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Outlining your novel: Boon or Bane?

Outlining your novel: Boon or Bane?

The answer to the question posed in the title is a qualified “Yes”.  There is no universally applicable answer to that question.  It can be either, neither, or both.

Strict Explicit Style

Some authors are very assiduous with their outlining; detailing the characteristics of every actor—following every thread of the plot to its logical conclusion—tracking plot-thread collisions so intensively that, by the time they’ve finished, the outline is the complete novel.

Relaxed Developmental Style

Others prefer to have a “Beginning, Middle, and End” in mind, and perhaps some notions about how events are connected.  This primitive model gives them a lot of latitude to explore ideas, but little in the way of milestones and a timetable.

You might think that those two scenarios represent opposite ends of the spectrum…but you would be wrong.  The relaxed scenario is actually closer to the average technique.

Diametrically Opposed

When discussing science fiction it’s wise to refer to the genre’s greats when looking for wisdom on the subject.  Many of the best science fiction authors are/were real scientists, such as Isaac Asimov, a noteworthy biochemist, who brought real science to science fiction.

Asimov had been making a successful career out of writing SF for several years before he obtained his Ph.D. in biochemistry.  So much so that he was afraid he had lost the ability to write badly enough to create a dissertation and subsequently gain a Ph.D.

He set out to practice by writing a pseudo-dissertation called The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline, which you can enjoy at that link.  It reads just like a genuine Scientific Paper, complete with diagrams and fake references until you realise that everything about it is impossible.  In the ensuing years, people not recognising it as fiction have been plaguing librarians for the references he used in order to learn more.

Do Outlines Organise or Bind?

Apparently he had the required skills because he did indeed obtain his Ph.D. a few months later.  However, he started questioning his writing technique when he learned about outlining.  The last piece of fiction he’d written was 70,000 words long and he had just sat himself down at the typewriter and composed it without any preparation (aside from his extensive reading and prodigious memory).

He decided to try writing an outline for his next work.  He was very disappointed with the results.  He found that the outline forced him to ignore interesting little scientific side trips that occurred to him.

More importantly, his characters wouldn’t obey him!  At every turn they seemed to start off in an unexpected direction and he had to mentally pull them back into the plot (as described in the outline).  At the conclusion of the project he resolved to never use an outline again… and he never did.

The Purpose Of Outlines

  • It may keep you focused;
  • It may speed up the writing process;
  • It can help keep your characters consistent;
  • It ties your ideas together; and
  • It provides the timeline for events to transpire.


For technical writing, particularly in academia, it is pretty well taken for granted that one will use an outline; there are even “required” forms that must be used in some instances.

This style is functional writing designed to convey facts, and there is very little creativity involved (or tolerated).  It is stuffy, turgid, dull, and boring because it has a particular form, conveying information in an orderly fashion, moving logically from point to point.

P. G. Wodehouse, one of the greatest humorists of the 20th century, spent more time on his outlines than he did on the actual book.  No one argues with his success using this method.


Some people use GPS navigation to go and visit a neighbour; others will drive great distances to a friend’s Schloß without once referring to any sort of navigational aid.  In the same way, some writers require a detailed roadmap to move from chapter to chapter, while others have an idea of where they’re headed, but are not particular about the route they take to get there.  If you find yourself going too far afield, try an outline—it might help you stay on track.

Not Required or Desired

Gestalt or Synergism-based writing, on the other hand, will struggle in the chains of an outline.  Even though he forswore outlines, Asimov has this advice to offer:

If you are a structured and rigid person who likes everything under control, you will be uneasy without an outline.  On the other hand, if you are an undisciplined person with a tendency to wander all over the landscape, you will be better off with an outline, even if you feel you wouldn’t like one.

On the third hand, if you are quick-thinking and ingenious, but with a strong sense of the whole, you will be better off without an outline.

How do you decide which you are?  Well, try an outline, or try writing without one, and find out for yourself—Isaac Asimov—Revisions

The Takeaway

The best advice for writing Science Fiction is to stop looking for rules to follow.  Anyone that provides hard-and-fast rules is not working in your best interest.

