What if you have so many ideas for your novel that the idea of an outline completely overwhelms you? It’s good writing practice to keep a notebook or paper close by so that you can jot down ideas for your story as they arise—but when the result is a growing pile of mismatched odds and ends, how do you organize those ideas into some sort of coherent outline that will guide your writing?
Or, conversely, what if you have a central idea for your story, but are unsure of where to go from there?
Believe it or not, I’ve found the key to getting started from both of these situations can lie in the same simple method of creating scene cards.
Say you’re in the first camp, the overwhelmed-by-random-ideas one. To begin with the scene card method, you’ll start by taking out that notebook or file folder filled with little scraps of paper. Grab a package of 3-by-5 cards and copy each idea onto a card. Some ideas will be broad: Mary finds proof and destroys it. Others will be specific: John sees a thread caught on the windshield and slips it into the envelope with Dave’s letter while Beth isn’t looking.
If an idea is too long for a card, name it something that represents the whole and keep the longer version (the notebook page or slip of paper) for later when you write the actual scene. For now call it something brief like: John takes thread. Even if some ideas are only random details rather than full-blown scenes, go ahead and write those down on cards, too. Copy all the ideas down; don’t judge them yet.
Sounds simple enough, right? But if you have only one undeveloped idea for your novel, where will your cards come from? When I started writing the novel A Certain Slant of Light, I wondered what it would be like for a ghost to be seen by a human being for the first time after having been invisible for more than a century. This idea led to some questions: If someone can see her, how is he doing it? Why can only one person see her?
So, I began asking myself these questions and writing possible answers on scene cards. Perhaps the young man who can see her is like her. Maybe he’s a ghost, too, only he’s walking around in a human body. This led to the idea that having this peculiar thing in common, the two would probably be drawn to each other—perhaps even fall in love. But what can they do? He’s in flesh and she’s a spirit. This led to the idea that they should find her a body.
So far, so good—but now I had two ghosts hiding in bodies, and felt stuck again. So, I did what you should do whenever you feel similarly stuck: I asked myself what else could go wrong. What if the homes of these two borrowed bodies are so different from each other that a union would be nearly impossible? And what if the ghosts realize at some point that they must give back the bodies? This led
to more scene cards—and another problem: How to lure back the souls that had abandoned the bodies in the first place? And what if the male ghost is able to give back the boy’s body before the female ghost can give back hers?
It is in this way—through a series of questions and possible answers—that one simple idea can grow into a novel. No matter how simple your idea, look at it for a while. Ask questions while jotting down notes. Where might this story happen? Who might be affected? What year is it? What does the main character want? What does he fear? What could go wrong? What would be even worse? Soon you’ll have enough notes to start filling in cards, and enough cards to start to build your novel with this method.
How to Organize and Develop Ideas for Your Novel
Starting With Chronological Order
No matter where you’ve started from, once you have all your notes on scene cards, count them. If you have only 20 or so, you should be able to lay them out so you can see them all at once with no trouble. If you have a lot (more than 50, let’s say), first sort them chronologically into three piles: 1) things that happen near the beginning of the story; 2) things that happen near the end of the story; and 3) things that happen somewhere in between. If you’re not sure what pile to put the cards in, just put them anywhere for now. The fun of scene cards is that you can keep rearranging the pieces until the puzzle looks good.
Spread out the cards on the floor or a large table. (A bed is not recommended. The first time you lean on the mattress to reach a card and they all slide together, you’ll find out why.) Lay out the scene cards in some kind of order. Make your best guess as to what works. Nothing’s permanent. Shift things around until you like the shape your story is beginning to take.
Once you have your cards in what might be chronological order, read through them and see what you think. But remember, we’re not done yet. This arrangement does not mean you have to write your story in chronological order. This is just a way of sorting the plot points.
It’s possible that at this stage you’ll feel confused. Your cards won’t read well. They might not even sound like they’re from the same story. If your cards are too sparse, don’t panic. Go back to generating ideas. If the story is meant to be a novel, more scenes will come to you.
Filling In the Gaps
To fill in the gaps in your outline, think about what makes great storytelling. You have someone with a problem. You have a setting in time and space. You have something working against this person. Now’s the perfect time to remind yourself that readers need three things to keep them turning the pages—believability, heart, and tension.
