Outlining Your Novel: How Death Can Help

Okay, so maybe I took that title just a wee bit far. Then again, as you’ll see, maybe not…

As I’ve been saying, the point of outlining is to break a big task or idea into increasingly smaller chunks. First, we looked at creating a character arc, which gives a writer the big picture of the book. Then, we made the first breaks into smaller chunks by dividing the book into three acts.

Now, we need to begin brainstorming the scenes that will take place in those three acts. Don’t worry about the exact order of events. Just think about which scenes would help make up each one of those three acts.

What makes a good scene?

One way to help come up with dramatic scenes is to think about–yep–death.

There are different kinds of death to help brainstorm:

  1. Death-death. Physical death. Pushing up daisies death. Is your character in physical danger? Is their life on the line? Or are there physical dangers for those the character loves? Physical danger–maybe even being on the run–can help provide for all sorts of dramatic scenes throughout the book.
  2. Professional death. Is your main character’s job on the line? Are they a coach with only one last season during which they could possibly turn a team around? Are they a drunk lawyer with a terrible courtroom record? I also think of professional death as a loss of any kind of title. In my book Playing Hurt, both of my main characters are former small-town athletic superstars. When they are no longer able to play, they lose a big part of themselves. Thinking about or putting your character in a situation in which they could potentially lose their external selves can help add depth–or even eccentricity–to your main character.
  3. Emotional death. Is your main character’s heart on the line? Could they potentially lose someone or something they love? What threatens it?
  4. Psychological death. This one isn’t necessarily negative. This is an internal change. The character changes his view of self or the world. This one goes right back to our original character arc. In fact, if you’re building a book around that character arc, I’d argue this kind of death is actually built in!

You’ll likely find additional or different types of death if you look elsewhere. This is a good place to start. Really, what you want to do is ask yourself what’s at stake? What can your character lose? That can help add drama and drive the plot of your book.

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