Some Tips On Outlining For A Novel: A Guest Post by Rami Ungar

Since I posted about writing by the seat of your pants, I was thrilled when Rami Ungar said he’d do a guest post on being a plotter.  I thought he had some great ideas on how he approaches it and wanted to share it with those of you who are thinking of trying this method.   Without further ado, here’s his post!

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I only outline novels. I feel that the novel is the best format for an outline, because novels leave room for character development, thematic exploration, and to basically let your artistic impulses spread out. I create an outline before every novel so that before I start spreading out, I have some direction on where I’m spreading to, where I want my story to go and what I want to do with it. Basically, an outline organizes the novel before I begin writing it.

If you use an outline, you probably have your own method for outlining a novel. And if you don’t, it may be because of because of preferences or because you’ve never used one before. Whether or not you’ve used outlines, whatever the reason, it is perfectly fine. Perhaps you may still be able to glean some gems here that can improve your own writing.

Now without further ado, here’s how I outline a novel.

1. Have Some Idea of What You’re Writing. Some authors like to wing it when they write, but authors who use outlines generally like to have some idea of where their story is going and therefore know exactly what sort of story they’re going to write.

As an example, let’s say you’re a horror writer who wants to write a zombie novel. With that, you have an antagonist and a conflict for your story: zombies and surviving the plague they cause. And…let’s say there’s a heroine who has a strange ability (not yet specified) that allows the heroine to fight back against the zombies without worry about dying and becoming one. And for an added twist, let’s say the source of this ability and the source of the zombies are somehow linked.

Okay, right there you have the basis for a great zombie novel (and sequels, should you decide you want to do any). You’re ready for the next step:

2. Plan The First Three Scenes. I say “scenes” and not “chapters” because a single scene doesn’t always fit neatly into one chapter and vice versa (for an example, compare any Alex Cross novel to any Harry Potter book in terms of use of chapters). So, decide on what you want for first three scenes. I generally use the first three scenes to introduce my main characters and the conflict that the main characters will have to go up against in the novel.

For our zombie novel, we can use the first three scenes to introduce our heroine and any characters we feel are important enough to reveal early on in the story, along with the conflict (the zombies) and how the main character and her world reacts to the zombies.

This leads to our next step:

3. Start the Outline. Yes, now that you know what you want for your novel and what you plan for the first three scenes, start that outline by writing down, chapter by chapter (or scene by scene, if you prefer) what happens in the story. You don’t have to go into detail about what happens in each chapter or go into full detail about each character. Just give us an idea of what happens in each chapter in as few lines as possible. For example:

“Chapter One: Megan Sommers, a thirty-something librarian, is shopping in downtown Columbus when she runs into a teenage boy she feels she’s met somewhere before. The boy, Ethan Gray, feels the same way. As they try to figure out where they know each other, walking corpses spill out of the sewers and start attacking people on the street.”

Keep going in this format for as long as the novel needs to go. Explore each chapter, decide what you want to happen in that chapter and move on. If you have a firm grasp on how to tell a story, you can keep the novel going for as long as you need to until you reach an ending that satisfies you.

4. Character Bios. Some authors prefer to create the characters before they plan out the plot, but I prefer to write the character biographies after I plan the plot. I feel that I have a better grasp of my characters after I plan out the story, especially since the story and the conflict itself ends up shaping the characters. When I do a character biography, it usually looks like this:

“Megan Sommers: A 33-year-old librarian who can’t remember anything before her 14th birthday. She feels lost and unsure of her life until she meets Ethan Gray, who in the course of the novel is revealed to be her half-brother. She also discovers an ability that allows her to fight against the zombies using martial arts and chi manipulation but doesn’t remember learning how to do it. Likes jazz music and fashion design, but later develops a fondness for motorcycle-riding after fleeing the apocalypse with Ethan on motorcycles.

