Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Choosing What to Put in Your Outline (and Your Plot)

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Part of the Your Writing Questions Answered Series

Q: This feels like a silly question, but I struggle with the...deciding part of outlining? I'm overwhelmed with infinite possibilities, yet each one I come up with doesn't fit what I already have.

For example, I've been trying to come up with a major clue that this character can discover to move him close to solving a mystery, and I'm trying to come up with one that isn't so obvious that it reveals the culprit in the middle of the story, but also fits how the murder actually took place. So maybe I need to add some complexity to this murder so there are more interesting layers to go through. However, if I do that, then I need to rethink or get rid of even more plot elements related to my original version of the murder, or I need to find a way to give the murder more complexity without changing the already existing elements.

It seems like every other writer manages to work through this stuff naturally, but I always end up beating my head against a wall.

A: Trust me, plenty of other writers are beating their heads against the wall, too (chime in guys!). Plotting can be a frustrating process, especially when things aren’t quite fitting together yet.

Processes vary, but I’ve found working from the larger plot points to the smaller goal steps works well when plotting and outlining. For example, decide on the major turning points first, then develop the secondary plot points, then the individual chapter or scene goals. A quick outline might look like this:

Beginning plot point: Protagonist encounters a dead body in the garden.

First plot point: Protagonist discovers a clue that leads her in X direction toward solving the crime.

Second plot point: Protagonist uncovers something that changes what she thought she knew about the case.

Third plot point: Protagonist discovers major clue that will lead to the killer.

End plot point: Protagonist reveals and confronts killer.

(Here's more with six steps to plotting your novel)

This is a very simple outline that creates a basic beginning—middle—ending story arc. You know there will be one event that starts the plot (the inciting event). There will be multiple attempts to resolve the plot (the middle). There will be a final event that resolves the plot (the climax). Once you have a decent idea what these points are, you can flesh out the rest.

The secondary plot points will be the smaller story arcs that get the protagonist from one major turning point to the next. For example, getting from the discovery of the body to the first real clue will have multiple steps and problems to solve. Something about the body will lead to something else, and that will lead to the first major clue (how many steps between first discovery and real clue are at your discretion, but two or three steps is a good number to start with).

The scene goals will be whatever the protagonist has to do in that scene. Resolving that goal leads to the next scene and eventually to the next secondary point.

(Here's more on the ebb and flow of plotting a novel)

It’s easier to fill in the smaller steps once you know the major plot points. It gives you something to plot toward.

And of course…during all this plotting, you might have events that allow the character arc to unfold. So there will be scenes and problems that move the character arc, but not the plot arc. These are elements that can work well when you need to distract the protagonist or have her fail or misunderstand in some way.

A Helpful Way to Plot Bad Guys

A mystery-writer friend of mine likes to plot out the book from the killer’s perspective to help her figure out what clues should go where. Using this model, she plans out how the killer committed the murder, summarizes the crime, and thinks about what he did and what evidence he might have left behind. She’ll write a synopsis of the book from the killer’s perspective.

If you’re not sure what clues to use, trying this trick will give you a much better idea of how the crime was committed and what might be good clues to find.

But remember—your killer doesn’t know what the other characters are going to do so he can’t prepare for those actions. 

(Here's more on plotting from the antagonist's perspective)

For example, say your killer wears a lot of bad cologne. The guy stinks all the time with some musky stuff. Say your protagonist has a keen sense of smell, so she notices the musk at the crime scene. Maybe it’s not clear what the smell is, but it’s something funky. She might even think it’s the body, or something else there. This will eventually lead her to smelling the killer at a critical moment and her realizing who it is. However, you know this as the author, so you decide the killer didn’t put on cologne that day so you can make it harder for the protagonist to solve the crime.

Tempting as this is, it’s more likely to mess up the plot and make it harder for you to tell your story.

There’s no way your killer is going to decide not to do what he’s done every single day since he was fifteen and trying to get Lola Bunnicott’s attention. He’s going to wear that gunk because it’s who he is and it’s part of his daily routine. Not wearing it is contrary to his character. It suggests a level of forethought no one would ever consider in this situation.

