Turning Ideas Into Words

Outlining A Novel

35 Outlining a Novel

I say half a lesson because the analogy is not a perfect one (as you will see), but it is an image I quite frequently relate to when it comes to my writing.

Quirrell came back out from behind the Mirror and stared hungrily into it.

“I see the stone… I’m presenting it to my master… but where is it?”

 – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by J. K. Rowling

I’m sure not many of us will have found ourselves identifying with Professor Quirrell, but the more I work on my first novel, the more poignant the above quote becomes. I can understand his frustration at this point, at seeming so close to his ultimate goal, and yet still so far.

17b900257df0b77d5d0fbb1499983daa.pngIn terms of my writing, I can quite easily picture myself with a completed novel, sitting back and enjoying the relief of it. But how do I get to that point? What are the steps that I have to take to reach my desired destination?

Now, this is where the Quirrell analogy falls down a little, because the answer for Quirrell (and ultimately Harry) was to want something for the right reason. Harry also had Dumbledore’s magic there to drop the Stone into his pocket at the opportune moment.

What does ring true, though, is that just wanting something isn’t enough. When it comes to writing, hard work is absolutely essential. After all, novels don’t write themselves, and they certainly don’t drop fully written into your pocket (if only).

For many writers, that hard work begins with a plan. I know there are some out there, my best friend included, who can get to writing without rigorously plotting out as much of the novel as possible beforehand. We will (begrudgingly) call these writers “The Blessed.”

I am not one of the Blessed.

I would be completely lost without the outline that I have prepared for my novel. It is not something I have always used (which may partly explain why it has taken me so long to get to where I am now), but when I did finally organise my thoughts into a plan, I found my writing speed picked up considerably, as did my enthusiasm for the project because I had a clearer vision of what I was doing.

Mini-Disclaimer: What will follow in this post is a breakdown of the outlining stages that work for me. This will not work for everyone, but I hope that you will be able to use aspects of my process to help inform your own.

Step 1: Inspiration

ignitesessionI would assume this will be the same for everyone. The first step to writing any novel is the idea. One tiny spark of inspiration that quickly catches fire and blazes through your imagination.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to get you to pinpoint where your inspiration comes from. Nine times out of ten, that is impossible to do, but whatever inspiration has got hold of you, run with it!

For me, this usually means getting hold of a pen and notebook (this means purchasing a brand new notebook for a brand new project) and writing down everything that comes to mind. A lot of this may look like gibberish, but hopefully somewhere in those notes will be the back bone of a plot, and maybe a character or two who will carry it through.

Step 2: The Name Game

hello-my-name-is_0I am aware that I may stand alone in naming things so early on, but honestly I love this part! Whether it’s coming up with names for characters, fictional places or the novel as a whole, I am quite happy to sit for a few hours coming up with lists of potential names.

Generally speaking, when it comes to naming characters and places, I will have some sort of ‘theme’ in mind (more on this in future posts).

Most importantly for me in these early stages, I will come up with a name for the whole project. At this point, this will only be a working title, and there have been more than a few occasions where the title has changed the further into the project I have progressed.

But names and titles can be quite telling. For me, they help to focus my mind on what will (or could be) the overriding themes of the novel.

Step 3: Visualisation

Some writers swear by Pinterest boards, or something similar. They will collect images that they associate with their work in progress, either as a whole or in connection with certain characters or aspects.

I don’t do this. My visualisation stage comes in the form of a mock book cover. Like the title of a project, a cover image gives me something to work towards. I am self-taught in the ways of Photoshop (the basics anyway), so I will spend some time pulling a few images together into one single image that I can then keep in mind as a sort of banner to mark the finish line I am working towards.

Step 4: Characterisation and World Building

Flags-Of-The-World-HD-Wallpaper-1024x508As I have already covered a lot of ground on these aspects in recent posts (see the links below), I won’t go into too much detail here. This is the point at which I will define the boundaries and rules of the world I am creating and will also get to know the main characters I will be putting in charge of the story.

When I do finally get to writing, I may very well add more details to the characters as I discover them, and also develop other characters as they are encountered and needed.

Step 5: The Outline

By this point, I should have a fairly good idea of where the story is going and what the key events will be. This is where I will try to get as much of the plot bashed out as I can.

During the previous stages, it is highly likely that a handful of scenes will have been very clear in my mind. If that is the case, then these will have been drafted straightaway (or at the very least noted down in as much detail as possible). When outlining the rest of the novel, I will ensure I am clear about the events leading up to these scenes, and what the consequences will be.


What I aim to end up with is a scene-by-scene break down of the whole book. I will try to put as much detail into it as I can so that I have as much resource as possible to refer back to. In the case of my current work in progress, this breakdown is also colour co-ordinated to highlight the storyline of my three main characters as they navigate their own plots before eventually merging into one story.

This particular plan is about twenty pages long, and is all hand-written.

Step 6: Get Writing!

“At last!” you may be thinking.

All of the above is designed to map out what I want to do and how I am going to do it. You would think this would make the actual writing a breeze.

(*Quietly sobs in the corner*) I wish! Even with all the prep and all the notes, there are still days when putting pen to paper (and I do tend to write initially by hand, even during NaNoWriMo) is about as productive as a watermill in a drought.

But that’s a topic for another day. I do have to keep reminding myself that I would be in a much worse position if I hadn’t prepared the way at all. And I know this to be true as I have tried to plough on without an outline before and, for me, it just doesn’t work.

So that’s it, right? Novel all planned out and writing under way. Nothing more to worry about.

I’m afraid not…


Step 7: Re-Planning

This is a step that I have added more recently to my writing process when I realised that the more I wrote, the further I was drifting from my plan. This is inevitable, I think. Characters tend to develop organically on the page and if you end up writing something that surprises you, and takes your story in a different direction, then so be it! If you are surprised by your writing, your readers will be too.

696295656-612x612After working for a while, jotting extra ideas and changes into the margins of my plan, I realised it was becoming illegible. So, the proverbial pause button was pressed, and back to the drawing board I went.

The plan I have come up with now still includes details of what I have already written (with several highlighted sections that I will eventually go back to and tweak or re-write entirely), but it only goes up to the next big event of the book, rather than running to the end.

Once I have written up to that event, the way forward will be clearer for the last section of the book and I will be able to block that out before continuing.

This is a process I think I will adopt for future projects: planning in chunks to compensate for my tendency to go off script.

597805a79c234f3be72ef16594b350fc--dipper-pines-cork-boardsSo, there we are. From sharing Professor Quirrell’s frustration at the Mirror of Erised to my own desired destination in seven not-so-easy steps.

I’ll be honest with you, it may look easy when it’s all set out in black and white like this, but I am sure every writer will agree (no matter what their process is) it is not as easy as it looks.

But it is definitely worth the effort.

For more about Characterisation and World Building:


1 thought on “Outlining A Novel”

  1. I totally agree about name things. I even have a naming day for all my characters. But I am more of a pantser with the first draft. Outlines usually happen for me when I’ve re-read my initial work and want to get rid of the meandering bits.


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