Just to be open and honest – I am a developmental editor, I devoted a good chunk (60+%) of last year to really nailing this stuff down, and I do write with plans of making money. That all being said, I have no intentions of selling either my editing services or books here. 🙂
This is my big (possibly rambly) post on outlining. Why. How. And overall bits on what you want to achieve with your story if you’re planning on trying to make money from it. i.e. how to grab your readers and keep them hooked.
From here on out I’m going to assume that you’re really passionate about the idea you’re working with, and you’re writing it with hopes of making money from it (as opposed to purely for yourself, or art).
First things first – Why on Earth would you want to outline? I actually did a post on that very thing. In summary you want to outline because it makes your editing easier and it’ll increase your time spent writing vs the time spent figuring out what to write next.
Why will it make editing easier? Because you’ll have fewer plot-holes, tighter pacing, and fewer consistency errors. Having the outline in place means you can head off those potential issues before you get started.
Next How do you outline?
This is a much bigger topic and delves into story structure. You can’t put together a good outline if you don’t know how to put together your story 😉
At the very basic level you should be familiar with Freytags pyramid. This shows you that the story will build and build up to the big crescendo before wrapping things up and leaving the reader satisfied. This applies to movies as well as books. I’m sure it’s something you know about on an instinctual subconscious level if not a conscious one.
That needs to be kept in mind when you’re putting this together. Each plot point needs to build on the one before it with the goal of that crescendo. Everything pulls together, think of it like weaving a tapestry where every thread entwines and comes together to form the whole.
Now you have the larger shape in the back of your mind you can start thinking about the smaller parts, i.e. the chapters and plot points.
Each chapter should be a small arc unto itself. This means that it opens with a hook, it rises, peaks, then slips away into the hook for the next chapter. It has to have a purpose, something to say and do. Think of it as a teeny story, within your bigger story.
I mentioned hooks and these are so important. Tension, conflict, and hooks are all what keep your readers reading. The sensation where they keep saying “just one more chapter” to themselves is the state you’re aiming for. Don’t give them a pause or an opportunity to put the book down. There’s always something going on, something they want an answer to.
This brings me into how to achieve this. The bestselling books all have ebb and flow, question and answer.
My aphasia may make this a little difficult to explain in a way you can understand, so please bear with me (and feel free to ask questions in the comments). A good story is like a symphony, there are layers, beats, and rhythms. At the larger level there is an ebb and flow between the chapters. Open with a big hook, a number of questions, grab the reader’s attention. Then ease that a little, give them some information, some answers, while posing softer questions. In the next one you want another rise, more action, more tension. Go back and forth, question and answer, ebb and flow.
Another way to look at it and approach it is to have a back and forth from action to emotion. Open with something that hits hard enough to grab them without confusing them. Move into information and grab their emotions. Back into some action, keep their attention. Make the action mean something with more emotion and character development. And so on and so forth.
The overall broad tension should rise as the reader moves through the story. The stakes grow and become clearer. They are given answers to smaller questions but that only raises larger questions, they must know! They need more!
Don’t forget to hook them both into and out of every chapter. There has to be something that catches their attention, that poses a question of some form or increases their heart-rate, both into and out of the chapter. On the opening of the chapter you’re getting them to read that mini-arc, on the exit you’re pushing them to read one more chapter, just one more.
On the topic of heart-rate, this isn’t exactly applicable to writing the outline but your writing structure should reflect and impact your reader’s heart rate. Action wants to be short, sharp, quick-moving. Think of your reader’s heart pounding as they desperately keep reading hoping that your protagonist comes out of it well. The pauses and emotional arcs should be longer, allowing your reader to drink in those details and contemplate the developments.
Now back to this whole outlining thing!
You understand the strokes of story structure so you can apply this to your outline. I forget who said it but someone said that 60 plot points is the minimum for a full novel and that’s what I use, I try to aim for 70 in truth.
A plot point in this explanation is a scene, it’s the core of a mini-story. How you choose to write the notes for the outline is down to you and how you work. When I started doing this I used a sentence fragment per point point but I’ve found that I need a bit more these days. I need one to three full sentences. That gives me enough to really figure out what I’m writing.
How you do that is of course down to you and may require some experimenting on your end. Some people like to write down the stakes – what are the emotional stakes? Physical? What’s the conflict and resolution?
You may be a bit more like me and prefer a simple sentence. The example I gave in yesterday’s post was (something close to):
Rocks up to Cafe Silhouette and has words with Felix. Has to use wolfsbane but gets the information.
Another option that works for some people is to break the story down into the different arcs. Emotional, and plot. They can be done for each main character.
This can be done in as much detail as you require. I tried this out for one of my books and it looked a little like this:
FMC: Starts closed and distrustful gradually learns to open up and gains some trust in MMC. Begins to mature and look back over her past mistakes and understand others perspectives.
Open with murders, figure out the goddess Nyx is to blame for it. Nyx uses her tools A and Z to do the murders while sitting and laughing maniacally. Results in big show down in front of the clock. Nyx escapes to fight another day.
Then from there I wrote out each actual plot point from one to seventy. They had the emotional side and the plot side. Some points had both, some only had one or the other.
For example –
A informs the group of murders. FMC suspicious, MMC tries to be a little too friendly and fall back into old habits. Tension between them, focuses tension back on A as the messenger.
This can all be broken down into minute detail, there are so many formulas out there that can be used to put together a novel. They’re not my thing but they’re out there if they work for you. The broad strokes however are laid out here (I think). Everything must move forwards, there should always be forwards progression. Keep the tension, use your hooks, and don’t forget the ebb and flow.
If you have any questions please feel free to ask them. I’ll do my best to answer them. 🙂