Sunday, January 23, 2011
Are You In or Out? Crafting Outlines That Work for You
When I first started writing, I tried every outlining and plotting technique that came my way. I was convinced that if I found the perfect template, all my plotting problems would be solved. I was wrong, but all that trial and error did help me discover something important.
An outline that worked for me.
It didn’t solve all my plotting problems, but it did make it a lot easier for me to write my novels. I discovered the essential pieces I needed before I put words down, so I didn’t spend as much time spinning my literary wheels. It gave me enough structure to let my stories develop naturally, but didn’t plan so tightly that my creativity stagnated.
Just like not all feedback is going to work for your story, not all outlines are going to work for your writing style. You might not even be an outliner, but a pantser. To find the outline (or not) that works for you, try looking at how you plan your novels, what you need to start them, and what you need to finish them.
How many important events do you like to have before you start?
These are the critical set pieces of your story, and the turning points that the rest of the novel hinges on. I need seven before I can do much with a novel. The opening scene, the inciting event, the act one climax, the mid-point reversal, the act two climax, the act three climax, and the novel climax. I may not know exactly how those events are going to play out, and they may change as I write, but I need a basic idea of the overall plot to guide me as I develop my story. Do you like to know just the inciting event? Do you have just two or three big moments? Do you like to know every chapter goal? Every scene goal? This can help determine how tight or loose your outline needs to be.
Do you need to know your character arcs?
Sometimes you don’t know what the plot is, but you know a character needs to undergo certain changes between page one and the end. Those changes happen over time, and that time frame could be the framework of your novel. You might know your protagonist needs to be shocked out of her stupor by chapter five, but not know what you’re going to do to her to make that happen. But it gives you a goal to write toward and an outline that works for you.
Do you work off your reveals?
If you’re writing a mystery or thriller, the plot might hinge on when information is revealed. If events need to happen in a certain order, they can guide you through your story. When do clues need to be found? Secrets revealed? Secrets discovered?
Do you have a theme?
Themes are a great unifying structure for outliners and pantser alike. Major thematic elements can guide a story as easily as character goals. What problems best exemplify your theme?
Look at the things you usually know before you write, and then look for the things that stop you writing. Do you often find yourself having to go back and research something? Figure out a major plot point in the same basic area every time? (Like middles bog you down, or that next big moment right after the inciting event) Do you need to work on character arcs before you can move forward? The things that stop you might be things you can add to your outline template. Spend a little more time at the start, and you might not be stopped later.
Putting it all together
You might be the type of writer who needs just one of these, or you might mix and match, knowing a few major plot events, the basic character arc turning point, and the big reveals. You might just know your theme and your protagonist and run with it. Take a little time to think about how you’ve crafted your novels, what roadblocks you hit and when, and create an outline that addresses those sticking points.
A writer’s process is a personal thing. A cookie-cutter template might not work for you, but it doesn’t take a lot of work to create a guide that fits your style and guides you onward.
What's your outline style? What do you need to know before you start a novel?
Originally posted during the Blur Fire blog tour at On Words and Up Words.