Writing a book, even a novel, is much more technical than simply sitting down and letting your imagination go to work. Every author knows that the story must have a beginning, a middle and an end, and when you begin a writing project, it’s really best if you have a basic idea of what those things are.
It is hard to deny that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is one of the most fantastic and fascinating series of all time. The books are all connected, one after the other, with twisty subplots and fragmented pieces that ultimately all fit together in the end. There is no doubt when you close Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that J.K. Rowling knew exactly where she was going with each of her characters. The story was so flawless that it took me weeks to recuperate after I finished the final book.
Recently, I stumbled across this post, which reveals a snippet of Rowling’s layout as she wrote Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I was fascinated by the details in this outline, as she clearly had a plan for each subplot, each character, and she was driving toward the ultimate theme of the entire series – redemption.
Rowling’s use of an outline was clearly a key component to her writing, and all authors could learn something from her simple plot summary.
Outlining a book can feel wildly overwhelming. I’ll be honest, it is not my favorite part of writing. I’m what you might call a loose outliner. I know my beginning, my middle, and my end, but the bits in between?
I like to let those surprise me a little.
When I set out to write my novel, I had a loose plot based on the true story of Maria Ivanovna, a woman I met in Kiev, Ukraine as a high school student. Maria’s story provided the backbone for my story, but putting meat into that story became my challenge.
When I finally got over my delusional idea of writing a non-fiction book, and decided to refocus on the story as a novel, I wrote up a basic outline. I had a cache of amazing survival stories from the many veterans I interviewed in Ukraine, so I wrote out all the stories that I found to be most fascinating. From that list, I came up with ten characters whose stories I wanted to tell in some way, shape or form.
If you’re wondering – yes, that’s way too many characters.
I wrote about 250 pages in that draft of the book, then I gave it to my dad and asked him to let me know his thoughts. My poor, sweet father couldn’t even get through the book, he was so muddled in trying to keep up with the many characters, with their foreign names and criss-crossing stories.
I shelved that version of the book and headed back to the drawing board. This time, I wrote out a much more detailed outline.
I cut the character line-up in half, focusing on only five instead of ten. I determined where each of these characters would begin and where each of them would end, but the middle of the story was giving me a fit, so instead of dwelling on that unknown, I simply began to write.
And write some more.
About halfway through the writing process, I realized that of the five characters in the novel, I was only connecting with four. I desperately wanted to keep the fifth storyline, but I could not envision how to get that fictional character from beginning to end. I had no middle for him, so after careful thought, a little more research, and one stiff drink – I cut him out of the book.
As soon as I did that, I went back to my outline and updated it. Suddenly, without the burden of trying to fit in a character with which I didn’t feel connected, the entire story began to take shape. I could see the middle of each story, and I knew how to move the characters from the beginning to the end in a much more seamless manner.
I had to say goodbye to one so I could discover all of them.
Outlining a story does not need to be terribly detailed, but it is a necessary component of storytelling that shouldn’t be ignored, and if the outline is important to the fictional story, it is even more so in non-fiction.
Writing an outline will give you perimeters in your writing. It will keep you focused and take you from the beginning to the end, which is a key component to making sure your readers can make it from beginning to end.
How has outlining a project helped you see it through to the end?
This is part of a 31 Day series on becoming an author. To read all the posts in this series, click here. To stay up to date on my daily posts through email subscription, enter your email address in the top left corner.