Here’s something else you can all worry about if your worry list is getting too short for comfort. Let’s look at a few outlining models and how they help with planning. There are a thousand more methodologies on the internet by a thousand professionals who believe they know what’s best for us. Let’s go from the most to least restrictive seen.

A structured outline is a common methodology still used by some writers. It is the most restrictive to the writing process, leaving little room to change original character and plot design. You may still painfully remember being taught its inner workings in grammar school. Structured outlines contain detailed written descriptions of individual scenes as it progresses linearly through a novel. In addition, detailed setting and characters are planned prior to writing Chapter 1. It is the exact reason so many writers hate outlining. Such structured methodologies create a dump truck full of details and suck the fun right out of writing.

The three-act model is one of the best approaches for writers who are more concerned with structure than the specifics of character or plot, although this method does allow the opportunity to be very specific about the plot and your characters. This structure relies on an essential beginning, middle, and end format the reader is most familiar with in storytelling. Based on the structure of the theater, the first quarter of the novel establishes setting, time period, conflict, characters, goals, and quest. Act two is the fifty percent in the middle where the reader expects rising action and increasing stakes. The the final quarter is the third act of the story is where strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are resolved.

If a writer is somewhat resistant to general outlining processes, the signpost method may be better suited for their needs. The writer fills in place holders which briefly note the types of scenes needed, including as much character development as needed as the plot thickens, setting, and a general idea of what happens in each scene but not necessarily all of the details. The writer lays the groundwork for the basics up front and then develops the nuances of each scene in the drafting stage.

Last, many writers simply do not want to or are unable to outline. Some brains are just not wired to be “structured”. Those who prefer to write by the seat of their pants are lovingly called pantsers. Although pantsers play in the land of Nod where anything goes, their first drafts can be remarkably more flexible and complete than above outline models allow, especially when the plots are character driven. Your characters will sometimes tell your story much better than you can.

If a new writer follows this loose model, a novel may be written quickly, without the extensive roadmaps required by other planning methods. This model is like relying on GPS rather than pre-lined paper maps that sit in your lap while you drive. As a result it is, of course, permissible for pantsers to skip swathes of the actual story in the first draft replaced by rough idea notes of what should occur, such as “something happens here” or “somehow they get out of the building.” Yes, it's similar to GPS not really telling the driver where they are going until they get there.

An outline can come in practically any shape and format as we’ve seen. And the lines blur between the models quite a bit, allowing a planner to choose their own parts to use from each method. Make your outline selection based on whatever is appropriate for your specific style, level of patience, detail requirements, comfort, etc. Don’t go overboard on planning, but do plan smart. Vivid understanding and visualization of your novel’s piece/parts are critical to your novel.

So, after all of this information, you may ask yourself, “Yes, but which method do you use, Paul?” Well, let me get out of my chair and pull up my pants first. I’ve always heard, when you pull something out of your rear, it’s best to be standing up.

P.S. The image above gives detailed planners psychotic tendencies to kill everyone around them. But to a pantser, it's modern art.

Planning a Novel

​March 5, 2023     |     The Hollow Man Series, International Espionage