TAP036, From Idea to Outline: How to Outline a Novel (Part 3 of 3)
I hope you are all well and are staying safe.
Welcome to the third instalment of my mini-series on how I outline a novel. For those of you who are unaware, in the first episode, I discuss how I go from fleshing out a story idea to a basic outline. In episode TAP035, which is the second instalment in this three-part mini-series on outlining, I focused n sharing the steps in my outlining process that help me create a structurally sound story with scenes that actively move the story forward. And in this episode, I will share more of those steps, plus a bunch of things that I add to my outline spreadsheet that are purely there to help me outline that I don’t necessarily use while writing the first 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 The Candidate, showing the scene questions.
#12 – Define the Scene Question
Over on my outline spreadsheet, I write the scene question in a column creatively titled “Scene Question.” In every scene, there will be plot questions raised. I write these out as questions in the cell within the allocated column for each scene. Sometimes there’s more than one question raised in a scene; in that event, I write all plot questions in the same cell. When I edit my outline, I double-check that these questions are answered later in the story, but I will discuss this technique in the next episode of the Authorpreneur Podcast.
For the sake of clarity, I don’t necessarily answer these questions in the next scene. Quite often, there will be multiple unanswered questions at any given point in the story. As a plot device, I make James work to answer the questions; I don’t conveniently hand over the answers because the mystery genre is supposed to be a puzzle. That’s what readers love about the genre.
However, sometime before the third act, these questions are answered, and evidence is collected to prove that the bad guy committed the crimes. So, the information that I type into the scene question column is crucial to editing my outline, and it’s from this column that I get this information.
#13 – Define the Cliffhanger for Each Scene
Next, I ask myself a fundamental question. How am I going to end this scene? Usually, I end a scene on a cliffhanger where the character needs more information or answers, especially in a murder mystery because it’s really an investigation. And I can’t comment on how you would end a scene on a cliffhanger in a romance or in the sci-fi genre because I’ve never written in these genres, but I assume you could do a similar thing. According to my research, there are four types of cliffhangers. As a reminder, I’ve written these out on an owl-shaped sticky note, and it’s on my pinboard for when I get stuck.
In a peril cut scene ending, the point of view character is dangling from a metaphorical or sometimes literal cliff. At this stage, I will change to the “b storyline” or the villain’s team doing something terrible.
The blackout cliffhanger is precisely what it sounds like. A scene ends with the point of view character blacking, and the reader turns the pages hoping to discover the fate of the character. It evokes emotion in the reader because they’re invested in the character.
A character-based cliffhanger is a reveal relating to the character. For instance, the end of the scene could reveal a secret they have been trying to hide. Or the character discovers something, which is a plot. Of course, you want that plot revealed to be enticing to encourage the reader to turn the page.
An Emotional Cliffhanger
At the end of a scene with an emotional cliffhanger, the point of view character or the reader has an emotion based on something that has taken place. This is easier to use this cliffhanger further in the novel after the reader has connected with the protagonist. The emotional cliffhanger is easier to do in the scenes leading up to the confrontation plot point, in the third act. Because I write murder mysteries, many of my cliffhangers are character-based plot reveals or emotional cliffhangers.
For the sake of clarity and to give credit to where it’s due, I got this information from a blog post from The Write Practice written by Jocelyn Chase, titled “The Cliff Hanger, How to Write a Story Your Readers Can’t Put Down.”
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.
#14 – Label the Storyline and the Scene Type
In a Novella, there is usually only one storyline. So in the column labelled “storyline”, all the cells contain the same letter. Whether I write a novella, short story, or novel, I list the various plotlines in a separate tab.
Three Types of Storylines
The global story or storyline A is the whodunnit puzzle about discovering who killed the person at the start of the story.
Plot b is a part of the overall series arc, and it is exclusively to do with James. The reader learns a bit of James in each story. Essentially the information is drip-fed. In Missing, I destroyed James’s life to get him to move out of his comfort zone. During book two, James learns something about his past and starts to question everything he’s known about himself.
There is a romantic subplot in book two, and I’ve labelled this as storyline C.
So in a separate column, next to every scene in the novel, I share whether the scene relates to storylines A, B, or C. Some scenes touch more than one storyline. In the cell for this column, I will list all the storylines separated by a forward slash. Predominately, most of the story is storyline A and these other moments crop up. So in that column, there’s are a bunch of letters that are defined in a different tab within the spreadsheet titled “storylines.”
Four Types of Scene Types
In a separate column, I another list of letters and this column is labelled “scene type.” The scene type columns to identify the type of story that I’m writing. For example, based on the letters in the column, I can tell whether I’m writing a mystery, thriller, or suspense novel. These letters relate to the type of scene that I have created.
To give credit to where it’s due, I got these scene types from a book written by Chris Fox called “Plot Gardening*”. It helped turn a light bulb on for me. The book helped my writing in a way that I didn’t expect.
These scene types are action, surprise, need and reversal. In the scene type column, I’ve typed the letters A, S, N or R next to these scenes.
Scene Types Explained
An action scene contains an event that moves the story forward, not necessarily blowing things up. Its action in terms of things taking place in a story, not necessarily action in terms of an action film. But, if I did blow up a building, that scene would have an A.
A surprise scene contains a revelation or plot reveal. Need relates to a question, or the protagonist is trying to get some information, and they are asking questions. And the reversal scene type is is a big reveal.
