Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” Now that I’ve been writing novels for several years, I couldn’t agree more. When I began my first book, Nicole Kiernan, a colleague at work who had contributed to several screenplays, advised me to put quality time into creating a solid outline. That made sense to me—how else could one write a novel, with its many interwoven characters, trajectories, and themes?
But even though I was totally in agreement, I was also totally clueless! What information ought to go in the outline? How do I succinctly capture key dialogue and the events shaping my characters’ evolution? What was the right amount of detail for the outline? If I wrote too little, it wouldn’t account for all the novel’s elements, but too many would waste time and potentially on-the-page creativity.
The Fundamental Five
I decided to organize my outline by chapters and return to my elementary school basics: Capture the 5 Ws: Who, What, When, Where, Why
- Who – Who are the characters in each chapter?
- What – What action, dialogue and significant events occur in each chapter?
- When – When does each chapter take place?
- Where – Where does the action take place?
- Why – Why is a character valuable in the narrative of each chapter?
Sometimes “HoW” is considered the 6thW of storytelling, but I decided to leave that out of my outline and cover that elsewhere. For my Science Fiction trilogy, HoW was the technological means of accomplishing the fantastic innovations described in my book. As an inventor and engineer, I wanted everything grounded in plausible futuristic technologies as much as possible. This led me to searching out PhD theses and prognosticating Powerpoint presentations (alliteration!), in many cases—the topic for another blog.
But What about Perspective?
I dutifully set out to outline each chapter using my five-Ws. After writing the entire novel, tweaking with input from friends and professional editors, and showing parts of it to a couple of literary agents, I realized the five-Ws hadn’t covered everything I needed to write a good novel. I was missing one piece of key information.
- Point of View – From whose POV is each chapter told?
By not identifying that from the get-go, I created a lot of work for my reader and, later, for me when I had to completely retool many chapters.
Don’t let this happen to you! Especially if your story may need more than one. If the story is told from a single point of view, your answer is almost obvious, with perhaps the only remaining question the tense (past, present or future) in which the story shall be told. But if a single character’s POV does not suffice, the chapter planning requires more thought. It’s immensely helpful to have a clear view up front of who’s telling the story of each chapter, to voice it appropriately.
The outline was incredibly helpful, keeping me on track with the plot and characters. Frankly, I don’t see how a writer could weave a compelling story the length of a novel without an outline.
Still, these are details, albeit important ones. But arguably more important is knowing what your story truly, fundamentally, is about.
The Big About
Lane Shefter Bishop is an Emmy award-winning director and producer who’s written an excellent book titled, Sell Your Story in a Single Sentence. Its premise is basically that you need to be able to describe your story in one or two short sentences in a compelling way. If you’re unable to do so, you either don’t understand what your story is truly about, or you’ve chosen a dud topic (sorry!).
Stating one’s story succinctly, in a compelling way is much harder than you’d think. I’ve purchased the book, I’ve heard Lane speak in person, and I attempted my own two-sentence description. I floated it with Lane—like a lead balloon!
See, I thought my story was about my protagonists, sparkling with advanced technology in a fantastical setting, overcoming insurmountable odds to help a bunch of people. Lane helped me realize that most stories are personal at their foundation. That is, although I had several protagonists, the heart of my story was about a single protagonist. And although many people were aided in the course of events, my protagonist was primarily driven to save her family. All the technology was only a backdrop for telling that story.
With that sharpened understanding, I would begin yet another rewrite, highlighting my protagonist’s love of family, the difficulties of her becoming estranged from them, and her desperation to save them when the time came. Finally, belatedly, understanding the heart of the story I was telling, I could do a much better job of telling it.
The Five-Ws, POV, and About: I needed to understand all of them to get my story off on the right foot. Never again would I fail to include them in my novel planning.
Next: Where Are You Going?