Three simple steps for outlining a novel

Preparing for NaNoWriMo has meant planning the novel that I’m going to write, or at least start writing, in that month. So yesterday I sat and planned my novel, currently titled City of Blood and Steam. As other people will also be planning novels right now I thought I’d share my process, in case it’s useful.

My planning process has three basic steps.

Step 1: fundamentals

I start with the fundamentals – what and who is the story about, and what plotlines does that give me? City of Blood and Steam is about a pair of priestly detectives investigating a murder in a steampunk city where people believe that machines have souls. So plotlines will stem from these characters and the case they are investigating.

The character plotlines are the most important ones – they’ll make sure that the characters have interesting issues and dilemmas to face, and that there’s a sense of progress in their characters. So arcs include their relationship moving from one of resentment to one of trust, the older character’s battle with the effects of age on her body, the younger character’s search for a sense of purpose, and their relationship with the church authorities.

The investigative plotlines are more numerous. I have a central backbone to the case, through which are threaded subplots in which they investigate each reason the victim might have ended up dead, each major strand of suspicion and mystery. I have no idea if this is how mystery writers normally work, I’ve never written a full length detective story before, but this approach has worked for me with other stories.

The investigative plotlines also include a conflict with a lawyer who’s getting in the way of the investigation because of the vested interests it upsets. So there’s an antagonist in play as well as a murderer to find.

Step 2: breaking down the plots

Step one normally leaves me with about eight different plotlines for a novel. For a short story it’s only one or two. For this mystery I’ve got fifteen, which means lots of work on step two – breaking down each plotline.

I map out each plotline separately without thinking about how they relate to each other. For this I use Dan Wells’s seven point story structure because it’s got a nice rising and falling rhythm to it and it’s what I’m used to. Click the link to that previous post if you want to know more on how it works.

In terms of pure practicalities, I do this on an Excel spreadsheet. So by the end of step two I have a grid containing a column for each plotline and a row for each of the seven beats in Wells’s structure. And each cell in that grid has a one or two sentence explanation of what happens at that point in the plot.

Now comes the tricky part…

Step 3: putting it all in order

Finally I work out how the steps in the plot strands relate to each other, spacing them out into roughly thirty chapters.

I usually do this by printing out my spreadsheet, cutting out the cells and then manoeuvring them on the dining room table. Yesterday I didn’t have that option so I used two windows in Excel, copying and pasting from the existing plot point sheet into a new chapter breakdown one.

I start by spreading out the most important arcs – in this case the character development and the main plotline of solving the mystery. I want those spread fairly evenly through the book, with the most important ones starting right at the start and finishing in the final chapter. Looking at them together sometimes highlights things that should happen in the same chapter – for example a major setback in the investigation might make a natural trigger for a crisis of confidence in a character’s personal plotline. I’m looking for story beats that fit naturally together, while keeping each plotline in order.

Having done this with the main plotlines I then do the same with the others, again looking for connections to fit them together. Does one strand of investigation take the characters to the docks, and another need them to spot someone there? Then let’s put those two together. Are they going to get told to drop the case in classic cop show fashion? Then lets do that after they’ve gone poking around in someone important’s business, kicking up a political shitstorm. And that would be a great point for a confrontation with the meddling lawyer.

I usually have to make a few tweaks at the end, removing empty chapters and splitting up over-crowded ones, but fundamentally that’s it – at the end I have a plan of thirtyish chapters with a satisfying beginning and end and several things happening in each chapter, which I’ll turn into a chapter plan as I get to each one.

Thoughts, questions?

That’s my approach to planning a novel or other fiction writing project. I expect I’ll do more posts like this as NaNoWriMo takes me at an accelerated pace through the writing process. If you’ve got any questions or thoughts then leave a comment.

How do you plan a story? Got any recommendations for other guidance? Share your ideas below.