TAP035, From Idea to Outline: How to Outline a Novel, Part 2 of 3
TAP035, From Idea to Outline: How to Outline a Novel, Part 2 of 3
I hope you are all well and are staying safe.
Welcome to the second instalment of my three-part mini-series on how I outline a novel. For those of you who are unaware, I discuss how I go from fleshing out a story idea to a basic outline in the first episode. In this show, I share the steps in my outlining process that help me create a structurally sound story with scenes that actively move the story forward. If you haven’t listened to episode TAP034, I highly recommend you pause here and go back and listen to that. The steps in this show take my outlining process and push it to the limits of being a zero draft.
About this Episode
This episode is the second in a three-part mini-series where I discuss how I outline a novel. Each episode in this series is not scripted because I want it to be a chat about how I outline a novel. In saying that, I have compiled a list of steps and broke down exactly how I outline a story. Each of these steps has a bullet point list of notes to help me stay on track. I’m sharing this with you so you know that I’ve thought about this episode in detail. And, I’m not just making it up as I go along.
For those of you who are new to this podcast, I want to say a huge thank you for stopping by and trying out my show. To those of you who have been faithfully listening, thank you for regularly listening in and supporting me; your support means more to me than you know.
What You Need to Know
Before I dive into my outlining process, here’s what you need to know:
- I write in scenes, not chapters; division into chapters happens after the outlining phase.
- I write murder mysteries with more than one point-of-view character.
- My process takes a lot of work and is an extensive outline or zero draft.
- You don’t have to follow my process strictly; feel free to pick out and choose aspects that may work for you.
- A lot of what I do is because I write in the mystery genre.
- This process has evolved over the course of writing five fiction works in the mystery genre.
- And it usually takes thirty-two hours over fifteen days to complete.
Without further ado, let’s get into the show.
A screenshot of my outline spreadsheet for missing, showing you the scenes between the ordinary world and the inciting incident.
#7 – Flesh Out the Scenes in Between the Plot Points
Some people can leave the outlining here. If I flesh out the twelve plot points for a story then start writing, I have a massive anxious moment because I don’t know what happens between these plot points. For some reason, if I start outlining, I need to outline everything; it’s just who I am. In order to function as a writer, I need all of this detail, but I don’t have the space to figure out why with you in this episode. Nevertheless, if this is enough for you to start the story and you’re happy, then, by all means, go for it; don’t keep going if you don’t need all of this extra detail, but I do.
Novella vs Novel
As I established earlier, I need to figure out how the story progresses between these plot points. Because my story’s focus is on figuring out the whodunnit aspect of the murder, these scenes are usually investigations. Occasionally, I have scenes from the villain’s point of view for more complicated or longer stories. In a novella, I don’t have scenes from the villain’s point of view. Sometimes, I will share scenes from the point of view of the Police because I’ve noticed in past books, if I don’t show this, the readers think the Police are stupid, and I don’t like people saying that about my characters; it really hurts.
But usually, it’s mostly the amateur sleuth, the police and the occasional suspect, especially if it’s important. For instance, if someone other than the amateur sleuth discovers the body, that person will have their own point of view of the scene. The victim has their own point of view scene, but outside of that, there’s no scene from the villain’s point of view within a novella. For me, a novella has thirty scenes, so it’s pretty small in terms of scope. In a more complicated novel, I will have scenes from the villain’s point of view and their henchmen.
Multiple Steps at Once
At this stage, I flesh out these particular scenes. As I mentioned earlier, if I discover that I need a scene as I’m creating those two-dimensional character profiles, I will add them in then as I think of the scenes. I won’t wait until this particular step to flesh out the scenes between the plot points because I don’t want to forget the idea. You don’t have to follow these steps chronologically, but for the sake of me explaining this, it’s easier to create a step by step process. Just know that I don’t actually do this to the letter in real life, and neither do you.
Over the years, I’ve gotten a few comments from people after they see my outlining method. And the general vibe of these comments is the process is overwhelming. So, I’ve decided to not just share my outline spreadsheet and run. I’m considering creating a mini-course about my outlining method where I share my Excel spreadsheet and a series of videos that hold your hand through the process of using it. You will also have lifetime access and be able to submit questions for me to answer once you reach the end of the course or as you go along. The price will be under US$50 or more, like US$39.00, because I think it’s obnoxious charging a high price for a course.
I haven’t created the course yet, but if you’re interested, let me know by signing up for my email list, commenting below or commenting in the Am Writing Fiction Community Facebook Group.
#8 – Flesh out the Character Profiles for the Supporting Cast
After the basic outline is complete, I create profiles for the supporting cast and tertiary characters. In reviews, I occasionally get comments about the number of characters and recommendations to combine them, but it’s not always possible for me to combine characters together. I don’t necessarily agree with these comments because I’m trying to create a real-world, and sometimes in life, you come across people once. For this reason, I don’t take on this advice because the authenticity of my story comes first.
