People often ask me how to spend less money during the editing phase, and the short answer is that developmental, line editing, and proofreading are important parts of the publishing process. But one way to lessen the developmental burden and give yourself the opportunity to see your story from a bird’s eye view is to learn how to outline your book.
Outlines can help the flow of writing and they can stifle a writer’s creativity. While some of us attain our creative states with messy writing and a severe lack of plotting, you still might find it useful when self-editing.
Even if you’re a pantser, or someone who detests outlining, you can still understand the fundamentals of how to outline your book, so you can write a developmentally sound story.
How to Outline Your Book for Plotters
Identify your character’s wants, lie, and truth.
Starting your story without even an inkling your characters is difficult. But even before you get to writing their background stories and do their character interviews, you’ll want to understand a few basic things.
Many people talk about the thing your protagonist WANTS, the LIE your character believes, and the TRUTH your character must discover, and these are the exact things you’ll want to determine before starting your outline.
These are your ground zero, in terms of plot and story. Without these three things, your characters don’t have a reason to start their story. They don’t have a reason to embark. These three things are the basis of everything else that’s yet to come.
Decide on the beginning, middle, and end of your story
After I’ve determined by character’s WANTS, LIES, and TRUTHS, I’ll dive into the skeleton of the structure. The next three things I determine are the beginning (the inciting incident), the middle (the midpoint), and the end (the climax) of the story.
Your character’s WANT gives them a reason to change the status quo, even as their LIE keeps them from truly feeling like they can achieve their desires. The TRUTH is often discovered in the latter half of the story when your character discovers the thing they had—often all along—that will allow them to defeat their enemy.
Determine what your character needs to find out
You could take this a few ways. For some, what your character needs to find out is the TRUTH that’s keeping them from defeating the story’s antagonist. But what I mean by this step are the clues and hints sprinkled throughout the story that help your character discover themselves.
These things don’t have to be well-guarded secrets, but there should be things your character doesn’t know throughout the story. Whether it be something big, like how to defeat their nemesis or that someone in their inner circle is plotting against them, or a small problem they don’t yet know how to overcome, there should be some level of intrigue to raise the stakes and tension within your story.
These little sprinkles contribute to character growth throughout the story because they force your character to drive the plot. Now, this is negated if you write in characters to simply tell your character important tidbits, so do this sparingly, but more on that in the next section.
With these three things in mind, I can start connecting the dots of the rest of the plot.
Create character-driven scenes that force character growth
Once you’ve determined your character’s WANTS, their LIE, their TRUTH, the basic premise of your story, and the little sprinkles of information that keep them one step behind for the first half of the story, you can start developing character-driven scenes.
Your plot is a mix of showing and telling, a blend of well-crafted dialogue and thoughtful exposition. What you don’t want in your story are flat scenes where nothing happens. These scenes are boring and take the reader out of the experience of reading your book.
One way to start this is to brainstorm random scenes that may or may not work within your story. These are great places to start, and you can use the small idea of one scene as a foundation to build upon. Maybe a scene starts boring. Ask yourself what you can inject into this scene to make it more intriguing to read. Why is this scene so important to the plot that you need to write it?
Writing important scenes that force the reader to think and the protagonist to progress are what outlining is all about. It’s hard to write an exceptional first draft without these things in place, because you may not fully understand your character’s story yet.
Put your outline into action
Once you have these pieces of the story, you can start writing your book. Writing the first draft is never easy but figuring out the key essentials before you start is the easiest way to ensure a somewhat developmentally sound first draft.
But does this mean you have to learn how to outline your book?
Of course not! I’ve outlined and I’ve totally not outlined my way through stories. It’s up to you to discover which is right for you. But remember, neither plotting nor pantsing is easy. Both are difficult in their own ways.
Outlining your book might be a great start for you if you’re having trouble organizing your work or if your developmental editing and revisions process feels more like a mountain than a molehill.
Outlining now and starting your story in a direction that makes sense structurally will be better than writing a story and jumping too quickly between first and final draft. If you find yourself doing that, your developmental editor may suggest you go back to the drawing board anyway!
ACTION STEP: Outlining can help people who are having trouble when “pants-ing” their novels. Have you hit a wall? Try taking a step back from your novel and working on the outline.