Should you outline your stories?

If you don’t consider yourself a planner, and you are writing a single scene short story, go ahead and start writing. These are much easier to revise since you don’t have multiple characters, sub-plots, and plot layers.

However, if you’re writing a longer piece, like a novel, you should plan WAY more than you think.

Plan. Plan some more. And then go back and revisit your plan before you start writing.

Why should you have a plan for your art?

For those of you who feel like this will limit your creativity, it won’t. You can still freewrite and brainstorm to get ideas, but the plan or outline for your novel will give your creativity a framework within which it can flourish.

Think about an artist like Michaelangelo. He didn’t just start hammering at the slab of marble to get David. He sketched, studied models, practiced, and planned his masterpiece.

Did that limit his creativity? I think not. But for whatever reason, I’ve worked with lots of teen writers who seem to think planning and outlining might somehow diminish their story. My experience teaches me the exact opposite is true.

Over the past four years, I’ve completed two novels, started a third and am currently outlining a fourth.

The third novel didn’t get finished and is currently way far on the back burner. I LOVE the story, so what happened? It started as an awesome idea, I had thought about the big moments, I had a few ideas for characters, so I jumped in and began writing. This was my Nano novel this year.

But, I didn’t finish. Not even close.

Why? Because it wasn’t outlined like I had outlined the first two. I didn’t follow the structure for a novel. And guess what? I got stuck. I wrote myself directly into a wall, and now, I need to back up about a hundred feet (or 10,000 words) and get a running start to get over/around/or through this wall.

In other words, I need to scrap what I’ve written and go back to figure out my plan BEFORE I start writing again.

I think most of us who write have had this dilemma. We have a great idea, start writing, and then suddenly we run out of steam and ideas.

We don’t sketch out what our masterpiece, like Michaelangelo did with David.

In writing novels myself and guiding many, many teens through the writing of their own novels, I know this is a common dilemma.

The solution? Plan and familiarize yourself with basic story structure.

Then, BEFORE you write even that first word, create an in-depth outline of your novel.

What should be in a novel outline?

Believe it or not, there is a form for writing a great story and virtually every successful story (that people actually read and enjoy) follows this form. In some ways, it is a formula, but don’t let that scare you or limit you in any way.

It’s actually somewhat freeing to take all of your fabulous ideas and fit them into the form. It gives you a road map, a guide to keep your story on track. It’s your sketch. The other reason to familiarize yourself with story structure is because readers like it. It’s what they expect.

So, what is this form I’m talking about?

It is NOT a traditional outline with Roman Numerals that you might have had to make for a research paper assignment in English.

It includes:

  • your main characters and sketches that develop these characters
  • all of the settings in your story
  • plot ideas & situations that hit all the necessary plot points that good stories have:
    • hook, inciting incident, plot points that include major events that move your character through their character arc, increased tension, a climactic moment, and a resolution.
  • every scene outlined and sketched

You might feel like having all of this information down before you start writing might limit your creativity – it won’t. Trust me. Some of your favorite authors and novels follow standard story structure down to the precise moment or page. For example, traditionally the inciting incident will happen at the in the first 5-10% mark of a novel. In Story Physics, Larry Brooks provides an extensive analysis of The Hunger Games. As he points out, guess where the inciting incidents happen? Right there at the 5-10% mark: Katniss volunteers as tribute, Peeta also gets chosen, and they leave for the capital together.

Sure, there are highly successful novels in which the inciting incident doesn’t happen at that exact mark – A Fault in Our Stars is one of them, but even if it’s not at the exact mark, it’s in there.

Creating your outline is a truly creative process. I’m in the midst of it now, and I’m having a blast coming up with ideas and then figuring out where they fit into the overall structure of my story.

As characters reveal themselves to me, I get a better idea of how other characters will change and grow which gives me more ideas for situations I can add to the plot. Right now, it’s all in the brainstorming, get every single idea down on paper (or screen), but it’s highly creative.

Have you ever plotted out your story scene by scene or do you prefer to sit down and write? Share your favorite methods in the comments below.

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