The Case for Tertiary Characters
The tertiary characters are one-time appearance characters that are necessary to the story. Because the world needs to have people in it, and those people need to be authentic, they can’t be the same people from other parts of the world. For instance, a character can’t work for the police then suddenly appear somewhere else, like browsing a bookstore. Also, when you’ve got characters in a police station, you can’t just give a particular police officer five different roles because this isn’t realistic. This results in the existence of tertiary characters. If there are multiple crime scenes in the same book, the police officers will appear in the next crime scene, so characters are not doubled up in that way. However, if the amateur sleuth travels to multiple locations to interview suspects, he will meet different people. It’s the nature of how the amateur sleuth interviews characters in this particular series. There are many tertiary characters in my mysteries, but if you are writing in a different genre like romance, you may not have this problem.
Creating Character Profiles
But I create character profiles for the supporting parts and the tertiary characters. In Scrivener, I don’t use the default character profile template; instead, I will use a blank scene. And, I don’t write down the complete back history of each character. The profile contains information that’s relevant to remember for the future, especially if they reappear in different scenes or in other books.
Notes About Physical Appearance
I’ll make notes based on what the amateur sleuth notices about them when he first sees them. An example of the notes I take is height, eye colour etc. Getting a gauge of their physical appearance is essential. For me, height is a big thing because James Lalonde is quite tall, so I need to know what he sees from his eye level because James and I are dramatically different heights. A character’s height will also let me know if the amateur sleuth naturally looks down or looks up at this person. The build or proportions are something that I take note of, especially in a physical confrontation. Because my main character is tall and lean, I need to know how he will feel if this person pushes or punches him.
A screenshot of the character profile for DS Anwar Khan.
In terms of clothes, I don’t make any notes. I believe this is indicative of my personality because I don’t go around noticing or critiquing what people wear. For me, it’s an irrelevant detail, and it’s not important. But, I’m starting to add that information because this is important for some people. The reason I make a note of what James observes about the character is I want to avoid the mirror-effect where a character’s appearance is dumbed down to a list of attributes. Because most of the scenes are from his point of view, it stops me from painting a clear intricate unrealistic picture of a character.
Casting the Characters
At this stage, I will cast the characters in the book with actors because it’s easier to look at the picture and note what immediately jumps out at you about the person. In my books, I take these first impressions, and I use these as my main character’s observations. Sometimes it does take me a couple of hours to look for actors. When searching for the actors, I try to find actors that fit the character’s age because I like to have a mixture of young, middle-aged and older people in my story. So, believability becomes vital during the casting process.
#9 – Choose the Point of View Character for Each Scene
For every scene in the story, I choose the point of view character in a separate column. The point of view character is the character that the story or scene is filtered through. Every scene, event, and beat is filtered through a character.
The Series Character is King
Depending on the story I’m writing, most of my scenes will be from the point of view of the series character. For both of my series, the James Lalonde Mysteries and Rookie Reporter Mysteries, the series character is James Lalonde. The series exist at different points in the character’s timeline. I have a rule that if James is in the scene, then the scene will be told from his point of view—no exceptions unless I want to show Anwar’s perspective because he is trying to eliminate James as a suspect.
Other Points of View
But if the main character isn’t in the scene, then I get to choose the point of view character. In that case, the scene will be told from the point of view of another character like a police officer, villain, victim or whoever has the most to lose in the scene. When in doubt, ask yourself the following question.
Who is having their world screwed up in the scene?
At the same time, I don’t want to have too many point-of-view characters. If I choose a point of view character for a scene, I will try to reuse their point of view later on in the story, if it’s possible. Unless the story moment is pivotal, like someone other than the amateur sleuth discovers the body, the main character will be the point of view character. Usually, I need to show the reader something important about discovering the body before James finds it later on in the story.
A screenshot of the outline spreadsheet for Missing showing the turning points for a few scenes.
#10- Define the Turning Points for Each Scene
In my outline spreadsheet, I have two columns dedicated to a scene’s turning points or value shifts. Think of it like this. A scene will start off in this way and end in another way; that’s called the turning of a scene.
Why two columns?
There’s one column for the turning point start of the scene and a second column for the turning point at the end of the scene.
Who Created Turning Points?
This technique originates from a book published in 1999 written by Robert McKee called Screenwriting: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting*. Another author, Shawn Coyne, uses this in his book The Story Grid* but refers to the technique as “Value Shifts.” A few years back, I purchased Coyne’s book and attempted to follow it, but I found it too complicated to wrap my mind around. I realise this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black, but that was my experience. And I believe Coyne does get these “value shifts” from Robert McKee’s “turning points.”
How to Use Turning Points
The turning points occur at the start and end of the scene. Much like everything else in the story, the turning point is filtered through the point of view character. At the start of the scene, the character is experiencing or feeling this. Then at the end of the scene, they feel or experience things differently. Sometimes these shifts or turning points can go from positive to negative, negative to positive, negative to double negative. Because I’m a sadist, I rarely use this last turning point with my series character, but a scene can turn from positive to double positive.
