This was me in June 2018.
I had a busy week researching the process of outlining a novel. The previous week I had been considering what made a novel idea. This week I was going to work on outlining.
If you have decided to join me on my journey to writing a (in my case romance) novel, don't forget to read my previous writing. And before you read further, stop for a moment, take a breath, and write one sentence describing the idea you have selected.
This part really important. Take some time to make sure the idea you have selected is going to be one you can fall in love with.
That done, it's time to share my idea with you and then I can go through the next stage in my process. Fair warning, I did a ton of research on this topic, and to do it justice, this blog is going to be a little longer (a lot longer) than I would have liked.
Whatever - I'm not going to keep you waiting any longer. My big idea, in one sentence, is:
Gabrielle Stone, her best friend Casey, their nerdy friend Jake, and Gabrielle’s handsome ex-boyfriend Lucas solve the mystery of the stolen jewels and Gabrielle might – or might not – fall back in love with Lucas.
Yikes! What do you think? I'm so excited I could: FALL IN LOVE.
What personality type are you?
In my research, I have learned that knowing your personality type is probably the most important thing when outlining a novel. You see, there's a thing called writers' block and you must not, under any circumstances succumb to it.
There are numerous causes of this phenomenon and the symptoms differ, person to person. For example, you might not be able to think of the next scene, you might not be able to work out the middle section of the novel, or - heaven forbid - you might get bored of writing.
Those are only a few of the symptoms you could experience but you get the gist, they're horrific. Let me tell you now, there is a cure. Yippee! Our lives have been saved. We will live happily ever after...
The cure is OUTLINING. If you outline your novel right at the beginning of the process, you will circumvent many of the potential causes of writers' block. You will know your characters, their motivations and their individual story arcs so well that, when writer's block would normally strike, you can use this knowledge to power on through.
In short, you will have fallen in love.
So what's the issue with personality type?
This is where it gets complicated. But the good news is you can only be one of two, perhaps three, personality types.
Practically every article, book or blog I have read on outlining has divided we writers into the categories of Plotters and Pantsers. These two categories are loosely: those who like to plan everything down to a broken fingernail and those who like to 'fly by the seat of their pants'.
Some authorities in the matter suggest there is also a middle group who like some plotting but fall asleep by step five of the 'snowflake method'. I'm going to explain this method to you laters and, if you fall asleep, you are likely not a Plotter. I'd put myself in this middle group, which novelist Kristen Martin, calls the Plotsters.
According to the various writing authorities, there are numerous methods to create your outline. There is the snowflake method, the three-act structure, the flashlight method, the hero's journey, the visualiser method, and the skeleton method, to name a few. There is also the ultimate Pantser method of starting with a blank sheet or screen and just hitting some keys.
As a personality, I'm more the Pantser end of the scale but I have tried to start a writing project before and failed early on. This time I'm serious, so I am going with the full-on Plotter method, otherwise known as the snowflake method.
But because I care about you, I will also outline another method, which I have dubbed the 'Almost Pantser' method but which is, truth be told, a variation on the Skeleton. It will give you a rough structure but won't take so long that you Pantsers fall asleep before you even begin.
If you want to try any of the other methods, here are a few articles with summaries:-
I will begin with the short Pantser friendly method and then the rest of us can then go into the fine detail of the snowflake, without having to worry we're getting on someone's nerves - you know who you are.
The Almost Pantser Method
In this method, you will cover three steps: brainstorming, plot development and finalising the outline.
Having selected your rough idea, and written your single sentence synopsis, you can start to ask questions: -
What if my character...?
Why did Lucas end it with Gabby?
What would my character do in this situation?
Who could have taken the jewels?
You keep asking questions until you have well-developed characters and a good number of potential scenes which would fit into the story. Your novel might end up with 50 scenes - I'm not saying you will need that many at brainstorming phase, but don't underestimate how many you will need.
