Sitting down to write an outline for a novel will throw a lot of writers into a cold sweat. It's simply not something most of us enjoy doing. If you delight in outlining a novel, then (at least to me) you are a rather odd and perhaps rare creature. I like to write by the seat of my pants, but I also know that if I don't have a solid grip on my characters and my plot, I'll end up stranded in Timbuktu.
There are a few basic plot points you can focus on, however, that will make the outline more manageable and keep it exactly what it is intended to be: an outline. The outline is not intended to tell every last detail of your book, or even to introduce every character that will appear in the pages of your novel. As you write, things will change about the story, characters' motivations and personalities might change, new people will walk on stage that you weren't expecting at all and these surprise characters could throw your story into chaos. You might, 200 pages into the book, have an epiphany and see that your story needs to take an entirely new direction. Or maybe it's half written and suddenly comes to a dead stop. You don't know where you're going and, furthermore, you discover that your main character is boring. Something's wrong but you can't put a finger on it. There's a lethargy about it all. It's simply not working.
When these things have happened to me (and they have, numerous times), I've found that I need to go back to the beginning and re-explore my characters. I also need to have a serious exploration of the eight basic plot points. The first point to keep in mind even before you do anything else, is to determine an underlying theme that will drive the characters and the plot:
THEME: Theme is the generalized meaning of a literary work. The theme can be something profound and written so subtly that the reader may not know the writer's point until the end of the book. In modern, mass-market fiction, however, the unifying point of the book can be something quite simple, like good always prevails over evil. Other theme examples might be: the passing of an era or a way of life, the sacrifices of conquering a new frontier, showing that perseverance in the face of adversity can help one achieve his goals.*
The theme is the unifying idea that binds the story together throughout the book from beginning to end. Without this, the plot would wander.*
In my most recent novel, The Last Rodeo, the thread that ran through the entire book was how the main character's decision to retire from the rodeo affected not only his own life and future, but the lives and futures of his entire family as well as the woman he loved and her estranged husband. His decision had far-reaching effects that soon became clear to him, making him question the decision. So this was the theme: your decisions affect everyone around you.
A unifying thread that ran through the book was the highway that had been such a big part of his life as a rodeo cowboy was also a symbol of life's journey. It's a common theme, or thread, and while I didn't start out with this in mind, it became the thread that ran through the lives of all the characters.
Next week: Look for some thoughts on CHARACTERIZATION
COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL: *The two paragraphs on theme came from my article: "The Outline: Your Blueprint for a Structurally Sound Plot" originally published in March-April 1992 Romance Writers Report.