The Long Haul, or Why Plot Outlines are a Very Good Idea

When I first decided to write a book, I knew I was in for a challenge. Up until that point I had only written short stories, averaging 2,500 to 5,000 words each. These were challenging, but rewarding, projects that could be sustained by my usual writing schedule. There were slow patches, but short stories form quickly, and I was guaranteed to have a recognisable product before long to raise my spirits. Organisation wasn’t much of an issue, either. I had a story idea, a conflict that had to be resolved within 5,000 words, and a couple of characters with enough traits to give them some depth. As an author, I don’t have the scope to do much more than that, once setting description, laying out the challenge to be overcome, the climax, and dialogue are handled.

Novels are a different matter entirely. With so much more room to fill (even a 100- to 120-page children’s novel, like the one I’m writing, will clock in at around 30,000-40,000 words), the author has to sustain reader interest. This means exploring plots and characters in more depth, venturing into the history of the setting if it serves the plot, and broadening the scope of the novel beyond the core plot enough to make the whole thing less linear. Novels that truly stand out, in my view, are those that can digress a bit from time to time to explore secondary characters and subplots. It sustains my interest, and if it’s done well I may want to read it again. All this can be very overwhelming.

While a little digression adds depth, too much results in the storyline going off on tangents, which only serve to frustrate the reader (“Enough about Sally’s sick son; get back to the bloody battle!”). I won’t mention any names, but many promising books and series start off on a strong note, but get so mired in detail and subplots over time that even the most devoted fan may be tempted to give up. The easiest way to avoid this problem is to develop a plot outline and stick to it.

This is exactly what I’ve done, and after six months and nearly 20,000 words it seems to be working. I sketched out ten chapters for my book, inserted a major conflict near the end and three others before that to build tension. Since I have two key characters, I determined beforehand which chapters would be told from which character’s perspective. Using that outline, I realised immediately that I had to build up tension between certain secondary characters to give the plot more depth.

Even with this outline, I still ended up making minor digressions to enrich the plot, such as adding a scene with a village (and tertiary characters) to give the setting more cultural depth, and to add tension to one of the planned conflicts. But, and this is important, I returned to the main theme once it was done. So, while the final product will no doubt be different from how I originally envisioned it, I should still make it to the finish line, on time.

Plot outlines: A good idea that saved my sanity and kept me on track.

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