Mystery Genre Scenes
Labelling these scenes helps me figure out if I have enough scenes for a story in the mystery genre. In the mystery genre, I need a lot of surprise and need scenes and a few action and reversal scenes. But the majority of the scenes need to be surprise and need. Throughout the third act, there are a few reversal, surprise, and need scenes. Whereas in the second act, there are mainly surprise and need scenes with a few action scenes sprinkled throughout the act. During the first act, there are a few action, need, and a couple of surprise scenes.
Passive to Active Hero
In the first act, the protagonist is generally reacting to the events taking place. At the point of no return, the plot point sits at the end of the first act before the story transitions to the second. The character commits to what is going on and decides to see the problem through during this moment. Up until that point, the hero can walk away. But it’s in this scene the protagonist suddenly has skin in the game and is part of the story, actively pursuing a solution to the story problem. You can see this change in act two because the scenes are mostly need and surprise scenes. After all, the character is proactively chasing a resolution to a problem in his life.
This technique, which I picked up from Plot Gardening*, helped me realise that I’m writing in the mystery genre and not in any other genre within the mystery, thriller, and suspense category. And a course I did by Dean Wesley Smith helped turn that lightbulb on.
#15 – All the Other Quirky Things
This last step is an amalgamation of all the other quirky things I do in my outline spreadsheet that don’t directly help me as I progress to writing the first draft. Once I set these things, I tend to forget about them, but they are essential to set.
Weekday, Date and Time Columns
I have three separate columns for the date, weekday, and time the scene occurs. Because I want to make sure that enough time has passed between the scenes for James to have moved between locations and interview suspects, I created these three columns. Once I set this, I forget about it. But it’s not crucial to the first draft writing phase. It’s something I do before I write the first draft and helps me create a sense of realism.
In this column, I type anything that I set up in a scene that I’m foreshadowing further on in the story. But once I create this column, I tend to forget about it because it’s anchored in another column. For instance, the turning points, conflict, stakes, scene question, or cliffhanger columns contain foreshadowing details. The column was created to highlight the obvious.
Red Herrings or Misdirection
Just like the foreshadowing column, I have a column that’s either labelled red herrings or misdirection. And, like many other things I do, this is purely related to the mystery genre. When James investigates a murder, he usually has a few theories about what might have happened. As he discovers these theories through interviews and conversations, not all of these options will pan out, and these will be red herrings. Some suspects at the centre of James’s theories will be red herrings, so I’ll put this information in that column. But once I’ve established that this is a red herring, I forget about it because it will come up as a scene question. As I edit my outline, I’ll ensure that these things are resolved.
In a separate column, I will rate the intensity of a scene out of ten. And this is intensity from the perspective of the reader. I want to know how intense the reading experience is for them. As the story progresses, the scenes become more intense. Over at the beginning of the second act, you are more likely to see the occasional scene with an intensity of five. But once you get into the action act and the third, you are more likely to find scenes with an intensity between seven and nine.
There are no scenes in the third act with an intensity below a six or seven unless it happens in the epilogue after the climax and the return to the real world plot points. In the denouement, the story ramps down in intensity then shoots back up in the epilogue, where I sort of start something else. As I’m setting the intensity, I go back and look at the scene and measure the intensity against the scene beats to check if I’m creating the right effect for the reader.
Once again, I set the forget as I write the first draft.
Then I do the scene goal, which is different from the character’s goal; this is more for me. Why is this scene there? What am I hoping to achieve in this scene? This is a step that I started with Missing and included in my outlining process when I wrote The Lawn then added to the rewrite for Duplicity. It’s an essential part of my outlining technique. And this step prevents me from writing self-indulgent scenes that don’t move the story forward. For me, humour or fantastic ideas aren’t a good enough reason to have in the scene in a novel. The scene goal column can be helpful, especially if you have an issue with having scenes that don’t serve the story. Consider adding this if you struggle with scenes that don’t serve a purpose.
Unlike the scene goal, which vouches for the validity of the scenes, the character goal relates to what the point-of-view character is trying to achieve. For the sake of stating the obvious, I write it out as” ‘Character’ is trying to achieve X.”
Narrational Point of View
The narrational point of view is a column I added to the rewrite of the second book in the James Lalonde series. In book two, I have scenes from a particular character’s point of view in the first person. But, all of the other scenes are in the third person. This particular character’s scene is written in the first person because I want to hide their identity for as long as humanly possible. It’s integral to the story that this person’s identity is a mystery to the reader because they are a part of the whodunnit. But as you discover who this person is, it becomes pointless for me not to mention their name, however for the sake of consistency, I keep their scenes in the first person.
As you’ve probably guessed, the column exists as a reminder. I must admit, I don’t like the scenes that I’ve written from the first-person point of view. To be honest, this is a writing insecurity thing.
So that’s everything that I do in terms of outlining. I know it’s a lot. But you don’t have to follow all of these steps. If you find something you believe will help you, feel free to add it to your outlining process, but don’t necessarily feel that you have to add all of these things into your process. Seriously, pick and choose what works for you. Even if you only outline the eight to twelve plot points and nothing in between, you can still define value shifts, scene goal, character goal, stakes, and conflict for each scene. If you flesh out these plot point scenes and that’s all you need to create structurally sound scenes, then good for you.
Remember, you don’t necessarily have to do everything that I do in my when I outline a novel.
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.
The next episode of the Authorpreneur Podcast will be on how I edit an outline for a novel.
Thank you for listening, and happy reading and writing, everybody.
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I’m Amelia. When I’m not hosting the Authorpreneur Podcast™️ and the Book Nerd Podcasts, I write Mystery Novels under the pen name A. D. Hay. And, I’m the author of Suspicion, 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, Suspicion, Duplicity, 24 Hours, and Immunity for publication.