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I really want to begin my first novel, but I'm just not sure how clear of an outline I should have before I start. Is a detailed synopsis of each chapter really necessary, or is it enough to just go in with an outline and key events?

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"Don't get it right, get it written!" –  erikric Nov 19 '10 at 8:38
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plenty of time to revise once the first draft is done –  MGOwen Nov 23 '10 at 6:04
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up vote 16 down vote accepted

The only thing that matters in planning, is doing it long enough to make you feel comfortable writing about your story.

There are two types of writers, "With an Outline" and "Without an Outline".

Try both styles and see which works best for you. It's important to figure out if you do your best writing with constraints or without them. Find a middle ground between the two types that helps you stay on track while maintaining creativity.

If you feel your creativity being sucked dry by trying to stay with the outline, then you over planned.

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You forgot: "I have a beginning and an end, and I'll fill in the rest as I write." My process is a lot like this. I'll have a vague timeline for major events in my central plot line when I begin, but as I write, things come to mind like "hmmm, I wonder how $minor-character will react to this move? Maybe around the time of $event, he/she will find out and $do-something." I stick it in my notes, and by the time the first few chapters are done, I have what looks a lot more like a useful outline for the whole project. –  HedgeMage Nov 19 '10 at 17:37
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I too prefer to write with an overall "idea" and work out the details by writing the novel. Mind you, I barely get around to it but hey. –  Nick Bedford Dec 21 '10 at 0:56
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When I was studying sketch writing, we were taught to not worry about storylines and events, but rather about characters, relationships, and their motivations. The motivations then lead to some conflict and the personalities lead to a resolution.

In sketch (essentially a five minute play that tells a short story), the arc was pretty much, introduce characters, relationships, and environment by 1:00. Build up towards conflict by 2/2:30. The conflict brings out each characters needs and thereby actions, which drives towards a resolution around 4:00, and then wrap up at 5:00.

Following this method, each character would have a reason he does something, and the dialogue would write itself. This holds not just for comedy, but also other types of theatre, and on a larger scale (ie: novel, three-act play) the same concepts hold within each scene.

Every week we had to write a story, and the way we always started was by having some general idea and some characters and their motivations.

The characters then defined what happened. Often time, the end turned out to be entirely different from what was in the back of my head initially.

Stephen King talks about the same thing in On Writing, where when he starts a book he has no idea what's going to happen.

Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park) had also said in an interview many years ago that he used to get into the heads of velociraptors by pretending to be one in his office just so he could understand what they were going to do next.

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Some writers produce better stuff when they plan and outline and world-build a lot. They're sometimes called outliners.

Some work better by just jumping in and writing (discovery writers).

Everyone is different, but you can learn which one you are (or rather, where you sit on the continuum between the two extremes) by trying both, for example:

I began by planning plot, setting and characters enough until I could see key scenes appearing in my imagination. At that point I made myself stop outlining and actually wrote some of those key scenes to "flesh them out".

Getting the whole scene on paper helped me learn a lot about my plot, and characters. I saw some problems and had some great ideas. So I went back and changed my outline.

I did the opposite, too - after writing a few more scenes out, I returned to the outline to see if I liked the direction I was going. I fiddled with the outline to improve a few things, then used that to chop and change the written scenes.

The problems you need to avoid are:

  • Outlining too much and never getting started with the actual writing (the Writing Excuses guys call this "World-Builder's disease")
  • Jumping in with no planning and writing thousands of words that never go anywhere

Edit:
I ended up doing a more detailed post about this on my blog.

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+1 for... well, damn, for the first two paras, but you would have gotten a +1 for mentioning Howard Tayler's gang anyway ;-) –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 10 '10 at 1:16
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Different people do different things.

I tend to plan, by starting off at blabbing at a piece of paper until i have the general idea of what the story shall be about, then plan it out a bit more and then i actually write the first draft of the story using my plans.

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I do a rough outline, detailing things that need to happen as the plot progresses, but then I try to let the characters lead the way from one place to another. You really need some kind of outline in order to build the plot correctly. Certain things will need to happen to move it along, and it feels less contrived if you build up to those things.

