Maybe you’re wondering what a novel outline even is. When I say outline, what pops in your head? Is it something like this?
I. This is the first heading.
A. This is a subheading.
1. This is a subsubheading.
No, I’m not referring to an outline for a high school English term paper. I’m referring to a novel. When I say outline, I’m merely referring to some kind of organizational structure behind the story—a blueprint, if you will, that shows all the critical ingredients that must work together behind the scenes for the story to work.
You may be surprised to learn how many organizational details must work together to make a good story, especially for a suspense novel with multiple characters and settings on a timeline.
There are actually lots of ways to organize and plan novels. Some creative authors use a “mindmap” with Post-it Notes and stick them to a wall. Each note is a scene, a slice of action with at least one character, some sort of action, and then some kind of outcome. They use different colors to identify different characters or subplots.
I can’t take full credit for how I outline my novels. I already had a system I was using, but when I read Revision & Self-Editing by James Scott Bell and saw his advice for using a spreadsheet, a bell went off in my head. I began using spreadsheets in Google Drive.
I took the idea from James Scott Bell, modified it for my own purposes, and came up with what I call a “chapter plan.” Here’s what I used to keep track of the plan of my latest novel, The Tenth Plague. This is an unedited sample of what it looks like (and the plan continues for more than one hundred chapters). Click on it for a larger version.
As you can see, each horizontal line represents a chapter (in that novel every scene is a chapter) and supplies several categories of important information: chapter number, setting, characters, summary, outcome, and time. The spreadsheet is a great way to get a bird’s eye view of everything going on in the story.
I also used color at the far left to keep track of who has the point of view in a given scene. Gillian, my lead character, has hunter green. Cyrus, my villain, has beige. I even used red to keep track of when the various biblical plagues occur in the story.
Now, what are the ingredients of a powerful scene and why? We’ll talk about that next time.
Got any questions about how to organize a suspense novel? If you’ve written a novel and used another organizational approach, I’d love to hear how you did it. What worked for you? What didn’t? Feel free to send me your questions or comments.
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