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Ten steps to outline your novel: the David Farland approach.

David Farland is a prolific and successful fantasy and sci-fi writer. As a writer who hasn't ever written a complete novel, I was, unsurprisingly tempted to read David's outlining book, 'Million Dollar Outlines'.

I am currently working on a plan of a novel that I half completed , before abandoning the first draft at about 40,000 words. I am pretty sure that my decision to plan only in the form of six pretty sketchy bullet points was the reason that the novel just sort of ground to a disappointing stand-still. Having tried unsuccessfully to outline my way out of the plot hole I put myself in, I have decided to start from scratch.

The book was a compelling read that related genres to audiences and emotions. The primary emotional resonances of a story, Farland argues, are key to its success with specific audiences. He supports his points with evidence from reader surveys and from the preferences of film-goers.

What I had really been looking for was a clear, step by step plan that will lead me towards a brilliant and cohesive story. David Farland gives us that, and here I will outline his ten step approach:

1. Setting

margate, setting
Margate: destruction and rebirth

As a fantasy / sci-fi writer setting for Farland is an imaginative process in itself, and he doesn't specify as to whether the story idea comes first or whether the setting leads him to the story and its themes.

What he does say is that the setting should be closely linked with the ideas in your story.

In my case my story is to be set in and around a particular town in England. So I researched the town and its prominent locations and tried to find ways that they linked to the themes and the key ideas I thought might feature in my story. Ideas of rejuvenation and rebirth came to mind.

2. Characters

Make a list of the main characters that you are going to need. For Farland a main character is anyone we follow through the whole story. I get the impression that Farland is fairly loose at this stage, just defining roles and vague backgrounds and descriptions for his characters.

3. Conflicts

Starting with protagonist and antagonist decide on some key conflicts. Farland tells us that he often uses plot charts for main characters onto which he pencils in possible key conflicts. He seems to be fairly loose at this stage, adding conflicts that come from setting and context along with specific details about characters' problems – misfiring weapons etc.

4. Conflicts for each character

Electric plots come from characters with circuitry.

Every character deserves a few 'juicy' conflicts that give them depth. Farland tells us to pile on the conflicts for individual characters until every character is done. The conflicts should interlink and cross and link the characters into a web of 'circuitry', where each character's goals become dependent upon a number of other characters.

5. Attempts to resolve conflicts

Farland writes about stages of resolution that link with Todorov - ie recogntion, attempts, resolutions. We need to think for each of our characters how they recognise their challenges, how they make failed attempts to resolve their conflicts, then finally how the character confronts and successfully resolves the conflicts.

6. Produce a plot chart

Buy a huge piece of card – 2 feet by 3 feet! I guess (hope, wonder) you could do this on a computer program – Excel maybe? You should start with your protagonist's main plot-line and this should be plotted strongly. Onto this we add the hero's romantic, internal, maturation plots etc. Farland talks about story shapes emerging in 3D and I think that's a pretty powerful concept.

Once this is done you should add the stories of your other major characters to your plot charts. From this chart you can see when characters' storylines are peaking and troughing. The visual representation should enable you to spot slow sections where no tensions are peaking and to make adjustments to your story accordingly.

7. Scene by scene outline

Look at the plot points on your chart and turn them into a series of scenes or chapters. Each chapter needs to have at least one key change. Farland tells of a writing teacher who wouldn't write chapter that didn't achieve at least three things.

Farland uses colours to show the viewpoint or focus character in each scene. This enables us to ensure that there is a variety of settings and possibly speakers across the plan.

At this stage Farland may add key lines of dialogue and possibly even descriptions of key objects and locations. You will be forced to create a thorough 'game-plan' of evenly developed scenes.

8. Map how emotions flow

By focussing on the emotions of each scene we can ensure that our novel is meeting the emotional needs of the audience of our particular genre.

Hitting the right emotional notes is key.

We can also ensure that there is a good range of emotions across the text. Farland tells us that at key points of the novel we may choose to hammer home the same emotion over a number of scenes, but that a range or 'symphony' of emotions is required to deliver truly satisfying results.

9. Add non-plot details

Essentially, Farland argues that a satisfying story will need what he calls 'non-arc' problems. He gives the examples of unresolved arguments and irritations that characters engage with. This should give the story some 'rough edges' that give it heightened sense of realness that readers will appreciate.

10. Write a final draft of your outline

Remove colours and notes and retell your story in the present tense. Farland tries to write this outline beautifully. Add dialogue, craft your sentences, and build to emotional highs.


Success Balloon
With the right outline, the rest's a breeze! Okay. Perhaps not.

And there you have it a succinct ten step approach. Naturally I totally recommend buying the book if this process appeals to you as Farland gives context and examples throughout the book to help us understand how this stuff fits together, and how the outlines we create can be crafted to target audiences and create success.


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