This article first appeared on the Writers Fun Zone.
Novelists tend to fall into one of two camps: either they start their books knowing only one character, or a character’s name, and discover the plot and other characters as they write, or they do a 90-page outline with all the turning points and climaxes in place. However you do it is fine, of course. But especially for new writers, starting off without knowing where the book is going can send you down some dark alleys.
You need more than an idea
Writers starting their first novel think it’s enough to have a good idea. It isn’t. An idea is usually an abstract that needs concrete detail to come to life. You need to bring craft to your idea to tell a compelling story that generates emotions in readers.
Let’s say you have an idea for your story, a medical thriller: a young technician in a hospital uncovers a scheme that involves killing patients to harvest their organs for sale. Where do you go from there?
If the idea of organizing your thoughts gives you a panic attack, one way to get going is just to start it. Pick a place to begin, then layer in characters, actions, motivation, conflict, goal, setting—all the details you need—as you go along. You can revise and rewrite later.
A little planning now saves rewriting later
But you can save time and frustration if you plan where you’re going. Even if you don’t want to write a 90-page outline, figure out the main pieces.
Begin with chapter one. Where will you start your book? With the character? An operation? The sale of an organ? Do you want to frame it, starting in the future, at the trial of the bad guys, and show how they got there? Do you want the book’s perspective to be that of the technician, the good guy? Do you want the antagonists to have a point of view? The patients? Who else?
Think about intent
For each chapter, and for the book as a whole, think about what your intent is for this book. It’s not enough to have actions and plot. What do you want readers to feel at the end of it? Relieved that it couldn’t happen here? Horrified that it could? Too scared to go to the hospital? Write that into your outline. Review that outline every time you sit down to write.
Figure out the story’s turning points and climax
You need escalating tension to keep readers engaged, so you need turning points, as well as a final showdown scene. The first turning point might be when the technician sees an unexpected operation, or a patient death. Then what? Denial? Resistance? Acquiescence?
The climax should fall in the last or next-to-last chapter or so. How will your antagonist and protagonist meet in their big scene? Will it be over the operating table? In a dark alley with a human kidney or a heart in an ice chest? In an airplane, en route to a recipient?
Finally, what subplots have to be tied up? Do your readers get enough of a payoff? Put all these elements in your outline at regular—but increasingly short—intervals, which speeds up your pace.
Six key questions
Bob Mayer, in The Novel Writer’s Toolkit, says that writers should ask themselves six questions before they begin writing:
- What do I want to write about?
- What do I want to say about it?
- Why do I want to say it?
- Why should anybody else care?
- What can I do to make them care?
- What do I want readers to do, think, or see?
Asking yourself these questions, and asking them before you start each chapter, can help you to focus on the big picture, what you want to accomplish, and where you need to go to move your story forward. You want to be able to see all the possible directions your idea can take you and yet choose the one direction that tells your story and focuses your intent the best.
Writing the outline
If you can keep these questions in mind and write an outline, however brief—even one sentence per chapter or a few notes about what you need to accomplish in it—you’ll save time in both writing and revision. You’ll be less likely to get stuck in a sagging middle, when you’ve got characters and motivations but no place to go. And finally, your subplots will say where they should—as sub, not main pieces of your story.
That said, an outline isn’t written in stone. As you write, you can revise your outline, tightening or expanding it as the need arises.
Take the time
I sympathize with those who, flush with a fresh new idea, just want to get to work. I’m like that myself. But taking the time to outline your story, however minimally, means that later, when you’re stuck—and you will be—you’ll be able to dig yourself out of that mire and head for the finish line.