Friday, January 7

Outlining the First Draft

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Sam had a great question yesterday...

When you outline for the first draft do you outline in terms of Scene and Sequel or do think about that after the first draft is written? 

Scene and sequel, totally. More scene than sequel though. Structure is my most useful tool in my writer's toolbox. (POV is second) It allows me to focus on what drives a story and keeps me from wandering aimlessly off. I'll tweak that after the first draft of course, and tighten the book up, but I plan my novels by what happens.

For those who don't know, scene and sequel are the building blocks of any story. (learn more about this in depth here) A scene is basically the section of the story in which your protag is trying to achieve a goal. When that goal is resolved (good or bad) then they have a sequel. They react, think about what just happened, and decide on what to do next, which sets up the next scene goal.



I totally use this structure when I outline, because outlines (for me) are all about plot. The outline is what happens in the novel. They stuff the characters do. I'll toss in the character growth as well if I know it, because motivation is what determines the goals, but my outlines focus mostly on the external actions.

I dug around and found my original outline for The Shifter. I'll show the first three chapters here so you can see what I did and how this led me to write the actual chapters. It might be interesting to see how little I actually did before I wrote the book.

CHAPTER ONE
Opening Scene:  Nya is stealing eggs, nearly gets caught and uses her talent to get away. She’s seen by two League wards. She goes to her sister to get rid of the pain and, while leaving, is spotted by the wards. An Elder is there and insists she come speak to him.

You'll notice how little "story" there is in this. These are exactly the events that transpire in the final book. It took me around 4000 words to show all this, but these are the plot events. From a scene and sequel standpoint, it breaks down like this:

Scene: Nya is stealing eggs and gets caught. Her goal is to find something to eat. Uses her talent to get away is the sequel/new goal. I don't spell out the actual sequel part here, but after she's caught, she reacts, thinks about what to do and then does it (uses her talent). That leads to a new problem (she's seen by the wards) which she solves, but I don't have that in the outline. Next big goal is to get rid of the pain, which is the new scene and new goal. When she leaves her sister (there's a goal there but I don't state it because at this point I didn't know why) she runs into her next problem. She's spotted by the wards. The stakes go up because now an Elder is involved.

All of this is about what Nya does. The why isn't even mentioned yet, but I was thinking about all that as I wrote the actual novel. That's when those things developed for me.

CHAPTER TWO
She talks to him, lies about who she is. He tries to touch her and she flinches away. He tries to grab her, does, is surprised, and she manages to escape. She runs into the crowd but he doesn’t chase her. She’s scared, but hungry, and goes to find work. She doesn’t and goes home. But she missed paying her rent and she’s been thrown out. She doesn't know what to do next, but then sees someone following her.

Again, event for event, almost exactly how the final chapter plays out. (Aylin is introduced in the final, but she doesn't show up in the outline) It's about what Nya does. I figured out why she did it and sometimes even the results of those actions in the actual text.

CHAPTER THREE
She evades the follower, but now she has nowhere to go. She spends the night somewhere. Next morning, she’s determined to get work so she can eat and get back a room. Some accident happens (ferry sinks? Something world related) and a lot of aristocrats are hurt. Big run on the League. Nya helps a few and heals some. She meets Tali that evening. Tali is scared, there are rumors flying around the League and people are asking questions. More that something weird is going on. More apprentices are gone, right after the big healing of the aristocrats. Nya tells her about being followed. After Tali leaves, Nya gets grabbed.

This is where things start to vary from the final book. But overall, it's the same basic events. I decided on the fly that Nya just evading the follower and going to bed was boring, so I moved up her meeting with Tali to before the accident. That way, I could lay some groundwork that something was going on a lot sooner. You'll also notice that the big major event that is kinda the lynch pin of the whole book isn't even fleshed out yet. "Some accident happens." Until I got to that part of the book, I had no clue what that was going to be. I also had no idea who was following her or why. That all came later. But I knew somebody was going to be after her because of what she did and who saw her do it.  

My outlines are, obviously, very open-ended, but you'll also see there's enough structure to let me know the types of events I want to have happen. Actions, stakes that cause problems, trouble that changes plans. I know what Nya is doing and that will lead her to the important plot events. I have no clue how she might do that or even why she needs to at this stage.

