Little by little, I am teaching myself how to outline. By nature, I’m an “inchwormer” when I write (thanks to John Klima and Bradley Beaulieu for that great term!), writing a bit at a time, thinking about the developments implied by what I’ve just written and then forging ahead, clinging only to a loose scaffolding of story structure. But circumstances demand I create a really in-depth novel outline, so I’ve been working hard to become a master.
One of the toughest things about creating a detailed outline is simply wrapping your brain around the fact that you need to own your story–now! You can’t just hope to overpower the vicious novel or sneak up on it; you must approach it with supreme confidence and make it do your bidding. It’s like breaking a horse, right? You don’t just beat the crap out of the horse and hope it turns tame. Put on your Stetson and tap in to your inner Novel Whisperer.
My second difficulty was pacing myself. I’ve tried to create 2- or 3-page outlines before, and I’ve always spent about a day brainstorming and then another day hammering things out together. Those outlines have been terrible. It’s a good idea to give yourself plenty of time to develop your ideas. Every step of your outline needs to grow logically from your characters and your worldbuilding. Don’t force them to come together: encourage them. Remember the cowboy hat! Whisper, whisper.
Before you get serious about your project, try to figure out how long a project you need to create, what its audience will be, and get all your research out of the way. It definitely helps if you know what lengths you tend to structure your pieces into. Stephen King can make one scene last about 5000 words and it somehow works for him. For me, I tend to create scenes that run 1000 words long. I know this because I looked over what I’ve written this year, which includes a rough draft of a novel and seven or eight short stories, and about 80% of the scenes in each project run 1000 words. That just seems to be my natural attention span for a scene.
Step One: Generate ideas
The project I’m working on needs to be about 90,000 words long. That means I’m going to need about 90 scenes–20 to 25 scenes in each of four acts. That calls for a lot of ideas! Luckily, there are plenty of sources of inspiration for them. Here are two online resources I’ve been using:
I like Alexandra Sokoloff’s story elements checklist so much that I’ve printed a copy and keep it in my filing cabinet to use and reuse. I find it incredibly easy to generate plot points when I’ve got her guidelines urging me on.
Some of your ideas will be more important than others. Certain kind of problems and incidents lock into the bigger issues of your characters and plot, and they spin the story in new directions. I like to start with these big idea plot points: the inciting incident, the midpoint, the climaxes for each act, the end. Hammering these down will really help build structure through the piece.
The other big source for plot points–especially for those often saggy middle two acts (Acts 2a & 2b, if you prefer to think in a three act framework) is to focus on thwarting your characters’ goals and plans. I think we an all agree that the middle acts of a book are the tormenting-the-characters acts.
Step Two: Organize ideas
Some people like to generate their ideas on note cards and organize their note cards on a bulletin board. Some like to use programs like Scrivener. Because I don’t have a lot of space in my house and because I’m still working my way through the Scrivener tutorial, I generate my ideas on notepaper. I use one or two pieces of paper for each act, and while it’s not pretty, it works pretty well for me and has the advantage of being really portable. I took a picture of my workspace, but I can’t find the camera cord (hooray for moving to new house). But here’s a rendering*:
I jot down each plot point as I think of it and give it a letter from the alphabet. Then I think about how they will be organized, and write down the letters in the story’s chronological order on the left side of the red line. (Luckily, I’m writing a book where the story’s chronology matches the flow of real time–if you’re working with a more complex interleaving of timelines, you might need to play with this part.)
Step Three: Generate scenes
I want each plot point to become the heart of its own scene. A plot point like “Discover H is evil!!!” has to turn into a real event, with actions and speech and conflict. I take my ideas and organization for each act and sit down at my computer. For each plot point, I will write a very brief description of a scene that will achieve that point. Remember, each scene needs to show your characters wanting something and working to achieve it, and it needs to be organized on the principle of conflict.
Step Four: Look over your structure
Once you’ve typed up your scenes, look over them to see if they are coming together into a powerful story arc. Look over Ian McCraig’s basic analysis of story structure. Does your story answer all of the questions Galen lists at the end of the post? Do you have a Highest High and a Lowest Low? And if not, can you adjust some of your scenes or re-order them to fit the bill? And does your character come to a wants-vs-needs discovery point at the end? This is the hallmark of character growth, so make sure you’ve nailed it!
Step Five: Proofread and party
Once you’ve adjusted your storyline to your liking, you’re done. You deserve a break! But don’t wait too long–you’ve got a first draft to write!
*This font is actually made from my own handwriting, but I lack any of the sense of spacing the computer has. There have actually been times when I couldn’t tell if a particular illegible blob was a word or a squished bug.