Outline This!

Norman Rockwell - Boy on a High Dive

Well, we’re almost there. It’s 5:15 AM on October 29th, and we haven’t even gotten any wind or rain yet. Which means the storm, if it comes with full force, is seeming more and more likely to interfere with our early November writing. But now is the time to work on planning, as you hopefully have been doing for the past couple weeks or so (unless you’re crazy like some people and decided to start over). But what is planning? Is it also a kind of writing? That depends entirely on how you do it.

Nota bene: More so than anything I’ve written so far, this advice is tailored specifically to the way that my mind and personality work. It may also work for you. It may not. I am aware that there are other completely different writing styles than my own. Feel free to comment with your own thoughts.

At some level, planning is mental. You have an idea. You run it around your mind. If your brain functions the way mine does, you play out scenes visually in your mind. You start constructing characters and scenarios, perhaps before you’ve ever even named anybody, let alone written something down. And perhaps you have a brilliant memory. Mine is usually pretty good for a hot concept. When I come up with an idea, I usually let it shake itself out in my mind for a couple weeks before I bother to write anything at all. That way I know the idea is a keeper. In my personal experience, if I came up with “the greatest story idea ever!!!!” and I don’t remember it the next day, it probably wasn’t the greatest story idea ever.

Regardless of the way you initially approach an idea, eventually you will come to the point where you’re going to want to write something down. And the question will come to your mind, “Should I make an outline?” People have vehement opinions on this topic. Epic NaNoWriMo veteran Michelle Tuckett (who decided that National Novel Writing Month was great, but happened too infrequently, and so chose to write a novel each month of 2012) hates outlines with a fiery passion. She wrote a full blog post on why she hates them, but her main argument is this:

Outlining is not writing. It feels like writing, and it fools writers into thinking they have done something productive toward their story. But it is not writing. Go write.

Fair enough. I can imagine that some people might get hung up on this idea of outlining. How can you write your story if you don’t know what your outline is? Easily, as Michelle says. Just write it. Stop obsessing. And she’s correct. If you’re going to write, you need to just do it. Outlining can be like standing at the top of the diving board, telling yourself you’ll jump, you just need a minute or two. Then you freeze, and you’ll never jump. Your outline isn’t done! How can you begin? Seriously, don’t do that. Go read Michelle’s full post on her blog 12 Novels if you need more convincing.

But what will we put in the place of the outline? Sometimes, we need something on paper so we can work out plot points or define characters or just remind ourselves where exactly we’re going with this whole novel thing. My recommendation is constructing something far less formal than an outline. I usually think of it as “arcing” because I’m taking a high-level overview of the plot arc. I’m not sure that what I’m doing is actually structured enough to have a formal name, and I’m perfectly cool with that. It gives me something to look at while I’m writing to help keep myself on the course, but it’s not nearly as rigid as an outline so it still allows for growth, deviation, and revision without rendering the document useless.

So how do I do it? The first thing I do is make a list of the major characters. I try to be more of a Patrick Rothfuss than a George R.R. Martin, so I rarely have more than six major characters (minor ones may pop up during the writing, but are defined by need and circumstance, not by deliberate forethought), and I usually designate a single person to be the narrative focus. If I’m writing in 1st person (which I frequently do), I put this character at the top of the list. I write one simple phrase that explains who the character is. Often at this point I have not even chosen names for the characters. For example, in the planning sheet for my current novel, I have a character designated like this:

<<KING>> – antagonist; griffon lord and descendant of ancient king

Could it possibly be any more simple than that? I don’t say anything about his personality or his appearance or what he’s going to do. I just have him marked as an antagonist and list the two most significant facts about him—he’s a griffon lord, and the descendant of an ancient king. The rest is all in my head. I haven’t even named the man, let alone the ancient king. And creating a list like this means that I can start writing now, and not have to worry about what his name is. How? If anybody references him by name, I can just put <<KING>> into my document. Once I decide on a name for the man, a simple Ctrl+F for <<KING>> will find all the instances where I used it, and I can easily replace it with the appropriate name.

Once characters are out of the way (I may also make a list of important locations, if the story is going to be taking place in an imaginary world), I turn to plot. I try to keep this simple as well, but I want to make sure that I actually have dramatic structure and that my story will have resolution (of some kind—a cliffhanger may be a legitimate ending, but we’ll discuss that in a later post). I’ve developed this technique because I’ve started many stories that have wandered off into La La Land far from any hope of ever being completed. Unfortunately, I’ve still never actually brought a story to a full conclusion, but that’s because I can be a slow and distracted writer. I have yet to abandon in frustration a story that I have actually arced in this way.

I take a piece of paper (or a document) and write “Act I,” “Act II,” etc. on it until I have five acts. You can divide your story differently if you want to. I happen to like five acts. I then write down what events I think need to take place in these acts in order for the story to take place. I use short, simple sentences. For example, in Act II of the aforementioned novel, I have a sentence that reads “Chased by <<KING>>.” That’s it. Chased where? Chased how? Not important. When I actually get to writing that part, the details will all be in place, and I’ll be able to say “Oh, so that’s how that happened.” But before that point, I don’t need to decide. I just know that they’re going to be chased. I write perhaps four or five of these sentences for each act, and then I’m done. I now have everything I need to start actually writing, and I know I have all the resources necessary to get me to the end of the story should I become distracted or discouraged.

You know what’s really great? Doing this kind of arcing does not take long at all. Even if you have yet to begin on it, you should be able to put together something like this in the next two days. Just having a document like this could be the difference between succeeding at NaNoWriMo or not. I encourage you to try it, even if you’ve already created a large and formal outline for your story. Let me know in the comments if you find this theory of planning to be helpful. Have you ever tried it before (I’m not claiming to be the first to come up with it)? Are you a chronic over-planner, or have you (like me) gotten lost by attempting to just wing it? Now’s the time to weigh in.

Thursday is Day One. See you then.



Filed under Writing Advice

3 responses to “Outline This!

  1. Absolutely see you then!! Good luck!

  2. As you may already know, I most often wing it. I’m sort of changing methods with my NaNo, but not fully. Much of the plot is undecided… but it has to dovetail with the story I’ve been working on for the past…. year and a half? Two years? Longer? I have no idea. At any rate, many of my characters are already fleshed out in my head, aside from the minor characters, or the ones who were already dead by the time I started the first story (of which the new one will be a prequel). I have almost gotten cold feet with this story several times already in the past week and a half…

  3. Great advice! I am used to writing short stories, which tend to spring forth from my brain fully developed like Athena from Zeus. Embarking on my first novel, something which takes real planning, is very new and complicated, especially as it is a mystery and everything must fit together intricately.

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