I used to do a very strict outline. I manged to find one of them for a book I trunked.

CHAPTER ONE - RUNNING
Scene 1: Intro Nadine and show her problem. She doesn’t want to go to Tellus. Outline her reasons and her relationship with her mother. Show what her final growth will be by what she’s afraid of not being able to do.
POV: Nadine
Goal: To convince her mom not to go.
Internal Conflict: Her mother has decided that they need to start over on a new world to escape painful memories. Nadine thinks Mom is just dragging her away from the only place she’s ever been happy. She wants to stay where she can be reminded of him, and remember him. She’s afraid that moving to Tellus will make her forget him.
External Complication: They have a fight, but they never finish it because the protest gets violent, proving her mom’s point.
Climax: The protesters get violent and say they’re going to blow up the ship. Nadine gets hurt.

As you can see, this is very different. And for me, a total failure. It was too structured, and required me to do too much thinking on the front end. It really stiffed my creativity because I tried too hard to make the book fit what I wrote in the outline, and I'm not that kind of writer.

I used to do an even more structured outline, and actually had the sequel info. I wish I still had an outline for that, but those were trashed long ago. I'll fake it though.

CHAPTER ONE - RUNNING
Scene 1: Intro Nadine and show her problem. She doesn’t want to go to Tellus. Outline her reasons and her relationship with her mother. Show what her final growth will be by what she’s afraid of not being able to do.
POV: Nadine
Goal: To convince her mom not to go.
Internal Conflict: Her mother has decided that they need to start over on a new world to escape painful memories. Nadine thinks Mom is just dragging her away from the only place she’s ever been happy. She wants to stay where she can be reminded of him, and remember him. She’s afraid that moving to Tellus will make her forget him.
External Complication: They have a fight, but they never finish it because the protest gets violent, proving her mom’s point.
Climax: The protesters get violent and say they’re going to blow up the ship. Nadine gets hurt.
Sequel: Reaction: Fear and pain.
Thought: Is scared she might die, even madder at her mom.
Decision: To run away
New Goal: Nadine plans to get off the ship before it launches. 

This made me crazy, but it did teach me a lot about how a novel flows. It really made me think about how one scene transitions into the next and what worked as a good goal and what was just fluff goals. I remember writing stuff just because I needed a goal for my outline, and then making that happen even though it was a terrible idea. And a boring one. However, if you like a tight outline, this might be the exact template to keep you focused and your plot moving. Or you might be like me and keep trimming out the stuff that stifles you until you find the right level of info to keep your story tight and moving.

Outlines have a reputation for being stringent (like my last example), but they're just a way for you to organize your thoughts. There's no right way to do it. My current method is pretty loose, but still a very effective way for me to write a book. You can have structure, and still maintain spontaneity and the freedom to do whatever you want.

16 comments:

  1. Can I just say that I love your posts? I'm a fan. I outline, a more loose outline, so there is still freedom when I write. I structure it so I know all the necessary elements are there. During my revision I do all the goal, conflict, turning point and stuff like that. Thanks for taking the time to post such great info!

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  2. Great post! Your past three updates alone have been very pertinent to my life. I just finished one book and am in the throes of starting to outline my second. Thanks so much!

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  3. Fantastic post. I have a feeling I'm doing it more like your first sample. I kind of have a general idea of where it's going but leave it open-ended. Often it'll change when it gets down to the actual writing and sometimes I have to outline a few chapters, then write them to see where it's going and then do more outlining of the next few chapters or edit my outline as I go. I learn so much from you!

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  4. Great post (yesterday's too BTW). I could definitely see what you mean from your example of The Shifter, which I recently re-read. And this is so helpful as I'm trying to develop a new project.

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  5. I just discovered your blog (via Cynsations) and it's great to see someone else sharing detailed, professional writing tips!

    I think writing usable outlines is its own skill. For my first published book (a middle grade Mayan adventure called The Well of Sacrifice), I started with a loose outline, but by the time I finished the book, the "opening scene" had become the climax.

