Got to thinking about outlining and paragraph structure over the weekend. I was helping my college age daughter edit an essay for an advanced English course. Her task was to analyze in a 3-5 page paper the poem “Digging” by Irish poet Seamus Heaney. (Great poem BTW, and I would recommend reading it).
We encountered an issue with her paper that is common for all younger writers and something for which even mature writes need to stay alert.
I am referring to weak outline/structure, or even the failure to do an outline/structure.
Of course for an academic essay it is essential to consider the outline/structure of the paper before you start. But it’s also a step that can benefit novel writers as well.
To show the importance of outlining and structure it’s probably easier to tell you a neat little mantra I use whenever I set to writing and provide a quick example of a good outline.
Or, more bluntly:
SAY what you’re going to say.
SAY what you need to say.
TELL us what you just said.
Seems redundant right? Well, that’s the point. Preachers use it all the time with the old “If it’s worth saying and remembering then say it three times.”
Here, let me give you an example of a short essay with a TITLE, a THESIS, and a BODY paragraph.
First, let’s outline the paper. I will outline the ENTIRE paper, as well as each individual paragraph. Believe me, this makes things a LOT easier in the end.
OUTLINE: Describing Rubeus Hagrid
a. State that I am going to write about Hagrid.
b. State that the goal is to give the reader an understanding of what he looks like.
c. State the original statement again using different words.
a. Answer the first statement above (State that I am going to start describing Hagrid)
b. Start describing Hagrid. How big? Basic looks? How does he speak?
c. Wrap it up by saying again that I have just described Hagrid.
And here’s the actual essay:
Describing Rubeus Hagrid
In this essay I am going to describe Rubeus Hagrid. After you read this you will know who he is and what he looks like and my task of describing Hagrid will be complete.
Better known as just “Hagrid”, Rubeus Hagrid is a character in the Harry Potter books. Hagrid is large because he is a half giant. He has a large fuzzy beard and speaks with a funny accent. Most kids think he is funny but some people think he is scary. This is not really a problem though since he is only a character in a book.
And there you have it. Using a good outline is just about the simplest way to help write a paper that will get a point across.
Using the Wash/Rinse/Repeat outline/structure strategy you can come up with about 3-5 topic points for each paragraph that you can then use to “fill-in-the-blanks” and Voila! You have a paper.
But how does this work when writing a novel you may ask?
That’s the great thing about this method.
It works for complex subjects as well.
Well, it’s kinda the same, and kinda not the same.
Obviously when writing a large story you are not about to make each paragraph iterative like you would in an essay paper.
But... you DO have to stick to a consistent theme, right?
Character, setting, style, plot, subplot, throughline, backstory... all of these require a consistency so that the reader does not get confused.
Using an outline/structure model similar to the one for an essay works just as well for a novel.
Line ‘em up, give ‘em priority, put ‘em in order, and PRESTO CHANGO there you have it! An outline for a novel and a basic structure to guide you all the way through it!
There’s just quite a few more blanks to fill in than with an essay.
Hopefully this helps you out a little so that the next time you have to write an essay you have a good starting point. And, for your next novel, you can get a good head start as well.
Thanks for reading!