Take time with this phase. Your ideas will be more imaginative if you spread this stage over days or even weeks than they would be if you try to cover this phase quickly. Your creative well might run dry.
My suggestion would be to put the plot points or scene titles on to sticky notes on a big board or at the very least you can use the sticky notes app on Windows 10.
Above is one way you could use the sticky note app but how you want to use it is down to you. What you are aiming for is plenty of potential scenes and plot points to play with as you move into the next stage. In sticky notes, you can colour code your ideas and group them together to start to link them within the story.
Plotting Development - Flesh Out Your Plot
Having brainstormed to develop characters and come up with lots of potential scenes and catalysts for the plot, you need to flesh out your story. You do this by asking questions within a framework. For this example, I have used a six-Act structure. There are plenty of other examples to choose from.
Act 1: Exposition - this is the first approximately 20% when we are being introduced to your characters and their world as it is now.
Ask yourself questions about the characters and their world. Where does the story take place? What do the characters look like, and sound like? What is their current situation?
Act 2: Inciting incident - this section takes about the next 5-10% of the action and unveils the event which will change the main character's world in a major way. This incident will cause a problem for the hero.
Questions for developing this section of the novel include: what is the oh-shit moment which is going to begin the story and put your character's world off kilter? It could be an event or a decision.
Act 3: Rising Action - for approximately the next 25-30% of the story the protagonist is adjusting to his or her new reality, they will be reacting to the inciting incident and there will be plenty of struggles to be overcome, battles to be fought and barriers to clear out of their way, to bring about resolution.
Ask yourself how life has changed for the hero. What happens to him as he stumbles around in his new reality? What might happen now to clarify the situation? What can he or she learn? Who is the antagonist? How can he go on the offensive to change the situation? How does he try and fail to resolve things? What breakdown event occurs before the final climax or to cause the final climax?
Act 4: Climax - this is the height of drama. This section will take up approximately 10% of the novel and will culminate about 70-80% of the way through. It is the scene where the biggest battle is fought. The hero will almost certainly be close to broken by events. He or she will be brought to their knees and either the hero or the anti-hero will win.
Questions include: What is the highest point of tension and drama? What huge climax will, if the hero wins, solve his problem? What happens, that makes us doubt the hero will win? Does the hero or the anti-hero win?
Act 5: Falling Action - this 20% describes the time when the dust settles and the tension begins to ebb.
Ask: What has happened? What does the new world look like? What comes as a direct result of the climax? Ask each character about their experience during the climax, etc.
Act 6: Conclusion - the last 10% is where the story is wrapped up. The characters' story arcs are completed. The problem is resolved.
Are there plot twists in this part? Will there be a cliff-hanger? How does the story end?
I have given you a broad outline of where each of these acts will be placed in your novel. These percentages are for guidance only, For example, I have seen many climaxes written at a later stage of the book, particularly if it is part of a series and the writer leaves on a cliff-hanger.
Finalising the Outline
Having asked yourself all these questions within the framework of a six-act structure, you should have many more plot points to add to the character information and scenes you already had from your brainstorm.
All you have to do now is make an outline with all the plot points and scenes under the relevant Act heading.
Remember, as you move all your scenes and plot points around, every scene should lead towards the next plot point. Some say each chapter should pose a question. Some chapters should end on cliff-hangers.
You can do this with sticky notes or flash cards, with Microsoft sticky notes (see above) or with another desktop app like Cardsmith:-
Remember to review your supporting characters and ask whether any of them can have a subplot or even prepare for a role in a later novel.
Once you have moved everything where you want it, you can now create an outline as an excel spreadsheet, on a desktop app or in a word or google document.
The Snowflake Method
Yikes! That outlining method for Pantsers took a while to explain!
I've been off and done my shift at Waitrose, and I now have around three hours before bed to explain the process I have been through this week for my own novel.
