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So you have a premise for a thriller and you want to turn it into a novel, your first. Great.  Typically, the first question aspiring novelists ask themselves is “How?” For some, the answer is to sit down and begin writing the novel; those writers are often called ‘pantsers’, since they write organically, from the seat of their pants.

However, many other writers will instead develop an outline that guides them through draft completion. They will refer to the outline frequently, as they flesh out scenes and determine the best ways for their main characters to act within them. Which is the right method for you? Let’s look at the pros and cons of outlining your novel. 

But before we do, we should probably talk a bit about what outlining is before we actually talk about how to go about outlining your thriller.



Outlining: a Definition

When it comes to writing, outlining is typically defined as “the process of setting out the main events of your book and working out the plot from beginning to end.” There is no set method to outlining a novel. Some people jot down key points on a piece of paper or a notebook; others draw a linear map out on a dry erase board to depict their novel’s main points. There is also a great deal of software out there to help writers outline their novels or screenplays as well.

While methods may very, most outlines contain a few common threads. Writers who use outlines will typically include some sort of sequential summary or progression of the critical scenes in the novel. They may highlight where and what the key literary devices they will be using within the plot are, such as the plot points, pinch points, climax, and resolution. Many proponents of outlining will also include character development summaries in their outline, even going as far as printing pictures of people that remind them of the way they envision their main characters.


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Benefits of Outlining

So why should you consider outlining, especially if you’ve never tried to write something as large and complex as a novel? Here are a few good reasons.

Stay on Track

Many writers claim that an outline helps keep them from straying too far from their novel’s original premise, and on a reasonable timeline to complete their story. When writing out scenes, novelists can refer to the way the plot is depicted in the original outline; the scene summary on the outline can help signal the writer that he or she is drifting too far afield, and help guide them back to writing the scene in a manner that helps advance the plot. Also, if a writer gets “stuck” at a particular scene, having the outline enables them to skip over it, and work on something else in the novel they are more prepared to write. This can help keep the writer from bogging down and falling behind on any deadlines.

View Your Novel in Time

Many writers outline their plot sequentially, since it helps them write and then connect their scenes together.  Doing so also can provide additional benefits as well. For example, if the writer already knows what is going to happen several scenes ahead due to the outline, the writer can employ literary tools, such as foreshadowing, to heighten readers’ interest in the plot and increase their anticipation of what comes next.

Fix Problems and Add New Material

When you have your thriller’s plot meticulously mapped out in an outline, it can be much easier to fix problems. For example, if a writer get stuck writing a scene in a novel’s third act, and realizes something must happen for your protagonist to act in a certain way, that writer can refer back to the outline; the outline can help determine where the writer has the space and opportunity to revise a scene to help advance the plot. When viewing your plot holistically, an outline can also help you determine where you can add new material as well.

Outlining: The Cons

So there are some terrific reasons writers should consider outlining their novel. So why should you consider skipping the outline, and just start writing your novel outright? Here are some reasons.

You’re a Pantser

There are some writers who simply cannot develop an outline and/or work from it effectively. They find the process of outlining difficult and the idea of working from a developed outline too constraining. They need the freedom to move the story in any way they see fit.  Creativity is, after all, a mysterious thing, right? As you become more comfortable as a writer, you may find that an outline provides you no benefits, and may simply be better off typing word after word organically.

Sometimes Tangents Pay Off

An outline can help writers stay on track and avoid falling down rabbit holes far astray from their original premise. But sometimes that’s a bad thing that limits creativity and opportunities. Sometimes, in writing a scene that goes a bit too far afield from the original story concept, you may observe something critical about a character, or get an idea that you can employ effectively elsewhere in the novel. If you were adhering rigidly to an outline, you may have missed opportunities like these.

Limiting Possibilities

If you decide how your thriller is going to end, even before you’ve written the first word down on a piece of paper, you may be throwing away countless opportunities. While nothing says you have to adhere to everything that you’ve written on your outline, the fact that you decided upon something and put it in your outline may stop you from considering other possibilities. Writing organically may help you take the narrative, plot, and characters in ways that you never would have if you were using an outline to guide your writing every step of the way.

Conclusion: Try it, you Might Like it!

The debate between those who outline and those who do not has been going on for some time, with no end in sight. If you are preparing to write your first novel, you should definitely consider trying to use an outline. It may help you focus your creativity and bring your novel to life. Or you may discover you’re a pantser, after all. You’ll never know unless you try though, so give it a shot!

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