As a novelist, I’m firmly in the plotter camp. For some of my shorter stories, and, oddly, most of my novelettes, I tend to let the story unfold organically, thinking no more than a page or two ahead. But for novels, there are too many intricacies and loose ends that need tying together to just let the work evolve on autopilot. Now, I know that some people hate working that way and prefer to fix problems in editing, but I’ve found that the best way to fix problems is not to write problems in the first place.
Some of my plots are relatively simple, such as for my novel, The Stubborn Life of Jesse Ed McKinney, I pretty much knew the major problem and the ending, and let the rest of the details come to me as I write. For mysteries and my epic Sci-Fi story, Hard As Roxx, there is no way I could have had a cohesive story without a fairly detailed outline. Now, outlines change, and my books rarely stick to the script. That’s okay. They aren’t meant to; they’re supposed to be dynamic. At the least, I want to know what happens in each chapter. If nothing is going to happen, there’s no chapter to write.
This weekend I mapped out the first sequel to Roxx’s book, Cool Like Jazz, which will be at least a involved as Roxx, with political intrigue, war, adventure, and general dystopian madness. So how to keep all the marbles under the right cups? I came up with an outline template for Microsoft Word that helps me at least organize my thoughts. How much detail goes into an outline is dependent on the writer and the work. This one is seven 8 1/2x 11 inch pages long. For a simple plot, it could be much less. For a murder mystery, wherein you have to lay out how the crime happened, all the clues to solve it, and the order that they’re discovered, it could be much longer.
If you’re browsing around for a basic outline structure, take a look at the one below and tell me what you think. The meat of it is Section F, the Plot Outline. For me, each “Step” is pretty much a chapter, and this allows me to know ahead of time what basic thing happens in each chapter — the action, reaction, etc. — and the order they take place.
I. Opening Setting:
- Name – Born
- Name – Born
A First Location – Important details that go in the story.
B Second Location – Important details that go in the story.
- Location Notes
- General information regarding settings in the story. Do they have a common thread that needs to be brought out?
- Is there research you need to do before writing?
IV. Main Plot Structure
- Any background info goes here.
B Current State, Day 1:
- What is the opening situation?
- What do the readers need to know in Chapter 1?
C The Big Problems
- Problem 1
- Problem 2
- Problem 3
D Primary Obstacle –
- What inhibits our Protagonist from solving the Big Problems?
E Proposed Solutions
- How does the Protagonist solve Big Problem 1? Does the solution create another problem or reaction?
- How does the Protagonist solve Big Problem 2? Does that create another problem or reaction?
F Plot Outline
- Step 1 – Action, Opening. (Each of these can be chapters or larger or smaller chunks of the story)
- Step 2 – Action or Reaction?
- Step 3 – Action or Reaction?