Constructing a Novel–The Outline

Julie's Big Board
Julie’s Big Board

Several months ago I heard John Irving speak at the Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. A few months later I heard Margaret Atwood at the same venue as she read from her latest book and was interviewed. Both authors were engaging and dropped various jewels of insight that readers and writers could grab. Yet I was struck by one difference between them. Many fans of Irving have heard that he knows the end of his books before he begins writing. He elaborated on that, saying that he often allowed a book to develop for several years. By the time he felt ready to write it, he knew a great deal about it, most importantly his main character’s story and voice. Small wonder, with that sort of forethought, that he also knew the ending of the book before he began.

I don’t know Ms. Atwood’s writing technique, but one question the interviewer asked produced a surprising response. When she wrote the first book of her current trilogy—she was at the Music Hall to promote MaddAddam, the third book of that trilogy—she expected that it would be a stand-alone novel. She did not realize until she finished the book that, in fact, it needed to be followed by two more books. Perhaps she did have an ending in mind and hadn’t realized that it would take her so very much longer to get there. Nonetheless, I was fascinated by this difference in approach from two such successful authors.

So I thought I would ask some of the writers I work with, clients and students, who have completed at least one novel, to see how they worked. I was particularly interested in the “Do you know the ending before you begin?” question, but I asked about outlines, and changes, and keeping track of details, and the like. Because I got so much good material from everyone, I can’t put it all in one post. So here are some of the responses regarding outlines.

Two women I work with who are computer savvy use spreadsheets. As Jasmin explained: “Whenever I start a book, I start with a spreadsheet. The first spreadsheet is an outline of the major characters and each character’s plot line. … Once I have that ironed out, I start a new spreadsheet. The second spreadsheet is a high-level breakdown of the book chapter by chapter, which interweaves each of the characters’ subplots. As I write, I continuously go back to those chapter breakdowns and revise them.”

Julie did not start with a spreadsheet, but once she was several chapters into her young adult novel and found herself making changes as she went, she stopped and did the spreadsheet. She started in Excel, labeling columns as characters and putting in each scene the characters were involved in. Then she went physical, using tri-fold poster board and colored sticky notes in the same fashion, color coding the post-its for each character. She said the Excel spreadsheet was helpful, especially for finding holes in the story line, but having the big board right in front of her worked better.

Bob begins with, as he put it, “an outline in mind on a macro basis. Most often, though, I take a character and then build events based on that character.” He does do an outline after he’s finished his first draft. Peg, on the other hand, outlined her first novel as the book took shape. She has a particularly tricky novel, since it uses one setting but two different time periods with two different sets of characters. To keep it all straight, she resorted to taping a long sheet of paper to her bedroom wall and covering it with colored post-its and handwritten details of dates and events, and characters’ ages, descriptions, goals, et cetera. When the paper outline became too messy, she  moved it all onto her computer.

Other writers “winged it from the start,” as Titia said. She was inspired by another book to write a novel about the Dutch experience during World War II. She had the events; the characters created themselves. Martha (disclosure: this is my mother) started her first novel with an idea that she needed to convey; writing a novel seemed the best way to do that. Her second novel was based on a brief autobiography published in the late 1700s by her many times great-grandmother. Like Titia, in that case she had the events and needed the characters. She did not do an outline in either case, As she put it, she is a believer in the cluttered-brain theory. She lets thoughts flow in the first draft.

Ginny would agree with that. She wrote: “The abortion book began as an idea about an old woman befriending a young woman. And then I tried to capture Ruth’s [the old woman’s] voice as I wrote some of her back story. I ended up with pages and pages of random scenes. I have a writer friend who despairs of this process: ‘But what is the story?’ The story is the relationship between these characters. ‘That is not a story. What happens?’ I don’t know yet.”

And then there is Pam, who started her novel as a memoir of her first job. When she realized she didn’t remember a lot of the details, she resorted to fiction. “When I began making things up, new characters entered and my first person me turned into a separate character with her own story to tell. Because I didn’t begin with a specific story, the characters are telling me their stories as I go.” Needless to say, Pam added that she had “zero outline to start.”

Martha emphasized that each of her three books (two novels and one nonfiction) “demanded different techniques, employed at different times. Use whatever your material demands.”

In later posts, I will delve further into the actual process of writing, such as characterization, changes, and what happens in the end.

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In which I blog about the days I write and the days I don’t write; about teaching about writing; about reading (which is never enough); and occasionally about music, because sometimes a three-minute song can tell as good a story as a novel.

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