Instead, seek out guidelines and “alternate theories” that you can test.  See if they work in your situation, and if they don’t, feel free to toss them aside and try something else.

We’re all individuals and what works for me might not work for you, or for anyone else.  Share your strategies, and try out something new, even if it feels a bit weird.  Eventually you will find something that works for you.

Remember: The Meek shall inherit the Earth.  The Rest of us are going to the Stars

How to beautifully kill your characters in your novel

How to beautifully kill your characters in your novel

Killing your characters is one of the most difficult and heartbreaking tasks when writing a novel, and quite frankly one of the strongest rhetorical devices to fuel your story. As contentious as this may sound at first, as frequently this is utilized. In writing, killing is common practice, and you almost always legally get away with it. Think about it for a minute. How many fictional books have you read lately, where no one ever died? Most probably none. The worst thing that could happen? Your readers might hate you for killing their favorite guy or gal.

Death, particularly murder, makes up for one of the major genres of writing, the murder mystery. But also in every other genre, the passing of a beloved character adds a tragic turning point and thrilling emotions to a story. That’s why they say ‘kill your characters’ to make a compelling tale. To a certain extent, that is of course. When killing characters, you need to choose wisely! If you kill your main character, your story might just end prematurely. If you kill someone completely insignificant, their death might have no impact on the reader at all. It is best practice to sacrifice characters to whom the reader has come sufficiently attached during events, but who are not entirely crucial to the outcome of the story.

Killing With Style

Nobody wants to just read ‘he died’, when a character drops dead. In fact, if you are a little creative you don’t even have to use the words death or dying at all, to make clear what just happened. If you remember to incorporate all your senses, there will be many more wonderful words to make your readers cry. Here are a few poetic and classic examples of how to let one of your characters die, each one of them providing their very own progress to the story, beautifully implying the aftermath.

“I love you,” he said. John knew there were still so many things left unsaid, but he had to make peace. He squeezed her hand one more time, then everything went black.

“Look out,” John cried, but it was too late. Slowly Sarah’s body fell, her eyes already closed.

Suddenly a shot echoed through the cold night. Sarah froze. Her chest felt hot. A sudden warmth ran down her body, and she looked at her hands in disbelief. So much blood—but she felt no pain. As her body collapsed, she was at peace.

Always remember: Death is only the end if you forget. Of course, you shouldn’t forget about your deceased characters, and instead emphasize the aftermath of their death. How will your other characters react? How will the situation affect their emotions, their future decisions, how will it change their plans? Deaths of beloved characters provide a great opportunity to introduce a major turning point and induce emotional growth.

Furthermore, in fiction, especially fantasy or science fiction, you will have the opportunity to e.g. bring back the dead, using magic, advanced machinery or you could think about communicating with them. This is particularly helpful when you had to kill a character who you or your readers might have grown especially attached to. If you want to keep it real, think about making them appear in a dream, have the bereaved talk to them at the site of burial, and remember them through the thoughts of your other characters, read from their diary, find old letters, etc. They can still be there, even though they are not.

Things to avoid

Deaths should be meaningful. Don’t annoy your audience by just killing someone to prove a point or to just shock them, unless this is what you intend to do. Say you need to establish a villain as being so bad that he just kills for fun, then you’re probably fine.

Avoid sudden deaths, that don’t make sense. Your average Mr. Play-It-Safe won’t probably run in front of a bus unless your story’s intentionally ironic.

Avoid deaths that don’t add to character development or don’t drive your plot forward.

More to read



Welcome to the Novel Writer’s Network, your inspirational resource for creative writing. This site is currently under construction and will soon feature useful information on topics like how to write a novel, writing with style, building characters & fictional worlds, and publishing your work. We will be very happy to welcome a couple of renowned guest authors, and talk about our on experience on the matter.

Remember: Writing is fun! And National Novel Writing Month is just around the corner, so why not start with your new project today? Get those words going!