If you’re a novelist, whether you outline your books before you begin drafting or not, there comes a point where you have to be able to consider your plot. Specifically, you have to ask yourself: “What the heck happens in my book, and does it actually make any sense?” You need to be able to look over the series of steps your character has taken to end up where they have and consider whether the story is logical and believable—or whether it is full of holes.
If your early drafts are anything like mine, there’s bound to be a hole or two (or three) in your book. But don’t despair! Plot holes are generally solvable if you understand the basics of good story telling. More often than not, that means examining the story structure, identifying the key moments, and figuring out how to string them together in a manner that is logical, believable, and yet utterly unique.
No sweat, right?
Fortunately, there’s a tool you can use to do all this: outlining. Outlining your book is useful because it helps you see your entire plot at a glance, and looking at the key elements, you can identify where you are having problems—and understanding problems is the first step to fixing them. Outlining also lets you experiment with new ideas with minimal wasted words. After all, it’s much easier to write and rewrite an outline than it is to write and rewrite a book. And if you outline your ideas first, you can spot problems before they arise . . . and possibly save yourself tens of thousands of words in the process.
Outlining is an incredible tool, but in order to make it really effective, you need to understand the basics and how to put them to use. These are three books I’ve used to master the outline and solidify my plot structure before I dive into the draft.
Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success (K.M. Weiland)
This is the first book I ever read about outlining following the advice of a trusted writer friend, it’s a basic guide and it does an excellent job of laying out the groundwork on outlining – why you need it, how to do it, how to tweak the process to your own writing style – all while helping you stay focused on getting the seedling that is your novel idea onto paper and developing it into a full-fledged story with an actual plot. It features a step-by-step, chapter-by-chapter guide to help you build your book from start to finish.
Using the tips and methods in this book helped me immeasurably in getting my third book down and organized *before* I went through the revision process. It worked well for me when I had a draft, knew pretty much what I wanted to happen in my story and how, and just needed a little organizational assistance and some help looking at things from fresh angles.
HOWEVER, for my next book, I didn’t know quite as much about the story I wanted to tell. I had some major beats down, knew what would happen at key moments, but I didn’t know quite how to get from one thing to the next. Using the strategies I’d learned from Outlining Your Novel was only taking me so far—that’s when I stumbled onto Save the Cat!
Save the Cat! (Blake Snyder) & Save the Cat! Writes a Novel (Jessica Brody)
I chortle a little when I say “stumbled onto” because it seems like every writer and their mother has heard of Save the Cat! and its new iteration, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel. Initially written for screenwriters but since adapted by what seems like hundreds of thousands of novelists, Save the Cat! is a slim volume that can help identify the “beats” or specific meaningful action points of your novel and string them together in a logical sequence engineered for maximum audience response.
According to Snyder, each story can be boiled down into fifteen of these beats or moments, and by placing them correctly in a story, and author can wring the most emotional bang for their buck while keeping readers hooked. (More about finding your story beats here!) In Brody’s version for novelists, Brody takes the original concept even further by suggesting there are different types of plots for different types of books, and that by identifying which type of plot a book requires, authors can construct their plot accordingly, again with the idea of bagging the biggest emotional reaction from readers.
When I was struggling with filling in the blanks, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel was a godsend in helping me identify exactly the type of story I wanted to tell, and even in making suggestions for different directions my specific plot might move in. However, I still felt like there were a few holes in the story I was trying to tell. It’s such a frustrating feeling to know you’ve made a lot of progress but STILL aren’t quite there yet. Thankfully, I discovered John Truby next.
The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller (John Truby)
So often, we know what happens at the major moments of our stories, but we aren’t as sure about those “middle” beats—those beats that get us from one big moment to the next in an entertaining yet streamlined fashion. We also get stuck on things like weaving in backstory—it’s such a fine line between weaving in elements from the character’s past and straight-up info-dumping. That’s where Truby helped me.
The Anatomy of Story aims to help you create a more in-depth understanding of your story, including helping you understand exactly when and how to weave in outer elements like story world, character, and character backstory so that it has the biggest impact on your plot and storytelling. Using the strategies in this book, I was able to see places where I was revealing character info too early or too late and make the needed adjustments. I was also able to see where I had included scenes that were perhaps not necessary—while omitting a scene that was crucial to helping the audience understand my character’s motives. This helped me tighten up the plot and cut elements that were causing certain scenes to drag on more than they should.
So far, Truby offers the most comprehensive guide to story outlining for my money—and when used in conjunction with Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, I was able to turn a vague idea with a few key elements into a fully fleshed novel. If you find yourself stuck the way I was, outlining may be a good solution—and these books can be great tools to help you build your outlines whether you’re working with a small seedling of an idea or something much more developed.
Are there any books on outlining that you’ve used to help add structure to your story? What other types of craft books have helped when you’ve felt stuck or just completely lost in the midst of your book? Let us know in the comments…I’m always on the lookout for new craft titles!