The snowflake method is a ten step process of in-depth character and plot development. If you go through this entire process you should know your characters and plot well enough to write your novel very quickly and relatively painlessly.
1. Overarching Idea
I'm excited to say we have already done this one. The overarching idea is a single sentence description of the novel. If possible it should be less than 15 words.
Here's a reminder of mine:-
Gabrielle Stone, her best friend Casey, their nerdy friend Jake, and Gabrielle’s handsome ex-boyfriend Lucas solve the mystery of the stolen jewels and Gabrielle might – or might not – fall back in love with Lucas.
As you can see, mine is way more than 15 words but, with the use of judicious punctuation, I did manage to avoid the need for a second sentence.
Why don't you try writing yours now?
2. Expand your idea to a paragraph
Next, you expand your single sentence idea to a paragraph of up to 5 sentences. The first sentence should set up the story. The next three sentences would cover major plot points and the fifth wraps up the story. Again, here is mine. BTW I'm being pretty brave sharing my work with you. I'd feel less lonely if you shared yours in the comments too.
Gabrielle and her best friend Casey are amateur sleuths who Live in London; Gabby in a messy first floor apartment with her mother, and Casey in the flat downstairs. Gabby used to date Casey's brother Lucas until he dumped her and moved away - but it turns out Lucas is moving home and wants Gabby back. Gabby is estranged from her father but when her step-mother's priceless necklace is stolen, she and her friends go sleuthing to help get it back. After much investigation and famous-five style antics, it turns out the whole jewellery theft was an insurance fraud. The good news is that by the end of the novel, Gabby has forgiven Lucas and taken him back.
This time I've stuck to the instructions but I think I'll want to refine it. I will update the blog when I have something I'm happy with.
3. Character Sheet
The next stage is to create character sheets for the main characters. In the end, I wrote one-page sheets on all the main characters and half-page sheets for all the secondary characters. You should consider his or her major goals, conflicts motivation and epiphany. Gabby's sheet was about three pages long but here's an excerpt from it so you can see what I did:-
Gabby Character Sheet My name is Gabby. My mother Sadie named me Gabrielle after the Archangel she was trying to bargain with at the time. I read somewhere that Gabriel is the patron saint of postal workers, so it makes me wonder what she was hoping to achieve.
We live in an amazing Edwardian apartment block on the borders of Fulham and Chelsea. Our place has good sized rooms with lofty ceilings and glazed double doors leading onto an elegant balcony overlooking private gardens and tennis courts. The guys above us - Rob and Tony - are gay stereotypes and are totally hilarious and what’s more, they excel at both girly heart to hearts and cat-sitting Mum’s spooky feline, Zeus. Not that my mother would do anything so bourgeois as own a cat - Zeus adopted us as his humans out of all the apartment owners and so far, appears to be content with his selection.
My best friend Casey lives below us on the ground floor and works part-time in one or both of the shops Mum and I own, that is when she isn’t out being a professional busy-body, which she’d deny if you asked her, but she’d be lying.
I’m a mental butterfly - easily distracted - I just can’t seem to hang on to a thought for as long as the average person; or even, to be honest, a below average one. I’m the girl who goes to the previews at the cinema (the free mini-movies as Whitney would say) and leaves before the film. They put almost the whole plot in those things and it means I don’t have to waste my time watching the whole film. Try as I might I just don’t have the kind of stick-to-it-ness that other people have. So, all I can say is, it’s a good thing I’ve devoted my muddle-headed genius to all things fashion.
Career-wise I’d call myself a Fashion Hunter. You see everyone's heard of those antique hunters who tour the country scouting out rare antiques. Well, I'm a vintage clothes hunter and spend an inordinate amount of time scouring online auction sites, my beloved home city, and sometimes even the underestimated, well to do Home Counties, for designer duds.
You can imagine the detail I went into on this. In fact, I will be able to completely skip step seven for Gabby.
