportunities and emotional responses that would propel the female protagonist forward. From then on these legionaries fitted in nicely with stuff I already had planned, and gave me someone to bounce my main characters off. One of them even gets a more prominent place in the planned sequel. The other… well, it might have been better for him if I’d forgotten he existed, but such is the fate of the background character!

      How do you deal with those unexpected developments?

      • I tend to run with them. In my first draft, I include everything, including the more promising tangents, and then do a heavy prune. I keep anything I discard in another file, just in case.

        I have one story where a female vampire (it is a parody) was supposed to have an affair with a human. There was a good reason for wanting the affair to happen, but my character was written to be too loyal and in love with her husband to have an affair. I wrote about 8000 words before discarding the whole concept. I had to come up with another way to create a break between the couple, and the perfect solution was provided by the husband without him having to have an affair or step out of character.

        Sometimes those ‘twists’ are gold. I always leave room in my stories for evolution of plot and character. Often, my finished work is very different to the original plan.

        • That’s really interesting. I tend to think of such huge deviations and winging it as the realm of pantsers rather than advanced planning writers, but you’ve clearly found a fruitful middle ground where one grows out of the other. I get frustrated if I have to throw away more than a few hundred words, so proper planning is in part a defence mechanism against that. Not that I won’t prune when it’s needed, but as far as possible I want to avoid that horror.

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