What can I say? I don’t like it, which probably says a lot about me.
But back to the turning points. It doesn’t serve a murder mystery story to have a character to go from positive to a double positive.
Serves a Purpose
Turning points help you to create scenes that push the story forward. Because if something turns or shifts in the scene, something is happening. Therefore you’re not writing an indulgent scene that doesn’t serve a purpose or move the plot forward.
#11 – Define the Conflict and Stakes for Each Scene
For each scene in my novel, I state the conflict and stakes, and I have these listed in separate columns. There’s one column on my spreadsheet for stakes and one for the conflict. With stakes, it’s a little bit easier to define.
To figure out what’s at stake in each scene, ask yourself the following question. What’s at stake for the character in this scene? In every scene, the point of view character will have a goal, something they are trying to achieve. If they fail to achieve this goal, what’s at stake for them?
Unless you’re writing an action thriller, it doesn’t have to be a life and death stake in every scene. Stakes can gradually build as the story moves toward the climactic sequence. Sometimes stake can be personal, professional, or life and death. Think of stakes in terms of the following scenario. If the character doesn’t achieve their goal, what’s on the table for them; what’s either won or lost from the scene. Remember, it’s okay for the stakes to be small., but the stakes need to be significant to the character.
An Example of Stakes in a Scene
In one particular scene in The Candidate, Detective Anwar Khan takes James to the crime scene because he wants to see how he reacts to the body. Anwar wants to see if James gives away something that only the murderer will know. Because Anwar believes this is the quickest way for him to figure out whether James has actually murdered the victim and is just a great actor or has legitimately discovered a crime scene without a body. It’s unorthodox for a detective to do this. But, in Anwar’s mind, this is the easiest way to either keep James as a suspect or eliminate him.
From James’s point of view, his professional standing with the police is at stake. James knows that if he doesn’t keep his composure, the police will look at him in a certain way. The police will become more suspicious, and James might humiliate himself. That’s what’s at stake for James in this scene. It’s personal, and his professional reputation is at stake; his professional reputation as a Journalist and Investigator.
So, why both professional; and personal?
The stakes are personal because someone changes their perspective about another person and looks at them under bad light. But it’s also professional because it may impact his standing in the future. It’s a terrible first impression, and that’s a significant thing for James.
Whereas conflict, you can have many different types of conflict in a scene. Please note that scene conflict is different to story conflict. Story conflict is on a larger scale. Below are the five main types of conflict within a scene.
- Direct Opposition
- Inner Opposition
- Circumstantial Difficulties
- Active Conflict
- Passive Conflict
Let me expand on these definitions for you.
The Scene Conflict Definitions
Direct opposition is where another character or weather interferes or prevents the main character from achieving their goal within the scene. This one is pretty straightforward.
Inner opposition is precisely what it says on the tin. This is where the character learns something, which results in them changing their mind about the goal they set in the scene, or they start to doubt. It’s about the internal struggle and how it prevents them from completing their goal. As a result of this struggle, they change their mind. The inner struggle is the conflict.
An Example of Inner Conflict
Here’s an example from one of my books.
Because James is an amateur sleuth, and many of the crimes directly affect his life, this internal struggle tends to come into play in these situations. James has a moment where he realises that if he keeps digging, he could ruin his relationships with his friends. But at the same time, I want to help and make sure that justice is served. So he has got this inner conflict going on in those particular scenes.
Circumstantial difficulties occur when things don’t work out as planned for the character. If the character is baking a cake and has no flour, the lack of flour is the conflict. Or, the character needs to catch a bus but either misses the bus or gets off at the wrong stop.
Active conflict s the most obvious form of conflict. It’s a physical fight, a verbal argument or disagreement. And usually involves another person.
Passive conflict, yes, this a thing, is being ignored, kept in the dark or being physically avoided by other characters. It’s passive because the character is not playing a role or actively participating in the conflict. Because I write murder mysteries, often being kept in the dark or other characters avoiding the amateur sleuth is a common element of conflict in the story.
The image below shows you how I add the stakes and conflict of the scene in my outline spreadsheet.
While doing my own research on conflict and stakes within a scene, I came across the following blog posts that helped wrap my mind around these concepts.
I hope this episode gives you a few things to consider as you outline your first or next book. As always, I have a few important questions to ask. How do you outline your novels? Or, how are you outlining your first story? I want to hear from you. Share your process or struggles with outlining in the comments section below or over in the Am Writing Fiction Facebook Group.
Next weeks episode of the Authorpreneur Podcast will be the third and final instalment of this mini-series on how I outline a novel.
Thank you for listening, and happy reading and writing, everybody.
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I’m Amelia. I write Mystery Novels under the pen name A. D. Hay. And, I’m the author of Missing, the Lawn, and the Candidate. On this blog, I help new writers to finish their first draft, prepare their manuscripts for professional editing, and when they get stuck in the first draft phase or are confused about the revision process. Right now, I’m editing and preparing my soon to be published mystery novels, Duplicity, 24 Hours, and Immunity for publication.