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Why Novelists Should Write Outlines Just Like Screenwriters

Outlines: For Or Against? 

It seems every writer has an opinion on outlines! But often writers will fall into two camps … Those who do write outlines and those who don’t.

Generally speaking, novelists who do outline tend to advocate the practice as the ‘common sense’ approach. Their outlines may be super-detailed or broad strokes.  The uber-organised authors may even use spreadsheets to keep track of every minute detail in their book … or they may use bullet points, notes to self or similar instead.

In contrast, novelists who don’t outline are often very loud online. Such writers like Stephen King frequently claim outlines ‘kill creativity’. They may even go so far as to claim an outline is a ‘straightjacket’ and that writers who use them are ‘less interesting’.

The Case For Outlines 

It should surprise no one that B2W advocates outlining. In the screenwriting world it’s a non-negotiable. Since many readers of this site got into screenwriting first, we already have this in mind.

So if you’re a screenwriter who has decided to write a novel, I can confirm (as someone who has followed the same path) that outlining your book IS a great idea.

Whilst many authors claim they ‘can’t plot’ so ‘have’ to go straight to draft, if they can write a book, they CAN plot (they just don’t want to). Also, however good a draft is, I would feel very comfortable wagering that NO editor has ever seen a draft that HASN’T been improved by outlining first.

However, maybe you’ve never written a screenplay or you’re still on the fence about outlines generally? If so, check out these pointers on why you SHOULD write outlines …

  • It’s faster. If you use an outline, you’re much more likely to finish your novel in months (sometimes weeks!), than years. This will also enable you to write more.
  • You won’t get lost. Lots of writers end up blocked and frustrated when drafting without an outline. This in turn gives you confidence.
  • You’re less likely to screw up. Writing is hard, which means we can end up writing ‘the wrong stuff’ (whatever that means). Far better to write the wrong stuff in an outline than write many thousands of words you then have to cut altogether or pick apart.
  • Outline = smoother draft generally. Outlines allow you to explore stuff like tropes, genre conventions, storyworld and other thematic elements upfront. This means writers can see what works and what doesn’t, tweaking and refining. So far from being a ‘straightjacket’ or ‘killing creativity’, it actively ADDS to it.

But what if I told you outlining probably isn’t what you think? More on this, next.

Types Of Outlines

NEWSFLASH: the thing with outlines is you can write them any way you want. Really!

Your outline can be as detailed or as loose as you like. You can create your outline using software; you can draw it by hand, or you can use Post-It notes or index cards … or a combo of all of these!

Check out the tips below for more outline approaches. Ready? Let’s go …

1) Write A Treatment

In the screenwriting world, a treatment is a blow-by-blow account of every event in your screenplay. Producers will often want these, before they commit to a draft from a screenwriter. They’re usually somewhere between 3 and 10 pages, though you may see longer.

When novelists talk about outlines, they’re usually thinking of treatments. They can be quite dry to write, which is why many writers believe they don’t work. However there are lots of alternatives to the treatment as you will see below. MORE: 5 Questions To Help You Write A Killer Treatment

2) Story Maps

Many writers hate to write outlines … so my advice is, DON’T write them! Instead, create what I call a story map.

I like to use post-it notes for this in the first instance, though you can also use index cards. Here in my pic below the various colours refer to various character arcs, though other authors like to colour-code specific plot points. There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do it.

3) Use A Worksheet

I created the free B2W Plotting worksheet that takes in various plotting visuals, which you can download HERE. Alternatively, you can DRAW your story map instead freehand if you prefer.

When plotting using a story map, I like to start with the ending, so I can plot backwards and ‘find’ my beginning. This means I don’t have to worry about ‘info dumps’ at the start of my story.

4) Use the Three Acts

The three acts refers to the beginning, middle and end of a story – nothing more, nothing less! As you will see from the pic below, there are many ‘increments’ to the Three Acts that add up to create dramatic satisfaction.

However, there are many other ways to break down The Three Acts, though the most popular and well-used is probably The Hero’s Journey. That plotting archetype has a number of steps writers must use, so using index cards to do this is probably your best bet.

If you want to check out other plotting archetypes to write your outline, I recommend the book The Seven Basic Stories by Christopher Booker.

5) Draft Zero

Some ‘Bang2writers’ like to splurge notes and plans in whatever order they like, as it comes to them. This differs from ‘pantsing’ because the writer doesn’t just write the book, they may have pictures in there, bullet points, notes to self and various other stuff you would never see in a finished book. One of my writers got to 55K doing this, almost a whole draft! Then he went back and re-arranged, refined, tweaked and filled in chunks of prose.

6) Freytag’s Pyramid

Freytag’s Pyramid is a paradigm of dramatic structure outlining the seven key steps in successful storytelling: exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution, and denouement. Those who are familiar with three act structure will note it’s rather similar but adds the notion of ‘escalation’ to it. Check out the visual representation below.

7) Synopsis

Every book needs a synopsis when it goes out on submission, but some authors like to START with this. It helps focus them, especially as traditional synopses will have details of the beginning, middle and end. However, some writers may prefer to write what B2W calls a One Page Pitch – this carries just the beginning and ending. Sometimes this is enough to keep writers focused too. MORE: 10 Quick Tips On Writing A Killer One Pager

8) The Snowflake Method

I will be honest and say I never really ‘got’ what this was until I read this great post from Jericho Writers. In it, they explain how The Snowflake Method breaks down …

  1. Write your story in one sentence
  2. Decide on your protagonist
  3. Write a paragraph on settings
  4. Add a beginning, middle and end to your story description
  5. Write short character summaries
  6. Expand your story description to 2 pages
  7. Keep adding details until you’re ready to write

This hit home for me because I recognised I had been doing this all along! In the screenwriting world, writers are often asked to come up with a logline first when drafting. (A logline is basically one sentence describing your story, as per step 1 above). Screenwriters are also expected to doing prep material such as settings, character summaries and some plot details in advance too.

So if you have already written screenplays, The Snowflake Method will probably suit you down to the ground … Even if you haven’t, it can still create a great foundation for your novel. MORE: Free Cheat Sheet On How To Write A Logline

Good Luck With Your Outlines!

This post originally appeared on Writers Helping Writers

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