There’s no question that Harry Potter is a worldwide commercial success on paper and on film, and an inspiration for thousands of writers around the world. J.K. Rowling’s struggles with publication are often-talked about by writers, but what few really discuss is her outlining technique, and in this blog post, I delve into the method behind her magical madness, and how you can apply it to your own novel.
Novel outlining is one of the most complex and conflicting subjects you can talk about. Should you pants your novel? Should you opt for a hybrid method of pantsing/outlining? The Snowflake method? Every outlining method (or lack of one) has advocates and critics, and one of the more recent methods to emerge is the so-called Rowling Outline, inspired by the 2013 notes/diagrams J.K. Rowling released to the public (the spreadsheet was reportedly first seen back in 2010 before becoming more widespread).
Disclaimer: This is my own interpretation of Rowling’s rough outline, and I don’t claim to know how she actually used this outlining method – it’s my own inspired approach, using Rowling’s spreadsheet as a guide.
Once you understand the diagram, you’ll marvel at its simplicity. This is a snapshot of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, my personal favorite in the series, and one of the more complicated novels out of the seven books. Multiple plot threads interweave between characters, and structuring the novel obviously required a lot of forethought.
The Rowling Outline follows a nicely repeatable format, easy to recreate in a spreadsheet program like Excel, or even on a piece of paper like J.K. herself.
Your Outline will have several columns. The most important will be a Chapter Number, and the Main Plot for that chapter. Those are the two most basic elements for your outline, but the real power of the Rowling Outline lies in its ability to succinctly manage side plots. If you name your chapters ahead of time, this might be another column too – I tend to add chapter titles in my Structural Edit stage.
For Order of the Phoenix, Rowling clearly lists the subplots of the “Prophecy”, the student group Dumbledore’s Army, as well as subtle subplots like Harry’s romantic relationship with Cho Chang. There are even outlying subplots that only feature once or twice in the main story, such as Hagrid and his giant half-brother Grawp, or whatever the Order of the Phoenix is doing out in the world.
Your Outline should feature Subplot columns – a good book will have subplots that are almost invisible to the reader, but have obvious consequences when they introduce themselves to the main plot.
Each row of the Rowling Outline is self-evident – they represent chapters. Each row must list the main plot. Every chapter of your book should have one clearly defined goal, at least one major event, sequence, or revelation that the entire chapter centers around. Depending on chapter length, you might have several of these, and if your chapters are extraordinarily long, you might consider breaking each row into parts – ie, a ‘Chapter 1 Part 1’, ‘Chapter 1 Part 2’, rather than the usual chapter-per-row.
Sometimes your subplot columns will be empty – just look at Order of the Phoenix. Particularly with ‘background subplots’, they might not progress for a while, or have only minor changes – perhaps a single comment from another character, or an overheard conversation.
As with Rowling’s original outline, you might keep track of seasons or temperatures. Sometimes my outlines will track times – it’s important that you don’t lose continuity with day/night cycles, and the ramifications of the natural world on your novel.
What’s your Plan?
If you’re thinking of planning your novel like J.K. herself, now you have the tools to structure your novel outline!
Do you outline your novels at all? Do you have a preferred outlining style? Leave a comment below and discuss!