4. Create a Plot Synopsis
This is the step where you create a synopsis of the plot. You expand each of the five sentences from Step 2 into a paragraph of its own. This comes after the character sheet step because, by now, you should know them well enough to see how their story might pan out.
Plot Synopsis Gabrielle Stone - Gab to her friends - is a little bit kooky. She lives in Fulham with her mother, Sadie, who might be a witch. Her best friend Casey, who is a perpetual do-gooder, lives in the flat downstairs. Gab runs a vintage clothing store and Casey helps, when she isn’t otherwise occupied - getting into trouble and looking for virtuous deeds to commit. In their spare time Gab and Casey operate an unofficial detective service, strictly in the interests of good karma.
Gab used to be in love with Casey’s brother Lucas, but that was years ago, and she swears she’ll never forgive him for the way he dumped her. All is smooth sailing - well, not exactly but everything is relative - until Lucas comes back on the scene. To make matters worse Lucas has changed his mind and has his future all planned out, with Gab in the role of wife and mother to his children. Lucas reveals the real reason he dumped her all those years ago, but Gabby doesn’t buy it and has her own plans to rid herself of Lucas once and for all.
Still reeling from Lucas’ reappearance, Gabby learns that her estranged father has fallen victim to a jewel thief. A priceless necklace has been stolen from his wife, The Honourable Lady Helen Beaumont. Gabrielle secretly hopes, though she won’t admit it, that by finding the family jewels (so to speak) she will be able to repair her relationship with her father.
Gabrielle, Lucas, Casey and their nerdy friend Jake, travel to Gabby’s father’s home, Beaumont Manor, in darkest Kent where they investigate all the clues to discover who has stolen the necklace. After much mayhem they discover the jewels were never stolen but that Lady Helen has a secret gambling problem and has committed insurance fraud.
Through all the trials and tribulations they have gone through together, Lucas convinces Gab that they are meant to be be a couple. Gab forgives Lucas and accepts his proposal to get married and live happily ever after.
5. Write Different POVs
Write the story from each different character's point of view.
This stage allows you to picture your plot from all the different points of view. By seeing the action through different characters' eyes, you can add extra scenes or even sub-plots which will improve, develop and deepen the story.
Aim for a page for main characters and a half page for other characters.
From Lucas’ POV I arrive back in London from my sojourn in Scotland. I am directing a play in the West End, but the only reason I accepted the job was so that I had an excuse to come home. There are things Casey and Gab don’t know about me, and especially the nine years I’ve been away. There are two women in this world who I hold dear – and neither of them like me! Firstly, I have a difficult relationship with my sister Casey because of something I didn’t tell her, years ago when we were at the orphanage. The second is Gabrielle Stone. She is the love of my life, but I made a huge mistake nine years ago and split-up with her. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time, but it wasn’t.
Casey is behaving as if she has forgiven me but there are still emotional barriers between us. She knows I want Gab back but is sworn to secrecy, while I do my best to ingratiate myself into Gab's life. I’m a man of few words and Gab is a woman of a thousand. You’d think that wouldn’t work, but I think it will.
The reunion dinner was less than perfect, and I spent the next few days trying to get Gab to stop ignoring me. I volunteered to help her do some of her annoying sleuthing, just to spend time with her – she needs to get with the programme and forgive me. When the trip to her father’s house came up I saw it as a perfect opportunity to spend time with her and ingratiate myself with her family.
I didn’t expect there to be an attack on her life! I wasn’t sure whether it was an attack by a thief or by someone who didn’t want her re-igniting her relationship with her father.
They’re a weird family. Her mum, Sadie, is a total space-cadet. She never really recovered from the ‘60s and her dad’s so posh he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and thinks the world revolves around him. His other family are like a caricature aristocratic family from an Agatha Christie novel – not that I’d read anything so bourgeois.
When Gab was poisoned I was terrified. I wanted to get her well, out of that house and off the case as quickly as possible. But she’s so stubborn, I could only get her to agree to do some research back in London.
