Chapter Outlines

NaNoWriMo confession time: I have never been a pantser*. I need an outline before I start to write a novel, and although a zeroth draft is a discovery process for me that discovery does not extend to the plot. I need to have an end in mind or things go badly.

The kind of outline I use is tuned to NaNoWriMo itself. I start off with 25 chapter summaries, and aim to put 2000 words into each chapter**. The chapter summaries themselves have evolved over time, but the form I use now is very strongly influenced by my software career: they look like use cases.

A use case captures a particular mode of use of a system and will include the initial conditions, the user inputs, the actions the system takes, the resulting conditions, and any error or alternative flows. A set of use cases will have precursor and successor use cases for each one.

To use a non-software example such as a hammer, you might have a couple of modes: one for putting nails in, and another for taking nails out. The nail insertion use case has initial conditions of the material to be nailed being firmly held, a nail being available, and the hammer being in close proximity to the user. User inputs would be siting the nail and grasping the hammer the right way around. System actions would be striking the nail with the hammer repeatedly until the nail was flush with the target surface. Final state would be that the nail is installed in the material, and the joint is solid. I will leave alternative flows and error conditions to your imagination.

I try to build my chapter summaries in a similar way:

  • initial conditions – location, things that are around.
  • characters involved – just the primary characters. Inventing other characters in the writing is allowed, even encouraged.
  • plot points that need to be hit – questions that need to be asked or answered, character interactions that should happen.
  • end point – the target I am trying to hit with the chapter: where the characters need to be, what they know now, and so on.

The point of this is that, like use cases, you can string these chapters and scenes together. As long as you connect the beginning and ending conditions, you could reorder the scenes. It’s not quite to the rigour of contract-based programming, but it sets the stage for the action to happen in a way that pulls the reader through the story.

Do you have a preferred outline style? Are you a pantser instead?

[*] I have written pantsed fiction, but I have never pantsed to a NaNoWriMo victory.

[**] although more than 2k is common.

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