We talk a lot about revising our prose, but what about revising our outlines? Refining your story ideas and general plot breakdown in the outline stage can get a lot of the "first ideas" down on paper and leave you fresh to be more creative--and original--during the actual first draft.
After you've finished your outline, try reading through it and adding any ideas that pop into your head. Snippets of dialog, a great way to end a scene, an important tidbit that would be perfect for that chapter. Let your mind wander and whatever hits you, write it down. Go ahead and brainstorm on paper.
Once you're happy with your general story, check to see if the narrative is flowing. Some details you won't have yet (and that's okay) but look for the underlying structure of the novel. Ask yourself:
Is my protagonist moving toward something?
If you have a lot of "stuff" happening to your protagonist, and not a lot of them doing anything, it could signal a reactive plot brewing. It might be a good idea to do a goal check and see what's driving your character to act.
Is my protagonist feeling too much?
If your summaries or outlines are focusing more on the emotions, you might be short on external goals.What external events are bringing about these internal changes?
Is my protagonist debating too much?
If you have a large section of the protagonist figuring out information or debating things, this could indicate not enough plot events.You might look for ways to get your protagonist moving and trying to accomplish things, while struggling with inner turmoil or figuring out a puzzle.
What are your character motivations?
If you have no solid motivating factor for your protagonist, that could indicate a two-dimensional character who'll only act out the plot but not really care. And that means no stakes, so readers won't care either.You might look for ways to raise the stakes and make the conflicts more personal for your characters.
Are there four or five big plot events to keep the story moving?
You might not know the details yet, but if there aren't enough solid problems occurring, you might find yourself hitting a wall halfway through and not know where the story goes. Figuring out a few of the major plot turning points ahead of time will give you something to write toward and help keep the story moving.
What's the big middle twist?
Trust me, figure this out beforehand, even if you're not 100% sure exactly what will happen. A lot of books stall in the middle because there isn't enough plot to get from the inciting event to the climax. A big twist or event in the middle will give you something to write toward, and then something to recover from.If you do only one thing on this list, do this.
What's the ending?
The ending is the whole point of the book--to solve a particular problem. If you don't know what it is, it could indicate a premise novel without a strong protagonist driving the story. Even if it's vague, figure out what your protagonist needs to do that will "end" the book.
Once you have a pretty solid plot flow, take a peek at some of the smaller layers, like character arcs and when certain information needs to be revealed.
Where do the character arc turning points fall?
Look for the general areas you want your characters to grow, so you can ensure you give them obstacles to cause that growth. If they're a jerk the whole time and suddenly change, readers won't buy it. Make sure you give them enough time and reasons to grow.
Where is the critical information revealed?
Information will be spoon fed to the reader the entire book, but there are usually a handful of shockers or big reveals in every novel. Where do yours fall? Do any fall too close to another major plot point or character arc moment? Perhaps space them out more to help keep the tension high.
What's the pacing feel like?
If you notice a lot of things happening at once, and not a lot going on in other parts of the book, that could indicate a pacing problem. Good pacing goes a long way toward writing a good novel. Look for plot waves, where stakes keeps escalating and there's a good balance between resolving the goals and revealing new information.
When you're through with your outline, it's not a bad idea to share it with a writer buddy. It's not easy to critique an outline, but having someone ask questions and put down their thoughts as they read can be incredibly helpful in spotting bad tracks in logic or areas that are unclear.
Don't underestimate your subconscious when it comes to storytelling, either. I suspect a lot of pantsers have really good subconsciouses (subconscies?), and that's why they can just write without a road map. Stuff is brewing in their minds without them being fully aware of it. Even if you're not a pantser, feeding your subconscious enough treats to work in the background can be quite helpful. All those "Ah, ha!" moments come from there.
Agent Kristin Nelson blogged about an editorial road map, (this one for outliners and this one for pantsers) and this breakdown is a handy tool to go along with that. After that first draft is done, created a road map that covers all the plot points and events, then check it against this list to see how your story is flowing.
Do you outline? If so, do you revise before you start the novel? Do you revise during the process? Do you write the outline and the scrap it, relying on your memory to write the book?
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook.
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.
Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).
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