One negative with this is sometimes the damn outline stops matching the way the plot needs to move for the characters to be true to themselves. Then you have to stop and figure out what the hell to do to make it all work out...I've read many a book where the author clearly had this happen to them, and forced the characters to follow the plot, even though they'd written them away from it.

For me though, I can't really plan a character until I start writing them. Sometimes I'll do a few throw-off character sketches, and short stories, and then write my plot outline, and that helps.

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It strongly depends on yourself, how much you need a synopsis to stay focused. One thing in my opinion is really important to plan before: You should know your main story arc and clearly know how to end it. Some novels I read had no really end to it, that was somewhat frustrating as a reader. Sidestories on the other hand will also come to mind, while writing the novel and you get a clearer image of your world and your characters.

If your world is complex and you have multiple important characters it may be helpful to have a cheatsheet. Every time you make a decision about the world, the story or character traits you note it. That way you stay consistent throughout your novel.

As said before, you may adjust the planning to your personal needs.

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"clearly know how to end it"... and then be surprised when your characters force a very different ending ;-) –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 10 '10 at 1:14
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Most of the initial planning happens in my head - I have a 20 Minute walk to work every day, so over a week that's a lot of time to think. I then write out the outline and some points without any further planning. Just 3 or 4 pages to get the story itself nailed.

After that, the planning starts. Checking if the plot itself makes sense, then adding the facts, fleshing out the people, constantly trying to find references for each claim I make - unless it's SciFi in which case I try to make it believable and consistent, but obviously not necessarily real.

Now, I'm not a professional Author and I only ever written Short (<100 Pages) Stories, but that approach - Think, Write, Research - worked well enough for me as a hobbyist.

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Your approach has a very natural feel to it: before you can do research you need to know the parameters. –  slashmais Nov 23 '10 at 7:45
    
@slashmais Yes, but it's a very technical approach. There are people that can just start writing without knowing where they are going and are just surprised themselves when they see where the story ends. –  Michael Stum Nov 23 '10 at 23:21
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I agree with research last because I'd get caught up in "knowing" stuff instead of just writing. So, I tend to make notes to myself (in the margins if writing longhand or add a comment if using the computer) as I'm writing for things I need to pay attention to later and get on with the story. –  foggyone Nov 25 '10 at 1:24
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If you haven't written a novel before, then I would actually recommend doing both the "outliner" and "non-outliner" method that others have talked about here. And even if you know you're one or the other, I'd still recommend trying to break that routine every once in a while - just to shake things up. I'm a hardcore outliner, but I find that writing stories off the top of my head every once in a while (even if they turn out bad) really helps my creativity and writing ability.

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Some people seem to like the Snowflake Method; maybe you can check that out.

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I find that for longer works, it is a lot easier for me if I have an outline. I don't bother working up a full detailed synopsis, however. Instead, I just identify the key points of interest for each chapter. This usually helps me to think through the story line before I jump right in and start working on it. My epic fantasy novel ended up with 115,000 words, but the outline was only two pages (about 500 words).

For shorter work, such as a short story or novella, I may write down a couple of key points and perhaps some details about one or more specific characters. From there I just start writing. In fact, once I write down the general idea, I usually don't look at it again until I am done or nearly done with the whole thing. As I edit I may check to see if I missed anything from my initial notes, but not always.

Ultimately, as a writer you need to find what works for you. Everybody is different.

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As others have said, more or less, nothing is actually "necessary". Rules are there to be broken, well, maybe. But they are certainly not there to be followed slavishly.

Most important for (almost?) all stories are your characters. Flesh them out. Maybe... write their detailed biographies. Including stuff that never will feature in your novel. Because it gives them background, it puts flesh on the (fictitious) bones.

And then (and that's what I've read again and again (and again!) being said by any number of famous writers) your characters may surprise you, doing things you wouldn't have expected.

So... plan. As a rough sketch. And then write, and see if what you write is actually going where you though it would.

But find you own way. Which may require some experimentation.

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What is this "outlining" you speak of?

I'm a seat of the pants-er. I almost never outline things, and when I do, it's usually "I kind of think that maybe I should do this here" and never anything concrete.

It really does depend on the writer.

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