I know that Jake guy is in love with Gab. They spend too much time together. Recently, I saw them together and went mental. I just can’t keep my temper when it comes to her.
I stormed off when I was supposed to be going to a warehouse with her and Casey. They had some theory about how they could catch The Chemist red-handed. And because of that, I wasn’t there when they disappeared. I was sure they'd been abducted. Luckily I have the skills to work out where they were and rescued them. My jealousy almost lost me the only two people I care about in the world.
I had to explain my ability to save them – telling them what I have really been doing for the past 9 years. Anyway, the abduction got The Chemist off the streets and soon after, we were able to unearth information which led to Lady Helen being unmasked as the jewel thief. She also turned out to be loco so Gab’s father, Simon, has carted her off to an exclusive ‘clinic’ for the duration.
Although it has been a bit awkward, Gab got her wish, for a closer relationship with her father and half-brothers. So that all ended well.
I asked her to marry me and she agreed. She’s forgiven me for what I did, and the secrets. I’m learning to love Sadie and I feel like I’m back in the family fold with Casey. There is one more thing Casey doesn’t know about all that stuff from the orphanage but I’ll tell her about it soon and, if she wants, she can share it with you in another book.
The above is from Lucas' point of view. I found writing it helped me to fill out a few extra details about Lucas and where he has been for the past few years - although he is still keeping some details close to his chest.
6. Expand Your Synopsis
This next stage is where you expand the approximately one-page synopsis to a four-page synopsis. This will include additional information and expanded plot points and scenes that move the plot forward. I have only included the first page of my expanded plot synopsis here as a guide but I'll copy it out and put up a link at some stage next week.
Expanded Plot Synopsis Gabrielle Stone - Gab to her friends - is a little bit kooky. She lives in Fulham with her mother, Sadie, who might be a witch. Her best friend Casey, who is a perpetual do-gooder, lives in the flat downstairs. Gab runs a vintage clothing store and Casey helps when she isn’t otherwise occupied - getting into trouble and looking for virtuous deeds to commit.
In their spare time, Gab and Casey operate an unofficial detective service, strictly in the interests of good karma. At the beginning of the book, we find out that Casey’s brother Lucas, who went away years ago, and who Gab used to be in love with, is coming home. Even though she swears she’ll never forgive him for the way he dumped her she agrees to go to dinner at Casey’s to ‘welcome him back’.
We have a flashback from Gab’s POV where we learn why she thinks Lucas dumped her – we will hear his explanation later in the novel. Gab does her best to avoid Lucas but he invites himself to a brunch she has arranged with Casey and her friend Jake.
At the brunch, we meet Jake the nerd, who is secretly in love with Gabby. They have been playing a game of monopoly together for three years. Casey and Gab talk about a mystery they are currently investigating, and they also find out about a jewel robbery at Gab’s estranged father’s house.
A priceless necklace has been stolen from his wife, The Honourable Lady Helen Beaumont. Gabrielle is determined to find the family jewels. Even though she is very protective of her mother, Sadie, it is obvious from Gab’s behaviour that she secretly hopes that by helping her father, she will be able to develop a closer relationship with him and her step-brothers.
Over the next few scenes, we are further introduced to Casey and Gab’s amateur detective status when they begin investigating the mysterious behaviour of some college students.
On the journey to Gab’s father’s home, Lucas makes it clear he has changed his mind. He wants her back and has his future all planned out, with Gab in the role of wife and mother to his children.
I'm feeling a bit embarrassed by the quality of writing you are seeing but these synopses are generally for our own eyes, rather than public consumption. When you do yours, don't bother editing for punctuation or grammar. It only needs to make sense to you!
In doing this exercise, I found myself beginning to piece together my major plot points in order. I also found that by thinking about Casey and Gabby's love of sleuthing, I could introduce a fun subplot about strange events in Fulham.
