Imagine you’re driving from New York (starting point) to Hollywood for an audition (goal). You have to be there on a specific date (word count/deadline), but you have to pick up friends in Illinois, Texas, and Arizona along the way (major beats). You could totally wing it, go without directions, and you might get there on time. Or you could end up in South Carolina missing your audition. If you use a map (novel outline), you increase the odds you’ll get to your destination on time.
That’s why many writers outline our stories. They’re our map, our tool to help us get from start to finish, within our time frame and word count goal, while hitting our beats. If you can do that without an outline, I’m jealous as hell and wish I were you. But if you didn’t outline with your last story, then had to cut 20K and twelve secondary characters, you might consider giving it a shot.
A Romance Novel Outline
Often, a good place to start outlining is with the major beats in the romance arc. Though your outline encompasses the beats, it isn’t the same as your beat sheet.
The purpose of the novel outline is to show what happens between the beats.
It’s the map of your scene ideas and where to place them in relation to your beats in order to move the story forward.
Methods on outlining vary greatly. Some writers use notecards with detailed storyboards while others use old-school pen and paper with a traditional outline set up. There is also plenty of software out there. I prefer Microsoft OneNote and its binder-like setup.
To start, identify the story’s major beats. Once you’ve identified what beats A, B and C will look like, it’s easier to figure out where your characters will be in their journey through internal and external conflict between the beats.
Let me illustrate.
In the opening of my WIP, the heroine lives in Dallas, but misses her best friends in New Orleans. I need to get her from point A to point B and from point B to point C—from opening image to turning point one—or, from Dallas to New Orleans, where her bestie lives, and where she’s confronted with the hero (it’s a second chance romance).
Keep in mind the story is the journey between set points on the way to a destination. Is the journey set in stone? NO WAY, it’s a guide. Back to my WIP.
Opening Image Scene One (A): Dallas. Heroine is listless, adrift, and missing her best friend who now lives in the same city as a former jilted lover (hero).
- Inciting incident Scene One (B): Heroine encounters a body-shamer. She wants to fight back against the body-shamers of the world through photography and decides now is the time to move to New Orleans, the only acceptable backdrop for her photo collection of curvy women, even if she has to face the jilted hero.
Scene Two: Hero is angry at heroine when he finds out she’s moving to town. He wanted more from the relationship, and she hid from her feelings for him. They can’t be in same room with each other, and it’s making life uncomfortable for their friends.
Scene Three: Heroine reflects on time they spent together before the story started and gives insight into why she doesn’t commit to relationships.
Scene Four: Heroine and her bestie talk about external plot logistics (the photo collection), and she shares the details of nasty parting words between her and the hero. Best friend gives advice.
Scene Five: Heroine sees hero with another girl, becomes jealous, and a fight between hero and heroine ensues.
Scene Six: Heroine cools off. Realizes she and hero need to get along for the sake of their friends. The MCs hash out their past. Internal: She doesn’t like the jealousy she felt and realizes she has unresolved feelings she needs to sort out.
Turning point one (C): Attempts at being friends turns into a passionate kiss and chemistry sizzles. But if they don’t keep their hands off each other, they’ll end up right back where they were, making life miserable for each other and their friends.
And so it goes from C to D to E, or Turning Point One to Pinch Point One to Midpoint.
There are no set number of scenes for the journey between beats, but be aware of your word count and where the story’s major beats should fall.
You can work through the whole story before you start writing like a true plotter, or you can work through point A to C, write it, then outline the next—like I do as a plantser—with a map to help avoid going left when I should be going straight.
Scene Outlines and Scene Blocking
Let’s take it one step further.
I can get lost in writing a scene to my heart’s desire only to realize when I edit, I wasted a lot of time writing things that aren’t important in the grand scheme. That’s where scene outlining comes in.
With a scene outline, make a list of what is going to happen in that scene from start to finish before you write it. It keeps you on task so you accomplish what you wanted in the scene in order to move the story forward.
Hot Tip: For me, I never work through more than two or three scenes at a time. I prefer pen and paper for this, though I’d save some trees if I did it in my OneNote binder. I make a bulleted list of what’s going to happen in a particular scene, and check back on it as I write each time I’ve finished the previous task.
Scene blocking is a little different. It’s used to physically position your characters in the scene. Many writers do it intuitively as they write. Whether you do that or position Barbie and Ken dolls, you use blocking to be sure your characters aren’t doing anything physically impossible and/or their physical movements stay true to the scene’s intention.
In romance, blocking is particularly useful for choreographing sex scenes. Making sure it’s physically possible to insert tab A into slot B is important so you don’t give readers a WTF moment.
Hot Tip: You can buy specialized dolls that are highly posable for this purpose. Many artists and sculptors use them, and though I’m sure it’s very entertaining to block a sex scene this way, high quality dolls are expensive––plus, you’ll likely need at least two. However, I can personally verify that if you have a significant other, the two of you are excellent stand-ins and a lot more fun than the dolls.
Get Ready to Outline
Outlining is a great tool even if it isn’t for everyone, and there is no right or wrong way to do it. You have to find what’s most efficient for you, and sadly, that is all trial and error. If you’ve tried to outline and it’s not a comfortable process, you may be a tried-and-true pantser. If you outline a few scenes at a time like me, you’re probably a good little plantser, and if you have the details of every scene on your storyboard before you start typing, I am seriously in awe, you plotter, you. Everyone’s process is different. Take time to experiment until you find the process you’re most comfortable with.
What’s your favorite way to outline a novel? We’d love to hear from you in the comments about what processes and outlining tools you use.