Thursday, October 08, 2015

The Wonderful World of Outlining

8:00 AM Posted by Tara No comments
I wrote my first two Nanowrimo novels with varying levels of pantsing, and while I crossed the 50,000-word finish line for both, neither came anywhere close to an ending. Pantsing, I discovered, was not for me. I prepared a rough outline for my third Nanowrimo, and while it did help, it still wasn't enough. Every year since, my outlines have grown ever more extensive, resulting in ever more coherent manuscripts. And I've enjoyed outlining my novels almost as much as I've enjoyed writing them. I have become an extremist planner, and I'm not afraid to admit it!

If you, too, are an extremist planner, there probably isn't much I can tell you that you don't already know. But if you're new to outlining or want to expand your outlining abilities, you've come to the right place! I briefly touched on a few methods of outlining your novel in my last post, but today we're going to take a closer look at each.

The Great Wall of Post-Its.

All you need is a stack of Post-It notes, a pen or pencil, and a wall. Write down short synopses of scenes on individual Post-Its, and stick them up on your wall in rough linear order. Move your Post-Its around as you add, cut, or rework scenes.  It's that simple!

This is usually how I begin an outline, when I have a broad idea for a plot but haven't yet filled in the details. I'll start with a rough beginning, middle, and end, and gradually expand this into chapters and scenes. I find the visual aspect incredibly helpful: I can easily identify where my story is too bulky or too thin by the number of Post-Its in each section, and if plot points are too close or too far away from one another (or missing altogether).

My Great Wall of Post-Its.

You can either leave your Post-It outline up on your wall to refer to while to write, or transfer it into your computer, where you can expand it even further in a spreadsheet or the writing program of your choice.


Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

Full disclosure: I've never used the Snowflake method myself, but I hear other writers talk about it all the time, so I thought it would be worth looking into. From what I've gathered, the Snowflake method is based on math, or curves, or fractals, or something along those lines (damn it, I'm a writer, not a mathematician!). The idea is to start small and expand your plot over several iterations of outlining.

Begin with a one-sentence summary of your novel, boiling the story down to its most basic premise. Mention your protagonist, the story's central conflict, what's at stake, and the action needed to achieve a goal. Here's an example of a one-sentence summary for my work in progress, The Broken Brick Road:

The daughter of Dorothy Gale finds herself stranded in an Oz that is nothing like her mother's whimsical stories, and must free the Wizard from Glinda's wicked spell before he can send her home.

Once you've completed your sentence, expand it into a paragraph that summarizes your entire book from beginning to end. It should be five or six sentences long: one for set-up, one for each major turning point of the story, and one for the ending. Next, expand each of those sentences into a paragraph itself, giving more detail about the events surrounding the inciting incident, each plot point, and the final climax. And so on, and so on.  By the time you're ready to write your first draft, you'll have an extensive narrative outline and character charts with which to guide you, all grown from a single story seed.

There's a lot more to the Snowflake method, but I'll let the expert explain the rest of it.


There's nothing wrong with tradition.

For something a little more conventional, try the three-act structure outline. The first act introduces your characters and launches your plot, the second act complicates the plot and puts obstacles in the way of your protagonist reaching his or her goal, and the third act resolves the plot as the protagonist either does or does not reach his or her goal. Each act is comprised of plot points—the major events that drive the story forward—and the stages that bridge them. Outlining with the three-act structure ensures that your plot hits the necessary milestones while giving you the freedom to explore the wilderness of your story between each one.

While the big picture will stay the same, the three-act structure and its elements tend to differ slightly from writer to writer.  Here's the outline I typically use:

ACT 1
  • Stage 1: Set-up—The protagonist is introduced and the status quo is established.
  • Plot Point 1: Inciting Incident—An event sets the plot in motion.
  • Stage 2: New Situation—The protagonist finds him- or herself in a predicament as a result of the inciting incident.
  • Plot Point 2 (Act 1 Climax): Point of No Return—The protagonist is forced to make a choice and move forward.

ACT 2
  • Stage 3: Seeming Progress—The protagonist meets and overcomes obstacles, but only further complicates the predicament.
  • Plot Point 3 (Midpoint): Unexpected Event—A twist or reveal turns the story in a new direction.
  • Stage 4: Complications—The tension and stakes are raised as the story picks up speed.
  • Plot Point 4 (Act 2 Climax): Disaster—The protagonist suffers a massive failure and hits his or her lowest point.

ACT 3
  • Stage 5: Final Push—The protagonist finds strength to continue and puts a new plan into action.
  • Plot Point 5 (Final Climax): Showdown—The protagonist battles the antagonist, and either succeeds or fails at achieving his or her main goal.
  • The End: Wrap-up—The aftermath of the showdown ties up loose ends and foreshadows the future.