The fleshing out process, when combined with the character sheets, and different points of view, allowed me to work out in more detail what would happen at specific plot points.
7. Expand Character Sheets
In this stage, you will expand the character sheets and fill out the detail of each character's history.
In my case, I wrote a pretty detailed character sheet in Stage 3. I didn't show you all of it but if you're interested, you can see the full sheet here.
I have written such a detailed sheet partly because, as I'm writing a young adult novel, I am considering having an introduction where the protagonist introduces herself and the situation. I know this is an information-dump but I think it will work for this type of novel. You may disagree - I'd like to hear from you in the comments.
Remember you can add information as you write too. These character sheets will help you later on in the editing process to make sure you're writing true to your character's history, personality and looks.
8. Map Individual Scenes
This step is where you will map out individual scenes on a spreadsheet, desktop app or document. You will add details such as the point of view the scene will be written from and one line about what happens in the scene. It is helpful at this stage to estimate the length of the scene.
9. Expand Scenes To Narrative
In this stage, you expand each one-line scene description from your spreadsheet into a narrative. Below is an example where Casey and Gab discuss their amateur detective status and Gab explains Lucas' disapproval.
Casey’s flat is smaller than ours, one bed rather than two but she’d made it her own with some Boho-chic help from me. I’m pretty sure Casey’s never thrown anything away in her life, so every surface is covered with books, magazines, trinkets and most especially CD cases. She’d been a little slow climbing on the MP3 bandwagon, what with being a sound quality snob, but I’d won her over in the end and we were in the process of copying her entire collection onto an iPod.
‘Any news from the busy-bodying?’ I asked. ‘Long time since we had any Cagney and Lacy action.’
‘I may have a lead on something. I’ll pop up for brunch on Sunday and we can talk.’ Seemed Casey wasn’t looking to share while Lucas was around. That was more than alright with me.
‘You’re not still on that do-gooder kick are you?’ Lucas asked.
Our so-called Do-gooder kick was one of the enumerated points in Lucas’ ‘Why life is better without Gab,’ litany.
The full list went something like this.
One, you are always out do-gooding which takes up too much bloody time and might end up dangerous. Two, your Mum is a fucking kook. Three, there is no three. I’ve had it with you and am moving to Scotland.
There may have been more to the list than that but they were the salient points and they were the ones that are seared into my brain.
‘Yes, Lucas, we are still trying to change the world one street at a time,’ I grinned at Casey, who grinned right back. Mine was with pleasure that he wasn’t my problem anymore. God knows what hers was about. I might have said ‘cleaning up our own backyard’ which would have been very Cagney and Lacy but I didn’t, ‘one street at a time’ had more of an authentic Fulham ring to it.
‘And you’re welcome to keep your thoughts on the subject to yourself,’ I finished.
There. Only bordering on rude and brooking no argument. Perfect takedown, I congratulated myself, before catching a glimpse of the scowl on Casey’s face.
Oh yes, play nicely with the moron, that’s what she’d said - although I don’t think she called her brother a moron. ‘But thanks for asking,’ I added, neatly saving the day.
This is a snippet of narrative from the chapter covering the reunion dinner. When I start writing the first draft, I will insert this short scene into that chapter. Remember, you aren't editing at this stage - simply writing a narrative to guide you in the first draft.
10. Write Your First Draft
You have completed the snowflake and through this very long preparation, you should have enough detail to write your novel.
I can't believe how long that took and how much detail it covered. Do I sound like I'm complaining? Perhaps, that is because I am.
That being said, doing the outline this thoroughly has put me in the enviable position that I have the whole story, the subplots and all the characters firmly in my head as I sit down to write.
The next blog in this series will be shorter - thank goodness - but it will provide some tips and tricks on how to stay on track with your writing, and will help you to separate writing from editing so you don't get so bogged down that you fail to finish your first draft.
See you soon - happy outlining!