One of my least favorite tasks when I’m getting ready to start editing is creating an outline. As much as I know they’re useful and will help me create a better draft, they take time to create. The most important thing about an outline is that it is only a tool. Regardless of how or even when you create an outline, they are incredibly useful and can help you structure your novel.
And, the beautiful part about outlines is that much like the writing process itself, there’s a variety. If you’re more of a discovery/pantster/garden writer (like me!) you might find writing an outline beforehand kills your story. You can save it for later. If you need a structure to keep you on track without boggling down the details, there are methods for that too. If you’re happy creating an outline before you start on Chapter One, then you have your pick of outline flavors based on your needs and preferences for a story.
If you have trouble with breaking your story down into chapters, it might help to use a synopsis. Because the synopsis is all of the events that happen in a story, it can be useful if you have the premise and the characters, but need some guidance on the plot itself. Bonus point for the synopsis: you’re more than likely going to need to write one at some point, especially if you’re planning on traditional publishing. Most synopses are summaries of the scenes and dialogue.
Another summary-like method is often called the flashlight method. I’ve also see this occasionally referred to as the ‘traditional’ method. In essence, you create one or two sentences for each chapter or story section. You can use the Hero’s Journey or the traditional plot structure known as Freytag’s pyramid if you’re not sure where your chapters are. The flashlight method flexes well enough that you can dedicate entire pages to each section, or keep it all on index cards.
If detail is a large priority for you, consider an expanding outline such as the snowflake method. With the snowflake method you start with a single sentence and simply keep expanding until you’ve reached the level of detail you want. If you choose to use the original form of this method (created by Randy Ingermanson) it can be very work-intensive but steps you through everything from character arcs through to plot and into early scenes.
The final method I want to cover is the mind map. This is a fantastic thing for brainstorming. You start with your core premise and began mapping out the parts that branch off from it. This includes things like your Main Character, who then has branches out for his goal, his motivation, his flaw. It might also include your main conflict and how it connects to your Main Character and your antagonist. This doesn’t follow any structure, so be warned that it may not give you a clear-cut plot line.
Regardless of what you use to outlines, keep in mind that these are organizational tools. As your story develops and changes, you might find yourself needing to revisit and revise your outline.