If this is your first time using this kind of structure, try outlining your favorite book or movie with it first. You should be able to easily recognize the inciting incident, the midpoint twist, and the showdown, at the very least. For example, in The Wizard of Oz, the inciting incident is the tornado whisking Dorothy off to Oz, the midpoint twist is the Wizard demanding that Dorothy kill the Wicked Witch of the West, and the showdown is Dorothy doing just that. Seeing the three-act structure applied to a familiar work will help you understand how to apply it to your own.


Excel at outlining.

If you like more visual organization in your outlines, a spreadsheet might be the way to go. This method is highly customizable—you can include as much or as little information as you need to keep track of your story. Some columns you might want to use are:

  • Plot structure information
  • Chapter numbers and titles
  • Scene summaries
  • The characters that appear in each scene
  • The POV of each scene
  • The setting in which each scene takes place
  • The date and time in which each scene takes place
  • The subplots and themes involved in each scene
  • Your word count goal for each scene
  • Notes for each scene

A basic outline of my novel in Excel.

Filters are one of the greatest advantages of a spreadsheet outline, as they allow you to focus on one particular component of your story at a time. This is especially helpful when you're working multiple POVs, character arcs, or subplots.

To use filters, you'll first need to create individual columns for each character or subplot. Enter an "x" (or any marker of your choice) in the row of each scene in which that character or subplot appears. Then, select the columns you want to filter, click the "Sort & Filter" button in the Home menu, and choose "Filter." Drop-down menu arrows will appear at the top of your selected columns. Click on the arrow of the column you want to filter, and deselect "Blanks." And there you go! The scenes that don't include that particular character or subplot will be hidden, and you can focus on the ones that do.

How to use filters in a spreadsheet outline.

If spreadsheets still don't offer enough organization for you...


Scrivener, also known as the extremist planner's paradise.

You can trust me when I say that, because I am an extremist planner.  And Scrivener is where I want my soul to go when I die.

When I tell other writers about Scrivener, they often ask me what the program can do. An easier question would be, "What can't Scrivener do?" Because the answer to that is: nothing. I'll be devoting an entire blog post to the wonders of Scrivener next week, but for now, I'll give you a brief look at how I use it to organize my outlines.

As I mentioned earlier, I usually begin outlining with Post-Its, but once I've built enough of a foundation, I start importing it into Scrivener. First, I create folders for each of my three acts. In the corkboard view, I create a document for each scene, giving them short but descriptive titles so I can easily locate them in the binder. Then I type up the synopses I wrote on my Post-Its; I usually expand them to include more detail at this point. I use labels to denote each scene's structure as Scene (following a pattern of goal, conflict, and disaster) or Sequel (following a pattern of reaction, dilemma, and decision).  In the document notes, I note plot and scene structure information, reminders for things I want to be sure to include in the scene, and if I've already worked out a timeline, the date and timeframe in which the scene takes place.


A preliminary outline in Scrivener's corkboard view.

Once I have all of that set up, I take some time to look over what I've planned so far so I can identify if my plot points are too close together or too far apart, if any section of the plot is too bare or too bloated, if a Scene is missing conflict or a Sequel is missing a decision, or anything else that's not quite right. I jot down the problems that need to be fixed as I go, so I don't forget them. Then I tweak, move, add, or cut scenes as needed to fix said problems; this can take me anywhere from days to weeks of stewing in the think tank.

When I'm satisfied with the overall plot, I'll set a word count goal for each scene, assigning at least 12,500 words to the first act, 25,000 words to the second act, and 12,500 to the third act. This ensures that I'll stay on track in November, instead of writing too little and finishing the story well before I reach 50,000 words, or writing too much and reaching 50,000 words well before the end of the story.

And that's pretty much it!

I tend to focus on my novel's main plot while outlining, and allow subplots and character arcs to develop naturally as I write. If you prefer to plan those out in advance, you can organize all of your various plot threads with Scrivener's keywords and collections—which I'll talk about in next week's blog!


Ready, set, outline!

Outlining can be intimidating and overwhelming to someone who's never done it before, but remember: there's no one right way to outline a novel. So play around with it. Try a few different things until you find what works for you. Maybe you'll start with Post-Its and expand in Scrivener, or let your ideas blossom with the snowflake method before organizing them in Excel. Maybe none of these outlines will fit you, and you'll create your own unique approach instead. No matter how you outline, one thing's for sure: the process will get you thinking about your novel. And that's always a step in the right direction.

What's your tried-and-true method for outlining? Let me know in the comments below!

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