It’s simple, tells a lot about the character and what we can expect for her, and a little of what she’s into. I usually follow a similar format for all my characters, unless for some reason I have to go into more or less detail, such as a character needs to remain mysterious or revealing a lot about the character is important. Remember, the bios are for you to keep in mind while you are writing the novel, so keep as much information as you feel you need to. It can also help to categorize characters into groups before going into their bios,  such as characters A and B being the protagonists, while characters C-F are in the military, and characters G-L are members of the antagonists.

5. Take A Break When You’re Done. After you finish the first draft of the outline, take a break. Relax, work on a short story, spend time with your loved ones, catch up on your favorite TV show. This break should last at least two or three weeks. Why? Because:

6. Do the 2nd Draft. Just like the eventual manuscript will need at least two or three drafts, so will you’re your outline. When I wrote my novel Snake, I was dissatisfied with the first draft of the outline and made several adjustments and rewrites before and during the first draft. During the third draft I added two chapters to both the novel and to the outline just because I felt two new chapters should be there.

Once you feel you’ve done enough edits to your outline, you can move onto the final step:

7. Start the novel. You’ve outlined the novel, you’ve done the edits, and you’ve got a great grasp of your characters. Start the first draft of your novel and refer to the outline as much as you need to.

An outline can be a great organizational tool for writing your novel. If it helps you keep track of the story you’re writing and the characters you’ve created, then it’s a tool you should use as much as possible and in the way that works for best for you. And if these tips helped you in any way, then my job here is done.

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Rami Ungar is a student at Ohio State University studying History and English. He has been writing since he was ten years old, and his influences include Stephen King, Anne Rice, and James Patterson. His collection of short stories, The Quiet Game: Five Tales To Chill Your Bones, is due out this summer, and his novel, Reborn City, is expected to come out sometime this winter. In his spare time Rami enjoys reading, watching TV, and sneaking up behind people when they least expect it.

To find out more about him and his work, go to http://ramiungarthewriter.wordpress.com/.

15 Comments

  1. Thanks! Really helpful advice that I needed to start getting my head around my first ever novel. Now to decide between writing by the seat of my pants or planning it through…..

  2. I used to have a plotting notebook. I planned out every detail. Now, I just start with an idea, a situation, as Stephen King says he does (in the current issue of Parade magazine).

    A call to all indie authors: would you be willing to donate copies of your books for a good cause and a bit of positive author karma? Check out Authors for Oklahoma at Facebook!

    1. This is a great idea for the Authors for Oklahoma. Do you have a link? I’ll make a post here on this blog and mention it with the link.

  3. I read the whole thing and I still can’t believe this is my essay. I’m really happy right now and so grateful that you decided to publish my essay on your blog. If you ever need a guest writer again and I can oblige, I’ll definitely raise my hand to volunteer.

    1. It’s a great post! I’m glad you took the time to write it. 😀

  4. Reblogged this on Rami Ungar The Writer and commented:
    I recently wrote an article for a blog devoted to helping self-published authors. They were asking if there were any authors who wouldn’t mind writing about outlining novels, and I volunteered. You can read the full article by following the link. I’m very happy and grateful to Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors for accepting my essay and I hope we can do more business in the future.
    Oh, and if you happen to be a self-published author, I strongly recommend subscribing to their blog posts. You never know what helpful hints you might pick up here.

  5. Rohan 7 Things says:

    I love the point on character bios! My brother (co author) and I do this extensively and not just for characters. Each faction, nation or group in our sci fi books has a rich history and timeline so that when we write we merely have to reference the already extensive history. I think this gives characters and environments a great deal of depth.

    Even if the majority of the history is never used just knowing it is there gives life to the world!

    Thanks for sharing, good tips 🙂

    Rohan.

  6. Katie Cross says:

    As a strict ‘wing it’ person in life, and in writing, this didn’t sound so bad. Many people talk to me about outlines and I clam up. It stresses me out, and forces me to work in lines. However, your approach was the least threatening I’ve ever heard, and I plan to give it a shot with my current WIP, just to see what comes of it. Thanks for the advice!

    1. Thanks for the link!

  7. Excellent post, Rami!

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