5 Practical Steps to Outlining Your Novel

The blank page is an obstacle dreaded by many a novel writer. Its emptiness is simultaneously inviting and intimidating. It begs for creativity yet demands perfection.

For a long time, whenever I faced the blank page–the first page of my would-be novel–I felt that I needed to fill it with perfection. Since perfect words and sentences were usually unavailable to me at the beginning of writing something, I would stare at that blank page for hours and leave it empty.

Sure, I might dare to dip my toes into the emptiness, getting a few words out there. But they would be quickly deleted, and I would think myself a fool for trying.

For a long time, I took this approach to writing my novel. After much straining for perfection and deleting what wasn’t working, I would eventually create something. The trouble with this method was that I was very slow. Also, sometimes I would spend days laboring over a single page only to find out that it didn’t fit with where the story was going.

And what became of all the work? Deleted.

Then a light bulb went off. I realized I had to think of the blank page differently. Instead of seeing it as the future document I would put before my readers, I first had to see it as the place where I could put down my ideas down. True, I would eventually use the blank page to produce the final product for my novel. But another step would have to come before that.

Enter the outline.

An outline lets me get my ideas out there, let’s me arrange them in an order that makes sense. No perfection needed. Just raw ideas. And if I cut something, I can do so knowing that I didn’t spend hours working on it.

So if you suffer from chronic fear of the blank page, here’s a strategy that might work:

  1. Write down the major plot points you have for the story. Keep each of these points separate from one another (like on notecards or with bullet points on a Word document). In this step, don’t worry about grammar, spelling, or the order in which plot points are going to appear in your story. The purpose of this step is just to get the plot points out there. No filter. Just write.
  2. Organize the plot points. If you used note cards in the first step, lay them out on large open space (like the floor) and organize them into an order that makes sense. If you put your plot points on a Word document, dividing them into separate bullet points, then cut and paste them, rearranging them into an order that makes sense.
  3. Cut the plot points that don’t fit, but don’t throw them away. Save them. They may come in handy later. If not for your current story, then the one you write later on.
  4. You’ve figured out the major moves and turns in your story. Now it’s time to figure out the smaller steps in between them. With the major plot points outlined, you can now get more specific, using subpoints and creating mini-outlines within and between the major plot points.
  5. Review and revise your outline. Chances are that the shape of your story will change as you produce the smaller, nitty-gritty stuff of your story–the sentences, paragraphs, and pages. These small things creating changes in your bigger story is fine. In fact, it’s where a lot of magic happens, and you’ll learn more about how your characters get in say in where they’re going. As you encounter these changes, just simply go back and record them on your outline.
So there you have it. With these practical steps for outlining your novel, the blank page becomes a lot less scary. Give outlining a try and let me how it works for you in the comments below.

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