Outlining is *not* my thing. Neither is a throat lozenge without menthol. Okay, most things aren't my thing. Maybe I don't have a thing. If you're a writer, though, sometimes finding a way to outline is a necessary evil.
This excerpt is taken from my KSURF writing class, YA Novel Writing for Beginners. If you haven't signed up yet, check it out HERE.
The first step:
Organize your notes in a way they make sense. Whether it's via chronological order, by circumstance, character or event, do it in a way it not only makes the novel compelling, but easy to follow. Next, transfer all organized notes onto a clean Word doc or notebook page. This will make outlining a breeze. Once you've transferred the notes, clarify. The point of this step is to cut the miscellaneous notes—the bulk of what you don't need. Don't throw them away, though. Keep them in the original document in case you need them later.
If you're having a hard time with this step, try throwing similar notes together to see if there's a pattern.
Example from my own notebook:
Note number one says: “She's shot on stage.”
Note number two says: “She presses rewind.”
Note number three says: “She needs to solve the murder of her father.”
I simply lumped the three random thoughts into a pile and expanded them into something like this:
“Teenage rock star's father was murdered by the same man who's after her. After catching a bullet to the chest by the man at a show, the girl presses rewind, hoping to find a way to undo what's been done.”
Once your notes are organized and transferred into a streamlined version, you'll find more ideas weaving themselves in, and that's okay. Go with it. The notes don't have to be completely clear, but should give you a general direction to start with.
Now you're ready. But where do you start?
Breakdown the outline into sections. You should have a cleaner version of notes to work with and a basic storyline you intend to follow. Divide a blank page or Word document into three visible parts.
Label section #1 “The Set-Up.” The Set-Up is the foundation of your story. You'll want to seduce your readers into wanting (needing to) to read on. Transfer any notes that correspond with your ideal beginning. You should have a relatable, (usually a bit ) mysterious protagonist whose sole mission is to achieve a particular goal. The goal could be internal or external, but think about what might entice readers to care about the story. You may introduce an antagonist, or foreshadow the events you plan to carry out in future chapters but your main job in The Set-Up is to lay the groundwork for the rest of the book.
Label section #2 “The Conflict.” The Conflict is what sustains the reader. It's a continuation of The Set-Up, but a bulkier, deeper version. Your protagonist should reveal things about his or herself so we get to know and care about them. The best thing you can do for your protagonist at this point is create something to keep them from their goal. Surprise the reader with secrets or small reveals that will all build to the end's grand finale. In this section, it's easy to feel lost without some sort of outline. The dreaded “middle of book” is where a lot of stories fall flat. You can avoid this by keeping the reader on their toes and surprises around every corner.
Label section #3 “The Payoff.” The Payoff is what the book amounts to—the last scene the reader's been waiting for. By now, the audience should know your protagonist well, care and root for them. We should know their goal, what's keeping them from it and why. This is where you tie up loose ends and give readers what they've been waiting for. Conclude all storylines and prepare for the big reveal.
Example of Set-Up, Conflict and Payoff using If I Stay by Gayle Foreman:
Set-Up: Mia's family is killed in a car accident and she isn't sure if she should live without them or die, and possibly, be with them.
Conflict: She's an amazing cellist who's in love with a rocker. She has big things in store, should she stay. But choosing to live her dreams with her family gone isn't something she's completely ready to do.
Payoff: In the final moments, after feeling Mia's every breath and hearing her every thought while in a coma, we're right there with her as she decides her fate.
In If I Stay, Mia's antagonist isn't another person, but herself. She's her own worst enemy. We learn to care about her and root for her to choose life. By the end of the book, the reader feels satisfied all questions were answered. THAT is your goal. From start to finish.
Once you've written a rough version of your outline, read through each section one at a time and note any other ideas that come to mind. Names of characters and dates can be filled in later, unless it's important to the story. Focus on the main events that will drive your story forward.
Hopefully these notes will help you get started. I've learned what works (for me) and what doesn't through lots of trial and error. I've found two specific techniques that have been winners. One, is the 3 Act Method discussed here. The other, I will go over tomorrow.
How about you? Do you have an outlining technique that's helped with your story or do you pull crap out of nowhere?