Outlining Your Novel: Character Arcs

I’m a big proponent of outlining books before writing them. I think it can cut serious amounts of time out of the drafting process—months, in most cases! Most people agree they’ll try anything to cut time out of drafting, but most who are new to outlining often don’t really know where to start. Or they see in their mind a kind of top-down outline that moves through the book in a chronological order.

In my experience, true outlining has very little to do with chronological order. In fact, that’s something I do at the very end of the process. Actually, outlining (at least, the way I outline a project) is about whittling. Taking a big idea and breaking it down in to increasingly smaller chunks.

That’s why I’m starting a series here on outlining.

This week, I’m focusing on the very first step in outlining:

The character arc.

This is arguably the most important part of any book. Even action-driven books.

What is a character arc?

It’s the internal journey your main character goes on in your book. This main character will not be the same person at the end of the book that they are in the beginning. They’ve had a revelation (or several). They’ve seen the world in a new way. They see their role in the world in a new way.

The physical journey they go on—which is the actual plot of the book—facilitates this change. It allows the character arc to take place.

Maybe one of the best examples of a journey that directly facilitates a change occurs in Dickens’s Christmas Carol—Scrooge sees the error of his miserly ways because of his encounters with the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. He’s a different man as the book closes.

But the change occurs because of his physical journey. Nobody changes their mind sitting on the couch and binge-watching Netflix. They change because they have an adventure out in the world.

*Your main character will undergo a fairly radical internal change. This change will be the direct result of the physical journey they go on, which will be the plot of your book.

The first step of outlining, then, is deciding who your main character is. And how they will change. And how that change will take place—what will happen that will allow that change will take place. Don’t worry about order of events. Don’t worry about the finer points of plot. Put this part together in a single sentence. Use Scrooge as an example:

Scrooge sees the error of his miserly ways because of his encounters with he ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future.

That’s it. One sentence. That’s all this step requires.

But it’s also one of the most important steps. In many respects, this is will form the basis or your hook or pitch when you prepare to submit the book.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Don’t worry about hooks or pitches right now. Just write your sentence.

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