In the case of Romeo and Juliet, the outline would be filled in with these kinds of scene cards:
When one of Girl’s cousins kills Boy’s best friend, it should start innocently so the violence is a shock. Shakespeare fleshed out this scene so Mercutio, who is not even blood to Romeo’s family, teases Juliet’s cousin into a sword fight. It is Romeo’s attempt to break up the fight that inadvertently causes the fatal wound. The Boy and Girl should each have a confidant, but one of these should betray them to make it more heartbreaking. Romeo has the faithful friar, and Juliet has the nurse who betrays her by urging her to marry the wrong man.
There should be a hope that the Boy and Girl will end up happily together that gets dashed at the last minute by a twist of fate. Shakespeare has the Friar’s message of the “fake death” miss Romeo, who left as soon as he heard of Juliet’s funeral from someone else.
All three scenes provide heart or intimacy (we feel for the characters), believability (actions have realistic motivations), and tension (the brass ring is just out of reach).
Of course, fine storytelling is more complicated, but for the outline stage of your novel, you want to cover the basics: Suspend disbelief, make readers care about the character(s), and make them want something that might not happen—or make them dread something that might.
Establishing Setups and Payoffs
Setups and payoffs are great ways to look for holes in your outline. If there is a scene card near the end of your story that needs to be set up or explained, make sure there’s a scene card earlier that takes care of this. For example, if at the end of your story your bookworm accountant defuses a bomb, you’d better have a scene card earlier in the outline that explains why he has this skill. If you want to play a card like that, you’d better set it up. You can’t just slip in a scene where the main character says, “My favorite hobby? Why, I enjoy a good bomb-defusing!” If you can’t make it believable and interesting, have someone else cut the wires. Or have the bomb go off.
If there is a scene near the beginning that needs to be followed through, look for the scene card near the end that is your payoff. If you write a scene early on that endears the main character to us because she is looking for her lost dog, you’d better find a place later in the story to include the dog again. Did she find him? Did she give up? Is he dead? Where’s the payoff? There needs to be a reason we were introduced to the idea of that dog near the beginning or it needs to be cut.
Dealing With Chapter Breaks
Novels have different styles of chapter breaks, and each creates a different effect. Some have dozens of short chapters, some have a few huge chapters (often called parts, or books) and some have no chapters at all. The chapter break should be placed strategically. If, while constructing your outline, the thought of separating your plot into chapters confuses you or saps your energy, don’t make chapter break decisions yet. Write a first draft of the whole novel, with the intention of making chapter break decisions in the revising and rewriting stages. But if, as you think about your story, the discussion of chapter breaks stimulates your imagination, note them on your scene cards so you can construct your outline with chapter breaks included.
Planning For Cliffhangers
Cliffhangers can be psychological as well as physical. Perhaps your hero has just found out her true love is already married, but the chapter ends before we hear her reaction. A cliffhanger means something huge is at stake, and we are made to wait for the outcome at the most suspenseful point in the action. You can see why cliffhangers are good chapter closers.
To pinpoint your cliffhangers (or to create some), look at your scene cards. Where are the moments when an action and reaction might be separated? As a basic, albeit corny, example, let’s say a car flips over and your hero tumbles out alive. The separation point would be, of course, between the flip and the tumble out alive. Perhaps your hero has been tracking a murderer with a certain nickname and, as he’s listening to a voice mail from his girlfriend, he overhears someone in the background call her this name—and he realizes his sweetheart is the killer. You might separate it between hearing the nickname and his reaction—it drives readers crazy (in a good way) when they think they know of a danger before the hero does. This all goes along with the idea of ending each chapter with new information.
Make that new information so important to the reader that he will slap the page open to the next chapter and read on, even at 2 a.m. on a weeknight with a head cold.
Writing Down Your Outline
Now copy the scene cards on paper, leaving about two lines blank between each entry. Use one page for each chapter. Go through the outline again in this format and fill in the blank lines with new ideas that come to you as you read the outline aloud to yourself. New scenes for expanding your story will continue to bubble up in your mind. Write those scenes down, too. It’s perfectly fine to have additional notes supplementing your outline. If you find yourself overwhelmed by ideas, think about the heart of your novel. Remember, this is the reason you wanted to write this story in the first place.