Over Spring Break I had to do a lot of things I didn’t particularly care for such as: laundry, putting gas in the car, and outlining one of my (many) half-finished novels. I’ve never particularly liked the idea of outlining a novel. I always thought it was more natural to let the words flow from pen to page and I viewed outlines as restrictive and stifling of the creative process. However, it has come to my attention that in using an outline I am more likely to finish a longer piece of writing than if I just wing it and see what happens. Having a basic outline and even a more detail character profile as well as a plot outline can really benefit a writer and and the writing process. Outlining has helped me organize my thoughts into a clear, linear path which will eventually become a fully completed novel.
The most helpful outline for plot that I’ve found is the Freytag Model. This model separates the plot of your novel into 5 sections: Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution. To a knowledgeable writer, these terms should make sense in terms of your novel. The Exposition is the beginning of your novel where the setting is laid out and the characters are introduced. It is important that this is done at the very beginning so the readers can get to know your world and your characters the way you do. The Rising Action is where the fun begins. This is where your protagonist is faced with whatever problem he or she (or they/it) must face in order to complete whatever goal they have. Without a problem, there is no plot. The Climax is the height of your novel and should be sort of a turning point for the protagonist. In the Climax, the problem should be directly addressed and the Climax is, arguably, the most fun to write. The Falling Action is the results of the Climax. Whatever your protagonist has done to address the problem in the Climax, the Falling Action is the response to this. Finally, the Resolution is the very last part of your novel. This is the part where things are either tied up nice and neat with a bow and all the problems are solved or it’s the part where things are left in a complete mess. Even if you’re writing a series, the resolution of the individual novels is key and must provide some sort of closure for the reader. You don’t have to answer every question left unanswered, but you do have to provide some sort of conclusion to the events that satisfies the reader. A free link to this outline can be found here.
Another type of outline is the In-Depth Character Profile. This profile is a little ambiguous and can vary character to character. However, many authors will agree that establishing a complex history of a character can really improve a novel. Great novels are character driven and the more dynamic the character the better the novel. To accomplish this, I would recommend writing down traits that you would find important to discover about a significant other (even if they are not relevant to your novel). Does he fold his socks or does he tie them in a knot? Does she wear lipstick or prefer chapstick? Chocolate or vanilla? These kinds of questions will create a character that displays these traits in subtle ways throughout your novel. A free example can be found here.
Using these tools, you have established a flexible skeleton for you novel, allowing yourself the creative wiggle room you desire, but still giving your novel a backbone. Once you start writing your novel, you’re going to have moments where you’re not sure where you’re going with either your plot or your characters, and these outlines will help lead you back to your story.