Saturday, April 6, 2013

I *Love* Outlining

In my early days of writing, stories were unintentional things. I would hear characters chatting in my head until something they said intrigued me, and then I would build a scene around it. Why did they say that? Where are they? How did they get there? Who is that anyway? Slowly, the scenes that cloaked these bits of internal dialog would string themselves together into a sort of sequence. The missing scenes would begin to fill themselves in. At last I would have something that vaguely resembled... well, a... um...

Okay, this turned out, for me, NOT to be a great way to construct the kind of intricate, tight-meshed, all-the-gears-ticking-perfectly plot I like best.

When I complained about this problem, my husband suggested that rather than trying to use the random things my brain burbles up and make them fit into a story, I should make the story first. When my internal characters play out random scenes, then I could decide whether or not it fits and where it should go. The story was a blueprint, a plan, a scaffold, an armature. The scenes were lumps of clay that could be molded onto that armature, creating not some kind of free-form blob, but something intentional.

But that was called outlining. Ugh. It sounded like too much work and not much fun. Outline a story? When I could be drafting scenes?

I decided to try it anyways.

First I picked a story template. The one I like to use is from a lecture given by Dan Wells, the Seven Point Story Structure, which I've already blogged about here. Another popular one is Blake Snyder's Beat Sheet from the "Save the Cat" website. Once I had chosen my template, I decided on two main plots and three subplots. Then I made a five-by-seven table in my word processor and started filling in the empty squares with the major points in each of the plots. Usually I do this after I write the first draft, but it was surprisingly fun to do it BEFORE.

Once I had all the plot points in place, I began to create scenes. I tried to make sure that each scene contained a major point in at least one of the plot lines. More than one was better. I didn't do this all in one sitting, but instead spent a couple of weeks on it. As I worked, I began to see better ways to order the scenes. There were even a few scenes that I could combine with others, or completely cut out! And the beautiful thing was, there was no prose to sacrifice. It was completely painless to say, "Eh, don't need that. Out it goes."

So now I have all my scenes planned out, and all I have left to do, as my daughter says, is to "illustrate the scenes with words." Will the story be stronger this time? The burning need to know the answer to that question should keep me typing to the last. I'll let you know how it goes.


  1. Great post, Rebecca! I've used Dan Wells Seven Point Story Structure on my last two stories, and was lucky enough to hear him speak. Thanks for sharing his link. I think everyone would benefit from it. I've read a few books on outlining, and gain something new from each one. I think personal outlining is a changing process, just like you said. Right now I'm reading Million Dollar Outlines by David Farland (an excellent book). David Farland's son was in a terrible accident last week, and anyone who wants to help can participate in a book bomb scheduled for Wednesday. If you'd like to, you can buy Million Dolloar Outlines or Nightingale. They are both worth having. Thanks again, Rebecca!

  2. I like the Seven Point Story Structure, too. I find it works great because it doesn't require too much detail. If I outline too deeply my muse gets bored when actually writing the book and then I get bored,too. I like the mix of having an outline and still discovering things as I write.


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