The Utility (and Trappings) of the Novel Outline

Publish date:

I’ve been selling books for more than fifteen years and learning to write novels even longer. Of all the author readings and Q&A sessions I’ve hosted (and attended), one of the most common questions among beginning writers, even curious readers, is this: Do you start with an outline?

You’ve heard the pros and cons. An outline helps organize your thoughts and prevents you from spinning your wheels and traveling down dead-end storylines. The flipside, of course, is that constructing an outline boxes you in and limits the possibility of discovery, which is the most creative and rewarding part of writing.

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 9.10.17 PM
Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 9.09.58 PM

Column by Jamie Kornegay, author of SOIL, to be released March 10,
2015, from Simon & Schuster. The book, a combination of literary suspense
and Southern gothic, was called "gripping" and "haunting" by Kirkus Reviews.
He lives in the Mississippi Delta, where he runs an independent bookstore,
Turnrow Book Co. Connect with him on Twitter -- @JamieKornegay.

First, it’s important to note that there are no ironclad rules to novel writing. Every writer works differently and stumbles upon his or her preferred method through trial and error. The novel, rather than writing advisers, should tell you what it needs.

The traditional term paper outline, with its Roman numerals and letters, is helpful to organize a finite amount of information, but a novel is more amorphous. I couldn’t begin to collect a novel’s potential in an outline, though I certainly understand the impulse. There’s something terrifying about the blank page and its stark white emptiness. What could you put there that anyone would want to read?

It’s only natural that a writer would wish to escape such a daunting task. If an outline is a way to get the paper dirty, then go for it. Just remember that those first scratchings are exploration. Don’t lock yourself into a story that you haven’t discovered through hard work. The wheel-spinning and dead ends and wasted time are part of discovering what your book is about, and if you bypass that, you’re opting for ease and convenience over depth of storytelling. Nothing worthwhile comes easy.

After the spark of an idea, the fuel for your story is character. If you don’t yet know the character as intimately as you know your best friends, then how can you decide what that character will do when matched with the conflicts of the novel?

While imagining your characters, you will naturally develop scenes and storylines and bits of history. Once these begin to accumulate, then you have something to attach to an outline. For me, an outline is an expression of the novel’s structure, which gradually reveals itself, like hacking a totem out of simple log.

My first published novel, Soil, began like many other books – with a single image. I was driving past flooded farmland and saw a stump sticking out of the muck. For a fleeting moment, I thought it was a corpse. What if it had been? That would be a nightmare to deal with. I began to imagine a landowner happening upon the body, growing scared and paranoid. He might worry about becoming a suspect. What if he didn’t tell anyone, just got rid of it? How would he cover it up completely, taking every precaution so that no trace of it would be discovered? This kind of morbid daydreaming is the stuff of novels.

I reasoned out creative answers to my own tough questions. I slowly began to understand the main character, his motivations and obsessions. I wrote wasted pages and dead ends galore. Eventually I found the right path. I could feel the story gaining traction as new characters arrived and ideas poured forth. It was time to make the outline.

I kept my outline informal, intuitive. I used the outline almost like flypaper to trap scenes and ideas that were coming quicker than words, as my characters were finally alive and could make their own decisions about the story.

The outline helped me negotiate the tricky framework of Soil, which is told somewhat out of sequence. It’s one of my favorite aspects of the book. The structure came out of a desire to maintain that initial sense of mystery I felt after discovering the “body” in the field, all the hows and whys and the slow discovery of my characters’ secrets and motivations.

The novel is divided into five sections comprised of several chapters each. Each section opens with a strange, hopefully compelling episode, and then goes back in time to reveal how the characters reached this point. I thought this looping effect generated a nice suspense, and it also informed the deeper themes of Soil, specifically the cycles of nature and our inevitable return to the earth. If I did my job right, then the complicated structure should not present a stumbling block to the reader. It took careful planning, and my own specially designed outline.

The book I’m currently working on has a linear structure, told over the course of a week. Each chapter is a day, and understanding that from the outset allows me to work out of sequence easily, depending on what inspiration strikes me or what I find during my day-to-day life to steal and apply to the novel.

Just remember that an outline shouldn’t decide the story, your characters do that. An outline is where you string up the pieces to see the big picture and make your novel as a coherent whole.

This guest column is a supplement to the
"Breaking In" (debut authors) feature of this author
in Writer's Digest magazine. Are you a subscriber
yet? If not, get a discounted one-year sub here.

Image placeholder title

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 3.39.23 PM

Your new complete and updated instructional guide
to finding an agent is finally here: The 2015 book
GET A LITERARY AGENT shares advice from more
than 110 literary agents who share advice on querying,
craft, the submission process, researching agents, and
much more. Filled with all the advice you'll ever need to
find an agent, this resource makes a great partner book to
the agent database, Guide to Literary Agents.

Alexander Weinstein: On Writing a Thematic Short Story Collection

Alexander Weinstein: On Writing a Thematic Short Story Collection

Author Alexander Weinstein discusses how he came to select the theme of his new short story collection, Universal Love, and what it was like to see those themes reflected in the real world.

April PAD Challenge

2021 April PAD Challenge: Day 21

Write a poem every day of April with the 2021 April Poem-A-Day Challenge. For today's prompt, write a blank me poem.

4 Tips for Writing about Family Grudges

4 Tips for Writing about Family Grudges

Author Samantha Downing discusses the techniques she used when writing her literary novel He Started It, which focuses on family secrets, old grudges, and lots of scores to settle.

W.A. Winter: On the Joys of Writing Crime Fiction

W.A. Winter: On the Joys of Writing Crime Fiction

Crime and suspense author W.A. Winter discusses why he decided on fiction over true crime for his latest novel, The Secret Lives of Dentists, and how writing this book brought him joy.

April PAD Challenge

2021 April PAD Challenge: Day 20

Write a poem every day of April with the 2021 April Poem-A-Day Challenge. For today's prompt, write a Love and/or Anti-Love poem.

Stationery vs. Stationary (Grammar Rules)

Stationary vs. Stationery (Grammar Rules)

Learn the differences of stationary and stationery on with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

Erik Larson Quote

Liminal Spaces: A Profile of Erik Larson

WD gives a peek at the daily routine of Erik Larson and the writing process behind his bestselling narrative nonfiction in this Nov/Dec 2020 profile by Zachary Petit.

Jennifer Boresz Engelking: On Giving Readers a New Appreciation of History

Jennifer Boresz Engelking: On Giving Readers a New Appreciation of History

Debut author Jennifer Boresz Engelking discusses what led her to write her historical nonfiction book Hidden History of Lake County Ohio and how research gave her a new appreciation for her hometown.