Friday, February 5, 2016

Outlining for the Messy Brain -- by Christine

Improvisation 27 (Garden of Love II), 1912, oil on canvas, Wassily Kandinsky 

I envy those writers who call themselves pansters. They sit down at their computer and start typing out their novel, having a general idea of where they want their story to go.

Oh boy do I wish . . .

I have a messy brain, stuffed with ideas for several novels all at once, so if I sit down at my computer without an outline I can guarantee myself several major rewrites.

Last week Rachel talked about Getting to Know Your Story, writing out those all-important character sketches, scene kernels, the faith story, and so on. Character development is huge, and at Novel Renaissance we will be talking in greater depth about Character in September. 

But by this time in the novel’s journey we are here:

The Premise is written (although open for tweaking) ü

Character sketches, scene kernels, faith story are written ü

Now I’m ready to start an outline. ü

There are a lot of excellent outline styles out there, but the method that has worked best for me is a combination of elements.  

1.       I always keep in the back of my mind that a good novel is a CIRCLE.

2.      A good novel has major STORY POINTS (approximately 15 to 20)

3.      A good novel is also a 3-ACT STAGE PLAY.

A bit of a balancing act you might think, but not as difficult as it seems.  

Let’s start first with # 1 YOUR NOVEL IS A CIRCLE

When a story comes a full 360 degrees from start to ending, the reader may not recognize it but they should feel a silent ahhhhhh that the ending is reminiscent of the beginning.

For example, Veiled at Midnight had to start with an important historical event and end after another historical event. I also wanted the ending to feature my hero and heroine in an emotional scene that resonated with chapter one. However, Veiled at Midnight is also the finale to a trilogy, so that book had to close two circles, its own story and that of the entire trilogy.

Christine’s Writing Tip: One of my personal tips is to actually copy sections from my first chapter and play with the writing to create my ending.

If you have read the entire trilogy Twilight of the BritishRaj you may recognize parts of Chapter One Shadowed in Silk in the epilogue for Veiled at Midnight. But instead of seeing India through the eyes of my first heroine Abby who is just arriving in India at the end of 1918, the trilogy ends as seen through the eyes of Dassah, a young Indian woman who is leaving India in 1947.  

September 1947

On the Bombay quay, a kaleidoscope of color and humanity dazzled Dassah’s eyes—Women in saris of mango pink, peacock blue, lime green. Bengali clerks rushed here and there. On the dock, uniformed English soldiers joined the throng on their way back to England. So many people. The teeming press of millions. India, the land of her birth.  

And now # 2 STORY POINT METHOD—to help me close the story circle


I start on a fresh document page with a # 1 and write down my first story point.

Eg. Star crossed lovers Cam and Dassah meet as adults during a train derailment.

·         On the next line I put point #15—how I want this book to end.

Cam and Dassah say goodbye to their loved ones in India as they prepare to leave India by ship, and live somewhere in the world happily ever after.

·         Then I go back up to create point # 2, what has to happen after point # 1 to get my characters on the journey to the last point.

After finding her again after all these years Cam can’t let Dassah go, and seeks her out even though the city has erupted in riots.

·         After I write Step # 2, I jump down to Step # 14. What has to happen right before the last point, in order to make that happen?

Cam rescues Dassah from the area in tumult by hijacking a train.

·         Back and forth I go from beginning to ending until I work my way into the middle of my book with all the story points from # 3 to 13 which would include

From the beginning of the story Cam and Dassah find each other, and we think they will live happily ever after. But due to their mixed race love, she runs away and is lost to Cam in the middle of a country being split in half. Cam in his political role as aide to the British Viceroy of India is torn as he helps the British grant independence to India while also searching for the woman he loves before she dies during the Indian Partition and the birth of Pakistan.

·         This method forces me to work out the kinks in my novel first before I start a more in-depth outline. My middles are not just filler, but each point relies on the point before and paves the way for the point following.


When I’ve got my story points down, I then look to see if they naturally fall into a 3-act play. Because of the story points I find 99% of the time that the novel automatically creates that 3-act structure, but if it’s weak then I go back and work on those story points.


Childhood friends (English) Cam and (Indian) Dassah are reunited and try to find ways to openly be married at a time when mixed race marriages were taboo in British India.


India begins the tumultuous process of gaining independence from Britain, and in so doing the country erupts with violence from various factions. At the same time Dassah’s heart is broken that Cam does not want to openly make her his wife, and she runs away, hiding herself in the war-torn countryside.


After a building climax of violence, rescue, and character arcs, where all characters learn how to overcome their situation with God’s guidance, Cam rescues Dassah physically, but Dassah rescues Cam emotionally. The end of the book has them deciding what God wants them to do as a couple.

Ultimately though, that 3-act structure matches up beautifully and very naturally with my premise. If not, I tweak until it does.  


  1. I could never write a novel, but I love reading the insights that you and Rachel share about how you do it. Even more, I love reading the novels you ladies write.

    1. Funny thing is, I inherited the writing gift from my mother who is born story teller. I learn so much from her when she puts a spin on something from life in her unique Irish way. Plus, while she doesn't have the education that I have, she is very gifted in writing letters to those who need encouragement. She's the card lady in our church, and blesses so many. There are so many beautiful ways the Lord uses the gift of writing, and I know that you have been such a part of Rachel's writing career.


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