You have an idea. You have lots of ideas. You’re ready to start writing, but there’s too much going on in your head for you to work out where to start, or how to start, or even how to make a decision about which ideas to carry forward and which to put aside . . . for now, at least. You think you know the kind of project you want this to be, but you’re not sure how to turn the jumble of vague impressions in your mind into a well-defined imprint of an idea You don’t know if this is going to be an enormous undertaking measured in years, or whether you’ll have achieved what you want by the end of next week.
Welcome to writing.
Writers live in an environment of uncertainty. And that’s a good thing, because otherwise books would write themselves and writers would be out of a job. Some writers thrive upon the challenge of that uncertainty, but most of us try to develop some kind of framework or structure to guide us through the writing journey, and keep us on track with our original intentions. We begin by building an outline.
That sounds like there’s a clear and accepted template for what constitutes an outline, but this is not the case. More uncertainty: outlines are as individual as the works they describe, although there are some high-level similarities between most of them. What’s important is that you develop an outline that does what you want it to do. The outline should document the architectural design of your work, one which establishes the foundations and load-bearing structure of the work. At this early stage, don’t worry too much about the gravity of that—you can change your outline without it causing you grief. Making a start on the outline will lead you into a series of decisions which eventually coalesce into a sketch of how the work will appear. It may change significantly before you finish, but you need to start somewhere.
Most outlines incorporate at least one of the following architectural decisions:
- Choosing a Theme – The theme will be the organising principle or recurrent motif in your work.
- Choosing a Trajectory – The trajectory will define the course of the story being told as it is described by the narrative.
- Profiling Major Characters – This is the beginning of getting to know your characters so that you will know later how they’re likely to behave.
- Choosing a Timeframe – James Joyce’s Ulysses takes about 265,000 words to describe a single day, whereas The Odyssey, upon which it is based, takes a third of that number of words to describe over eleven years.
- Selecting Locations – Keeping in mind that every location you choose will need to be described in some way, select the minimum locations you think you will need, and capture in your outline why you chose them.
- Mapping out a Rough Plan – How this plan looks will depend largely on how your writing mind works; it could be anything from a time, location, characters, and broad plot elements for each chapter, to a collection of storyboards describing what happens in each scene.
You will probably have seen already that the decisions you make in your outline are very interrelated. A location and timeframe will impose certain characteristics on your characters. The trajectory of the work will impact the timeframe. Your rough plan will then proceed by having this character in this place at this time, and then he needs to be in that location the following chapter, and he has flashbacks to his childhood in the next, and so on. As you plan each stage, you will need to decide if the narrative that will be built upon this framework continues to support your choice of a theme. Does the requirement for separate locations make the trajectory too slow? Are there too many characters diffusing the focus on the theme?
Don’t expect that building an outline will take you a lazy afternoon. As you fill in the bones of the framework, it becomes a cycle of consider, decide, amend, extrapolate—consider, decide, amend, extrapolate—consider, and so on. If you get stuck on a particular point, put it aside for a few days and mull on it. Perhaps something you read or something else you notice might inspire a solution. And don’t expect that you’ll need to have your outline 100% perfect before you can move on. Just as with constructing a building, you don’t need to know if the windows are going to be timber or metal in order to start the foundations. You will just have to have enough done to know where to start.
One final consideration to remember is that your outline will change over time, so it may be worth your while to keep and save your outline document(s) as a separate version each time you make a significant decision or change. This will help you to retrace your steps if the outline you begin to work with becomes untenable for some reason. If you’re fortunate, the decision that created the roadblock was a recent one, and you can return to the outline version before that and make an alternative choice that resolves the problem.