    For my most recent work in progress, more than a decade later, I started with a detailed, 15-page outline. I used that to analyze the plot/subplot/character arcs before I started writing. Things did change during the writing, but I kept very closely to that original outline.

    No technique works for everyone, or even for one person throughout their career!

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  6. Let me see if I understood what you were trying to get at in this post Janice.

    That no one method will work for everyone.

    But when outlining, focus more on what the POV character does, and then let the why come out as your write the draft.

    So when I outline, I should focus more on plotting really strong conflict in the scenes that drive the stakes higher as the narrative moves forward. Then from this conflict, if it's strong external conflict, natural, and more logical disasters will be caused, which will lead to better sequels where I can explore more of the motivation of the POV character ( I can do this mostly when I’m writing the first draft) and the making of decisions which will lead to stronger goals that will resonate with the reader more.

    Tell where I’m getting it wrong.

    Oh, and great post.

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  7. I am such a fly-by-the-seat-of-my pants writer. I'm trying to understand the technique and value of outlining to see if it'll make things easier. Your posts are great and it's so generous of you to share your professional knowledge. Thanks so much for caring and supporting your fellow writers :-)

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  8. Laura: Aw, thanks! I wrote Shifter 3 a lot like how you describe. Looser for me than normal, but that's just how this one went.

    Lindz: Most welcome. I'm glad they're helping out at the right time. Love when that happens.

    Angie: I update my outlines the whole time I'm working on a book. Stuff changes all the time and I have to rework what I thought was going to happen. Outlines for me are great brainstorming worksheets.

    Natalie: Thanks! I'm glad I still had that old outline. They usually get updated, but that one survived.

    Chris: Welcome to the blog! And thanks. Wow, your opening became the climax? That's a huge change. But it does show you never know how a story will go. And you're right. Our process changes and it's always good to try new things and grow as writers.

    Sam: You got it right. But not everyone will outline this way. *I* think using plot actions is the most effective way, but someone else might prefer the character growth and then figure out how to make that happen as they write. Kinda the opposite of this. But it's not uncommon for novels (especially first novels) to run into trouble with what happens next, and this is a great way to deal with that.

    June: You're welcome! It's hard to try to offer advice to the pansters out there since I'm an outliner, but I do try. I hope that you guys can take something away from it :)

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  9. Janice-

    I am fairly new to your blog, (about four months in). I’ve read almost 80 of your posts and both of your books. I was so inspired by your posts that I decided to finally start the novel I’ve been “plotting” for so long. Here’s the problem. My protagonist was kidnapped as a child and I wanted the first chapter to be about that. He was a baby then so will not be speaking and won’t have much of a personality. The cast in the kidnapping scene will be saying and doing stuff that will be significant to the rest of the story. I need these things done and said early because in the next chapter my Protag is 15 years old. Can I start a book this way, and if not, how/where can I place this important scene in the book?

    Note: I asked this because everyone who writes about writing says to introduce your protagonist right away. Well, in my story, I’m sort of introducing you to his circumstances first.

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  10. Norman: Welcome! And grats on starting that novel ;) That's awesome. I'm going to answer this question as a post, because I think it's a good one and has larger themes to talk about. So look for this on Monday!

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  11. This is really strange. The outline structures I've tried mirror yours almost exactly. I finally settled on short scene summaries as you did and then break them into chapters as I write. This seems to work well enough although I'm still thinking there must be some more structure one can use to make sure each scene contains all the proper elements and either develops the character or moves the plot along.

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  12. That's cool. Hopefully that will mean a lot of ,y tips and tricks will really well for you if we have similar processes.

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  13. Janice, I recently found your blog and have been reading it for hours at a time. I'm learning so much, you're amazing! I notice that this blog is from Jan 2011 and now it is June 2015 so you have been doing this for a while. It is very gracious of you to share your knowledge with us. Thank you so much!

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    1. Welcome! Glad you're enjoying it. I thin I started it in 2009 actually, but I got rid of a lot of old posts after it shifted to pure writing advice. Ad I do recycle and update, since so much of the advice still works even if it's older. :)

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  14. Janice, I always come back to your blog when I get stuck in my novel. Your articles give me just the clarity I need to re-focus. Thank you!

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