Today I'd like to talk about outlining.
Outlining doesn't have to be mechanical.
From several discussions I've had about outlining with various writers I've come away with the idea that certain writers who are vigorously opposed to outlining see it as in some sense mechanical. I'd like to show that outlining doesn't have to be.
Each method of outlining is unique to the writer.
Before I start, though, I'd like to make it clear that I'm not suggesting anyone else use the same method as myself. Each story is different and I suspect that how each story is written differs as well.
With this blog post I'm saying, "Hey, by the way, this is what I do" in the hope that some of you will, in the comments, share your own methods.
The Index Card Method
One of the reasons outlining works for me is that stories usually come in fits and starts. I'll get one piece one day, another the next, and usually these pieces don't fit perfectly.
It helps to have a board where I can scribble down my thoughts on index cards and arrange them in terms of the story's chronology. In my case, the board is several sheets of magnetized metal hanging on the wall, but I could do this on a piece of paper or a file on my computer.
Step One: Write the events of the story down in no regard for order.
Often I'll know that something--a particular event--occurs but won't know if it occurs in the beginning, middle or end of the story. I won't know why it occurred or who it will effect.
That's okay. I write the event down. At first I usually write these down in my journal and then, when my journal is getting full, I'll comb through it and transfer the events onto index cards which I then place on my Lost Scene board.
Each of these cards ... I think of it like catching the tip of a dragon's tail. Each one could lead me to a different story; they are entry points; they are day-dreaming aids.
As soon as I have enough cards on my 'Lost Scenes' board I start putting them on my story boards. Then I play. I play with the order, I play with writing new scenes. But most of all I think about the core of the story and dream. Perhaps I'll write new scenes in my journal and start the process again.
Step Two: Give each character a card.
I say this is step two, but I do it at the same time as step one: I jot down the character's name and everything I know about them. Sometimes this uses up several cards.
Step Three: Write down clues.
Occasionally I want to put in hints at what is to come, or perhaps I've included a mystery, so must leave a smattering of clues for the reader. I'll write one clue per index card. Later on I'll pin each clue to the scene where I introduce it.
Step four: Write a scene or write an interview with one or more of the characters.
As soon as I have a clear idea of a few of the scenes I want to have in the book, as soon as I have some sort of fledging sense of my protagonist, I'll start to write.
What I write is different for each story. Sometimes I'll do a character interview, sometimes I'll write a piece of flash fiction featuring my protagonist (or my antagonist or both).
I need to connect with the characters and the events of the story (I need to break into the story) as soon as possible so that I know that what I'm working on isn't just smoke and mirrors.
For me the bottom line is: if I can't connect to the character's there is no story.
Step Five: When the story begins to coalesce I look for pivotal scenes.
At some point the story will more or less coalesce and I'll have grasped certain big events--pivotal events--that change the characters lives. These events help me find the joints of the story.
In case you're wondering, I find the joints of the story by thinking of the movements, the beats, in the classic three act structure. Keep in mind, though, that these points aren't intended to be a straightjacket. I don't feel as though I have to shoe-horn my story into any particular structure.
That said, thinking about the three act structure often helps me find the beating heart of my story.
Step Six: Plan the pivotal scenes.
Deborah Chester just published two terrific blog posts (Scene Check, Part 1; Scene Check: Part Who) where she lists some of the many questions writers can use to plan a scene:
- Who is the viewpoint character and what is their objective?
- What is the viewpoint character's motivation?
- What is at stake?
- What will the protagonist do to achieve their goal and what will the antagonist do to counter it?
- Why is this event important to the story?
- When will the scene's outcome affect events down the line?
Once I answer a few of these questions for each of my pivotal scenes my mind will be awash in ideas for intervening scenes, scenes which lead up to the big events.
Step Seven: Keep doing Step Six.
For each new scene I tack up on my board I plan it out in the same way I planned out the pivotal scenes, though perhaps in less detail.
Step Eight: Don't be afraid to reorder, delete or add scenes.
A story doesn't live in index cards (or in computer files or on pages of looseleaf), a story is a living thing that resides within the storyteller.
Since a story is a living, breathing, growing thing it's inevitable that it will grow and change and transform. When this happens, even though it can be painful, index cards have to be taken down and stored in my RIP pile and new ones created.
Step Nine: Write an outline.
At some point I'll feel the story is just about there, just about right, and I'll write a hurried outline.
Step Ten: Redo the cards.
Inevitably, whenever I write an outline, the story will change a bit and I'll go back to the cards and shift things around, keeping an eye on whether the clues that I've scattered through the story need to be changed, moved or deleted.
Step Eleven: Type the cards into a word processor.
At this point I'll type all the cards on my story boards into Scrivener and, in so doing, write a detailed summary of the novel. I'll print this out and keep it handy.
Step Twelve: Don't hesitate to change the outline.
For me, an outline is important because at some point when I'm writing I'll get lost and wonder: Okay, where am I? What happens now?
If I have an outline I look at it and see what I'd wanted to do originally. I don't have to do that, but often I'll look at it and think, "Oh yes, I remember!" and off I go. But I could just as easily change the outline.
I like how Mary Robinette Kowal describes the outline as a roadmap. When I take a roadtrip I like to have a destination and I like to know where I'm going to stop along the way. That way I know (roughly) how much gas I'll have to buy, I can book a hotel to sleep in, I can search for interesting spots along the way I might like to visit.
Having a roadmap doesn't mean I can't change my destination mid-trip. But if I do, and I have a roadmap, it'll be easier to calculate how much more (or less) gas I'll need, see what spots I can stop off along the way, and so on.
Some writers get hold of a story through prose. Other writers get hold of a story through daydreams. Other writers ... well, I suspect that the number of ways to get hold of a story--to catch a dragon by the tail--are as numerous as writers.
The important thing is to catch the dragon--to write the story--before it eats you.
1. Chuck Wendig's blog is wonderful--plenty of pithy tips about writing, plenty of encouragement. (But be warned, his blog is NSFW.) Here are two articles CW wrote about outlining:
2. Mary Robinette Kowal on outlining:
3. Lee Goldberg on outlining: