Creating a Story Outline

I'm currently working on an idea for a new novel which I plan to write in November. While I'm not scribbling any words on the page until November first, a la NaNoWriMo, I am rigorously plotting the tale and doing research on my subject matter ahead of time so I know what to write when the time comes.

I like to write as a mix of planned plotting (outlines) and discovery writing. I may know what's going to happen next in a general sense, but the details come during the writing of the scene. I might know what one character will say, for sure, 100%, and will have written the quote down on a scrap of paper, but I might not know what the other character's reaction will be, not entirely anyway.

When I've made outlines in the past it's just been a kind of boom, boom, boom list.
1. Cynthia falls.
2. Kevin comforts her.
3. They fight about the doctor's bill.
Stuff like that. While this gets me so far, these plots tend to lack in subplotting and then when I realize I've left Character C out completely it's like bringing the dogs in through a cat door to navigate the other characters around the fall and doctor's visit.

This time, however, I'm going for a more clarified approach as I'm still honing my writing as well as my outlines. I'm forming this new outline to look like a list of scenes similar to watching a movie. If we don't need to know Cynthia woke up, ate two eggs, and drank OJ, then it's not going into the outline. Plain and true, it's not a genuine scene.

The scenes are then numbered (1, 2, 3, etc.) and beside these numbers I'll put which chapter they fell into as I wrote, since some scenes happen within the same chapter. Along with each scene I include what's going to happen and why it's important to the main character, or how it changes him or her. If it doesn't make a difference or they don't change, then, again, it's not a scene.

This is a good start, I think.

I've also been looking around the web for a few ideas and even asked my critique group about it. For NaNo, things are condensed. I'm looking at thirty chunks of 2000 words and trying to figure out where Point B even fits into the mess of each day's needed writing words. I don't know if you've ever done this kind of work before, but I should get an embroidered merit badge for outlining once it's all said and done.

The point is: Everyone has their own methods and frankly I'm still searching for mine. JK Rowling has her own style of outline. It's up my alley in terms of detail and knowing your plot thoroughly. Meanwhile, Joanna Penn writes her outlines for scenes a little more sparingly. This method appeals to the discovery writer in me, but I need to know more than a few scenes out.

The greatest fact about these outlines is that they are your guide; a talking cricket to lead you down the right pathway and discourage needless scenes. My best advice?

1. Use what works for you. If you don't like that method, try another. Keep trying until you find the one in a million fit that allows your stories to pulsate with character. Some methods are extensive, filling spreadsheets with details right down to what your character's favorite Jello flavor is. Other methods are brief one liners where all you'll know if who is in the room.

2. Be willing to change your method, to tweak it into a new constellation. If you like knowing the chapter number, then add it in. If you find you need a column to tell you what month or year that part of the story happens in, add it. If you suddenly realize you like only knowing the bare bones of the scene, then forget about jotting down the details of architecture and let it come to you organically when you write it. No one person's way has to be your way. Adjust theirs or make up your own. It's fiction, right? Make it up.

3. (And most important.) Write. Don't focus all of your energy on the outline, A solid outline, rich with twists, turns, and cliffhanging ends of chapters isn't readable. You can plot all day, but unless you're writing it, then you're still sitting at the starting line and everyone else has sped ahead leaving dirt in your teeth and all the water cups will be gone at the next pit stop.

Also, going along with writing the actual story, be flexible enough to alter the outline for the sake of the story. If you've plotted a scene that doesn't work, and for any reason your gut is screaming that it won't work, then adjust the outline and fix or remove the scene. The way I see it, the outline is the skeleton or bones of the story, but it's up to you to write in the muscle and give the tale some meat. No one wants to chew on the bone. No matter what method you choose, go with it, invest your heart, and write the story.

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