Most authors sit down and make an outline of the story they are about to write. The purpose of this outline is to write without losing their way half way through. It’s a lovely idea and it almost never works. Today, I will tell you why authors should plot anyway.
Plotting a story comes after you’ve had your spark of inspiration and before you sit down to write. Okay, okay, it can also come after you’ve written the scene that appeared—like divine inspiration—in your mind, but then you should really sit down and plot.
There are a lot of ways to create an outline for your story. Some authors make timelines along the wall, some take a “page per chapter” approach in a notebook, some set a beginning and a vague end and hope for the best in between. The last is, technically, an outline but not one that’s encouraged in this blog. You’ll have to find your own way to plot, but whatever you settle on, make sure the method doesn’t allow you to be vague!
Personally, I start with some basics: a (working) title, the genre, the desired word count, and a preferred publishing month and year. Then comes the blurb. A blurb is the vaguest, most subjective method of plotting because its purpose is to tease. It allows you to plan your story without trying to fill in all those nasty plot holes you haven’t solved yet. You don’t have to write out your blurb, it can be part of your thought process, but I like to write it out.
“A blurb allows you to plan your
story without trying to fill in all
those nasty plot holes you haven’t
After the blub, I move on to the synopsis. The synopsis has to contain the entire storyline. You can leave some details vague, but you have to fill in your plot holes! The synopsis is undoubtedly the hardest part. This is also what writers mean when they say they are writing an outline (and hating it!); this is the part that ends up on walls, in notebooks, or written out in a word file, as I do.
A good synopsis answers all the important questions—who, where, when, what, why, and how—in story form:
- Who are readers going to meet – main character(s), important side-characters, antagonists, etc.
- Where are they going to meet them – not just the planet, country, or city but specific locations they visit in the story
- What is going to happen to these people at these places – with enough detail to tell the whole story
- Why these events are taking place – this largely concerns the motivations of characters
- How these events are going to move on from one to the other – without any plot holes!
Here is the kicker: try to keep your synopsis around one A4 page—standard font and font size—for every 50.000 words you plan to write. Why 50.000 per page? You probably won’t be able to fit more content than a summarized A4 into 50.000 words.
“A good synopsis answers all the
important questions—who, where,
when, what, why, and how—
in story form“
Next, you’re going to decide on your average word count per chapter. You can decide on this by looking at your synopsis. If you have a lot of scenes that will be relatively short, then keep your word count per chapter low. A lot of scene breaks within a chapter can make the work feel discombobulated. Do you have long scenes that flow into each other? Feel free to plot in 6000 or even 7000 word chapters to add to that feeling of long stretches of events. You will never write to these numbers exactly, but they are good ball park numbers.
Survival Instincts follows two people on a journey, so the story was plotted with 6000 word chapters. The Kincaid Chronicles: Origins, which is the book I am working on now, has a 3000 words per chapter goal because there is quite a bit of scene and location shifting happening.
Now you have your word count per chapter set, you know roughly how many chapters there will be in the story, since you started with setting the word goal. The math is fairly simple, but just in case I’ve left you wondering: [word count of entire document] / [word count per chapter] = [number of chapters in the story].
Next, you’re going to break your synopsis down into the number of chapters you’ve settled on. Don’t just copy the text from your synopsis but rewrite them to add emotion.
For example, you wrote in your synopsis: “Joy comes to Paula’s house to ask her out. Paula agrees. That evening, Paula calls Eve to cancel their date because she doesn’t want to string on two women.” These two scenes can probably fit into one chapter. In your chapter breakdown, this chapter description might look like this:
Chapter 4: Paula is surprised when Joy comes to her door after their disastrous meeting earlier that day. When Joy asks her out, she instantly agrees but she instantly feels guilty about her planned date with Eva. That evening, Paula’s guilt grows to the point where she has to call Eva to cancel their date. Not unexpectedly, Eva takes the news badly, but they end the call on relatively good terms.
You now have an outline and a guide to hold on to come writing time!
“Now you’re going to break your
synopsis down into chapters.
Don’t just copy the text from your
synopsis but rewrite them to
Remember what the title of this blog post is? Exactly: No outline survives first contact with reality and that’s okay! As soon as you put fingers to keyboard, you’ll realize you hadn’t pictured your characters as well as you thought you had, some plot hole solution you thought up doesn’t work for whatever reason, and that best friend you thought you needed to push the story forward is just taking up valuable words. Dammit!
Abandon ship! Shelve your novel! Tinker with your outline to fit the new situation and stress forever!
No, not really. You roll with it, you leave your outline as is and you go where the muse sends you. If you can get back to your outline then all the better, but sometimes your new direction is a better one. Your outline will help you focus your thoughts until it comes off the rails and that’s why you have to write it before you start, even if it doesn’t last.