Outlining for Fun and Profit (or not)


I managed to outline my current novel! Yay!

I’ve never managed this before. Granted, it is a pretty shallow outline, very superficial. It only hits the biggest points. I’ll still need to fill in an enormous amount as I write. There are several places that say “Niabi learns something, which leads her to do such-and-such.” I’m not exaggerating, this is verbatim.

But I can trace the most important events of the three main storylines, and that makes me feel better about the whole project. I was having trouble managing the complexity of the plot before – likely contributing to how little progress I was making.

I’m making more progress now, thank goodness. So I’m pretty happy to have a dim light to brighten the path.

I doubt I will ever be a super heavy outliner. It just isn’t natural to me, but I do see the benefits of it. I’ve read the books and done some of the exercises. I understand the basics of plotting and story structure. But it turns out I just don’t see stories like that. It is a struggle to untangle other people’s stories, and even harder to see my own like that.

I’d rather think of an event or situation and follow my character’s reaction to it until that makes something else happen. I can always tell when I hit on how my character would feel or what she would do. It all clicks and I know it is right. I think that’s why I write in fits and starts – I need pondering time.

And interestingly enough, just like I need that pondering time before I sit down to write a scene, I couldn’t force the outline either. To me, outlining was a task of organization – if I can just state what I need, I can think of what to fill the gap with. Logical, defined, nice and neat. But not so.

Writing the outline still required getting into the heads of my characters, only on that slightly higher level that has, until now, developed naturally from the consistent choices and behavior of my characters. In other words, I had to figure out what larger picture would develop from the interplay of the characters before I wrote those interactions. I guess some people, outlining people, must look at it the other way – the big picture comes easily, and then they worry about what small situations can add up to that big picture.

Even a glimpse of that higher level took a long time to form in my head and on paper, which must be why I won’t ever be a natural outliner. I’ll struggle with it and I’ll benefit from the work, because in order to write the complex stories I like, I’ll need to keep practicing my outline skills. But I don’t think I’ll have a really good view of my story before it is written. And that’s OK, because I get a thrill from pantsing it, and I’m not afraid of rewriting!


2 thoughts on “Outlining for Fun and Profit (or not)

  1. I've been exploring novel outlining myself. With my four POVs, it's an incredibly useful tool for editing, especially when I need to do plot revisions that affect the rest of the plot points.

    Here's what I did. First, I'm using Scrivener, which really helps me have a place to put all these things.

    I would read each scene, and at the end, in the notecard area, I'd write, point by point, the main events of the scene. Sometimes I was more detailed that others, but I tried not to worry too much about whether I was being too detailed or not enough. So something like, “Sandy goes to Pike Market with Trey to investigate the killing. They use the magic footprint powder. They see a trail leading up to the scene, and hoofprints leaving.” Etc.

    At first it felt lame and tedious, but after a while it got easier, and then it was like writing lots of super tiny short stories.

    As I went, I also tagged the scene with who's POV it was, and which characters are in each scene, using some Scrivener features like labels and keywords.

    Then I started four new notes/pages, one for each character POV. You wouldn't need this — BUT — I did something else. I also started one for several of the other major characters who don't have a POV, but who have major actions that affect the story.

    Per character, I went through each scene, and created a bullet list of each plot action related to them, from the scene summary. I could have copied and pasted, but mostly I retyped because I wanted to rephrase things and insert things, if needed, to be from the character's POV, even if the scene wasn't. If the scene wasn't in their POV, I changed the color of text to show which character's POV it was, matching the label color I'd made in Scrivener.

    As I did it, it felt like a waste of time, tedious, BUT, now that it's done, what a great tool I have!

    Now I'm replotting, and as I make changes or even have tentative ideas, I add new bullet points in brackets [like this]. Then I know the parts that still have to be written.

    Now it is so easy to coordinate my notes (which I'd made on my readthrough, in the prose, with square brackets, i.e. [Jett needs more of a motive back in the previous scene].) I took those cross-scene comments and dumped them in one file, broke it up then by character, and then just flipped through the notes and added them, as I could, to the outline in brackets..

    So much easier. My outlines read like badly written short stories with gaping holes that are easy to spot and fill in. When I go to write the prose, I have blocks of outline, one for each scene and each character in each scene, with brackets showing what I need to write and cut.

    When I'm struggling with a side character, trying to decide what they'll do next, I spend just a little time (not much) sketching an outline what what they've done so far, with notes to explore their motives, and out pops their next action. It also helps for reference when I forget what they've been sneaking around doing behind the scenes.

    Hope that helps. Sounds like we've been working along the same arc recently. 🙂

  2. Yeah, it's a lot of work that is totally worth it later.

    I did something similar during the King's Mark rewrite. Isn't Scrivener wonderful?

    It's the pre-story outlining that I find particularly problematic…

    Are you working on book 3 or on rewrites for book 2?

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