Outlining was never meant to emphasize A, II, or b. When novelists ignore rigorous rules about potentially punctilious patterns or parallels, they can benefit from the focus, organization, and clarity that one’s personal, idiosyncratic version of a novel outline can provide.
As K.M. Weiland puts it in Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story, “Examine your story. Where does it truly begin? Which event is the first domino in your row of dominoes? Which domino must be knocked over for the rest of the story to happen?” Some form of outline is a useful strategy for checking such issues.
Tip: A relaxed version of an outline can aid the novelist during every stage of the process.
~ The preliminary overview.
You can save yourself time—not to mention stress—by sketching out the evolution of your protagonist’s journey. How much detail do you need? You’re the only judge. No one’s looking over your shoulder checking length or format. But do give yourself some goals.
- What are the five of six pressure points that create your protagonist’s arc?
- Where is the midpoint? In The Emotional Craft of Fiction, Don Maass calls this the moment when the protagonist can no longer turn back.
- What’s the climax of your novel?
- How does each scene advance the plot and keep the stakes high?
- For each scene/chapter, what is the primary goal of the protagonist (or perhaps antagonist)?
- Does each scene inevitably cause the subsequent one?
Though some writers consider outlining too confining, you needn’t obey your outline rigorously. The preliminary outline supports if you feel stuck and promotes a high-tension, causal movement from inciting incident to denouement. But are you on fire with new ideas? Follow them.
~ The post overview.
This is where you outline what you actually wrote, perhaps ignoring your initial outline entirely.
- If the novel has multiple points of view, who delivers each scene?
- In what you actually composed, is there sufficient tension?
- Does each scene both build from what precedes and escalate toward what follows?
~ The optional final overview.
Personally, I had great luck outlining my post outline to make it even more compressed. For me, this third step clearly revealed how to emphasize causality, escalate tension even higher, and omit scenes that didn’t earn their keep.
However tedious, time-consuming or unnecessary outlining might seem, it’s one of the best ways (if not, in fact, the very best) to insure that each chapter/scene fulfills not just the author’s needs, but those of your story and thus your reader. Isn’t that worth the time?