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Order in the Outline

Overcome Mental Bottlenecking to Create a Great Book Outline

by Hannah Earthman

Say your novel-to-be is about rock and roll—that much is clear—and you’re ready to outline. Or rather, ready or not, you need to outline. You sit down to your spreadsheet or blank Word doc, your head abuzz with story elements and impressions: the thudding loudness and in-your-faceness of rock’s heyday; some patchy character profiles; a main plot, three subplots, and fifteen mini plots; and . . . and . . . and . . .

By the time you’ve wrangled all the potential elements of your story into focus, you’ll likely have scared yourself out of writing word one of your outline. To free yourself from the trap of trying to simultaneously decide how to handle characterization, plot, structure, POV, voice, and style, you need to prioritize the decisions to be made about your story.

Using Attention Effectively

In the book Your Brain at Work, David Rock talks about the bottleneck phenomenon that occurs when various decisions that need to be made line up (impatiently) behind the decision you’re consciously trying to make at any one moment, creating a jam that creates all sorts of frustration in turn. If you’ve ever tried to make a decision about a solitary issue in your outline only to find your mind flooded with twenty-five other related issues, making the pros and cons of an option you’re considering seem impossible to suss out, you’ve experienced this sort of bottleneck.

What Rock suggests, while primarily addressed to those in a business setting, applies to outlining your novel as well: determine if “a decision higher up needs to be made.” If your mind keeps replaying the same questions regarding character, plot, or style, ask yourself whether there’s a more fundamental question, with broader implications, you could answer first.

Story Planning Hierarchy

Establishing a hierarchy of story elements to be planned should make the entire outlining process easier. And while different writers like to begin at different beginnings, the following represents an order that is, for many, clear, doable, and effective:

  1. Establish Your Main Theme

As you think about what you want to say, the important pieces of the plot as it’s so-far hammered out, and your characters who may be inchoate but have their vivid spots, look for an overarching question to be answered or thought to be investigated—that’s what will unite your material and make your work a cohesive one.

If you define this theme too broadly, you’ll probably find yourself continuing to struggle with all questions down to the last step of the ladder; define it too narrowly, and you’ll have to keep climbing back up to revise it to fit the breadth of your chief story lines.

For example, defining your theme as “rock and roll” is simply too broad. Are you focusing on the music itself? The ugly underbelly of life backstage? Fandom and drug use? If you define it as “how love found at a rock concert doesn’t last over the years because it’s founded on a specific cultural setting and may not be able to transcend that setting and progress on its own,” that may be too narrow, inapplicable to all except one of your plot lines. Let’s say the theme of this book is “how rock and roll can be a venue for expression and therefore connection for many who don’t find those factors elsewhere.”

  1. Ask How the Theme Applies to Each Major Character

Asking this is particularly helpful when you have an idea of who various characters are but find yourself flummoxed when you try to straighten out their details, psyches, and arcs. Let’s take a look:

For William,* writing about rock and roll allows him to connect with a band and with the groupies “band aids.” Among others who seem to appreciate the music as much as he does, he feels he has found his people.

For Penny, rock and roll is a setting in which she can express a reinvented version of herself, a character with no past. Within the rootless and free feeling of rock, she connects with others who want to view her in the way that she wants to view herself.

For Russell, rock and roll is a dream come true that encourages him to express both his grown-up, musical-genius side and his gimme-gimme-gimme little-kid side. He connects to William largely through one side and Penny largely through the other.

* These characters come courtesy of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous.

  1. Map Each Character’s Arc

Once you’ve figured out how your main theme touches the lives of all your major players, it’s easier to determine the primary pieces of each character’s journey. For instance, how does story-making conflict—and eventual resolution—play into William’s use of rock and roll for expression and connection? He admires Russell, but he also has a growing connection to Penny, whom he views as the only other person who may love rock as much as he does. Russell’s irresponsible treatment of Penny forces William not only to choose sides but also to examine whether rock and roll is going in an ugly direction.

  1. Identify Subthemes and Subplots

These often come up in simply going through the first three steps. That whole thing about whether rock and roll is headed south? It makes for a natural, powerful subtheme in this story.

  1. Plot

You have your main theme and subthemes. Your characters’ connection to theme, around which you can fill in any missing character details. You have your character arcs. Now it’s a matter of delineating how, step by step, they walk down those paths, creating as many intersections and overlaps as you can while keeping each journey clear.

  1. Determine Your POV and Other Elements of Style

In most cases, style can safely come last in your process of mapping major elements. If you’re writing a whodunit that hinges on the narrator’s identity remaining secret or your sights are set on a post-modern shake-up of reader expectations, then POV and overall stylistic technique will be among your chief concerns. In most cases, though, having the other pieces already firmly in place will help make it clear what POV/s will work best for your story and how it should be told.

No matter what stage you’re at in writing—from character development to polishing a finished draft—an experienced literary editor can help you make your book its very best.


Hannah has content editing, copyediting, and proofreading experience she will put to use for you.

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