Understanding his motives, why he committed the crime, and how he did it will tell you everything you need to know to allow your protagonist to solve the crime. The smarter the killer, the more subtle the clues will be, and the smarter the protagonist has to be to catch him.

Adding Red Herrings to the Plot

Since clues can lead too directly to the killer, my friend also likes to have a few potential suspects who also could have committed the crime. So using our stinky cologne clue, let’s add some weird smells to a few other people. Maybe one guy works at the chicken processing plant and reeks after work. Maybe another gal has a disorder than makes her stink. Now you have three people who smell that could have been at the murder scene.

The next step, is to mix in other clues and red herrings.

Murders are all about motive and opportunity, so all three of your “killers” should have these. Give them personal or professional issues with the victim, no alibis for the time of the murder, place them within walking or driving distance during the window the crime was committed, given them knowledge or access to the murder weapon of type of weapon used. Make it plausible that any one of these three people could have done it.

Now go back and look at your crime scene. Knowing how the crime was committed, and how the red herring suspects know the victim, what clues might be found?

Some will be actual evidence left by the killer, but other things will have nothing to do with the crime. Maybe one of the suspects saw the victim earlier in the day and left something behind. Maybe the other suspect is having an affair with the victim’s secretary and came by for a rendezvous the night before. Look for plausible reasons why evidence connecting the red herring suspects might be found at the murder scene. And remember—the evidence doesn’t have to have been left there that night. Older evidence still works if no one knows when it was dropped.

Now, let your protagonist find the evidence. Whatever is the most obvious clue will be found first, so odds are the suspect with the least to hide will be the most likely suspect to investigate first. This can lead your protagonist on a chase that won’t get them any closer to the actual killer. When that lead fails to pan out, another clue will be investigated.

At some point, the protagonist is bound to make a connection between two pieces of evidence. Often, while in pursuit of one lead, unexpected information is uncovered. For example, say the affair with the secretary leads to the discovery of the real killer having an argument with the victim that night. Someone the protagonist might not have even thought was involved has now been placed at the scene, but it took work to uncover the affair (neither party wanted that to get out) that lead to the discovery of this information. You have a lead for your protagonist to chase that wasn’t easy to get, but it isn’t part of the crime—it just gets her pointed in the right direction.

Based on what you know of the characters and actual crime, you can fill in these details so they fit your story. You might need to adjust a red herring suspect a little to make things work, but that shouldn’t change the story at all.

Now…back to the killer…

You’ll have to decide how he’s going to react when the protagonist starts poking around. Is he the type of guy who’ll be business as usual and hope nothing leads to him? Will he try to befriend the protagonist and involve himself in the investigation? Will he try to get rid of evidence? Will he run? Will he try to frame someone else?

It’s important to know what he’ll do so you can plot accordingly. If you’re making up his reactions to fit what the protagonist is doing (instead of the killer acting in a way that’s true to his character and personality), then you can easily find yourself in trouble and changing things that don’t need to be changed, and feel illogical to the story itself.

It’s also important not to make everything fit together perfectly.

People make mistakes. They assume the wrong things. They act selfishly. While you don’t want to create a dumb antagonist, you also don’t want a killer who murdered in the heat of passion to act like a genius serial killer with a criminology degree.

Some clues will be red herrings. Some assumptions will be wrong. The protagonist’s personal issues will distract or interfere with the investigation, as will the other characters and suspects. Life will intrude and life is messy. This works in your favor as a writer, so use it.

(Here's more on manipulating the reader for better plots) 

And a Bonus Guest Answer...

I asked one of my mystery writer friends how to sneak in clues and here is her advice:
There are several possible ways to drop a clue without giving everything away. The information can be provided by an unreliable source. If the writer can make the source of the information questionable enough, this is fun technique. If it's a physical clue, it sometimes works to let the sleuth uncover it just as something very distracting/threatening occurs so it is logical that both the sleuth and the reader's attention is diverted until later when they can regroup. It's also very helpful if the clue can point in two directions, and there is a strong possibility that it implicates more than one possible suspect. My personal favorite is to have it buried in a bunch of things happening at the same time.  (JH: Thanks, Ann!)

