A truth: the planning of the story continues until the last galley is ripped from your hands and the printer won’t take any more calls from the publisher, the editor, or you. It continues to the very, very end.
A hard truth: writing a book is work. In many respects, it is like building a home or raising a child, efforts of love and patience that are hard enough in their own right but almost always impossible without a blueprint or the example of some devoted predecessors to show you the way. The goal is to write a novel or a story, not to type a lot of pages and bind them.
The lesson: plan your novel before you write it.
There are, of course, no more fixed rules for composing the blueprint of an unwritten novel than there are for the novel itself. Like the book it hopes to become, it may take any number of forms—long or short—plain or complex. So, if the question is “What does a fiction outline look like?” The answer must begin with “your story.”
Compare the methods of two authors of extremely well-regarded and complex novels. Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi, writes very detailed notes for each chapter. His chapter notes become chapter outlines. He composes the notes for each of his primary story lines, events, and conflicts, and then continues them until he has completed his collection of chapters that layout the story.
By comparison, Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient, is reputed to write spontaneously, by his inspiration and intellect. This sounds easy, but for most of us that approach would be like doodling on a scratch pad and hoping to produce a Picasso.
Unfortunately, many authors I know, and many whose books I have reviewed, profess to the method of “doing their research, then just writing the book.” They often say they do not know what the characters they are writing are going to do until they do them. The difficulty, and it is a real one, is that instinctual composition is inherently satisfying and, thus, becomes its own end. The product, the written chapter or paragraph in progress, tends to go its own way and take its characters into unplanned backstories, diversions, and details. Those, in turn, more often than not, fail to complement the primary story or, worse, lead away from it by dropping in events or traits that do not flesh that story out. For example, in a novel that opens with the news that the remains have been found of an uncle who was killed in combat, lengthy details about getting the telephone call or telegram, about the box in the attic that no one ever opened, about the event of finding the remains, all have the capacity to obscure the story of how the uncle was killed and what, five or ten or seventy years later, it means. The key here is to know what the story is and to write to it, not write the permutations that detract from it. Few of us have the intellectual and inspirational skills of Michael Ondaatje. I readily confess that I do not.
So, how to plan for your story? Answer: outline your story, but begin at the end of the story. Work backward to the beginning.