Overall, when in doubt, look to your characters. Determine who they are and what they’d do in that situation. You’re not plotting, you’re talking to a person, gathering intel, and getting a reaction. Let them be who they are, and they’ll tell you everything you need to flesh out your outline and your plot.

Do you have any tips for this writer? How do you develop your plot or outline?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. This is an excellent and very helpful post. I find the outlining portion of the process to be necessary, yet it can also be the most frustrating part. It's where I tend to realize plot holes which, after I fix them, lead to other plot holes. It's maddening at times.

    Does anyone know if there are professional services/editors that will critique plot outlines? It seems most are pretty focused on working on whole manuscripts. Even those listed as "developmental editors" don't seem to want to tackle smaller projects. It may not be worth it from a financial/time point of view. Any recommendations?

    1. Thanks! I'd suggest trying a critique group. I've exchanged outlines and synopses with crit partners quite a few times, and we work out the plot and fill in the holes. Not everyone enjoys or is good at this type of critiquing, but you can probably find one or two who are. My Critique Connection is open right now, so you might consider joining and asking if anyone is open to that.

      If that doesn't appeal to you, email me and we can talk. I do take on editorial clients, and doing an "outline development" service is something I might be interested in offering. If you don't mind being a guinea pig (grin) perhaps we can work something out.

  2. That's wonderful information, even if you're not writing a mystery per se, but have mysteries going on in the story. A technique I haven't gotten to try yet but is somewhat similar, is to let an important clue be discovered by both protagonist and reader, but immediately after, have something with super strong emotional impact happen right after. The reader will remember it later when you need them to, but the emotional pop makes them forget until then, and gives you a reason that the investigator misses it the first time around (they're too involved in whatever the emotional thing is)....

    And, like Janice said, a lot of us get hung up on something in our plot, sometimes for weeks! For me it was a pirate attack. Worked great in outline, still worked in fleshed-out version. Totally bombed in draft. I spent weeks wrestling with that....

  3. That's wonderful information, even if you're not writing a mystery per se, but have mysteries going on in the story. A technique I haven't gotten to try yet but is somewhat similar, is to let an important clue be discovered by both protagonist and reader, but immediately after, have something with super strong emotional impact happen right after. The reader will remember it later when you need them to, but the emotional pop makes them forget until then, and gives you a reason that the investigator misses it the first time around (they're too involved in whatever the emotional thing is)....

    And, like Janice said, a lot of us get hung up on something in our plot, sometimes for weeks! For me it was a pirate attack. Worked great in outline, still worked in fleshed-out version. Totally bombed in draft. I spent weeks wrestling with that....

    1. Nice misdirect.

      I hear you with that pirate scene. I just yesterday finished one of those chapters that was making me nuts for ages.

  4. It might help to pick a TV episode of a crime procedural (Law and Order, NCIS, CSI, etc) and outline the plot. What clues do the detectives find, when do the find said clues, how do the clues change the investigation? What are the red herrings? How do they hinder the investigation? Did anything strike you as being "obvious" early, were you able to figure out the mystery before the show wanted you to?

    Sometimes studying other stories in your genre, especially their structure, can help you with problems in your story.

    1. Good idea. With Netflix and Amazon having full seasons to watch, you can get a good sense of how the plot unfolds in an afternoon or weekend.

      Shows will have a much tighter structure of course, but that will actually work in your favor since it'll be easier to spot it. Use it as a guide, and let it help you figure out the types of things you can do and the general structure a mystery takes.

      The first season of Scandal has some of the best plotting I've even seen, so I'd recommend trying that. And since it's six or seven episodes, it's more novel-like than a weekly drama.

  5. Thank you very much for your insight! This is very informative. :D

    (I've managed to come up with that clue I was fretting over. Not completely happy with it, but head can't handle being rammed against the wall any longer.)