where are you from? by Joseph Robertson

To know where you’re going, you kind of need to know…well, where you are going. Really, I’m serious (mostly). Have you ever started one of those books that kind of meanders, taking its time to get from point A to point B to C to D and then finally develops a plot? Chances are no, you haven’t…unless you’ve been subjected to a literature class (not that those weren’t some of my favorite classes). That’s because publishers know that those books just don’t sell well in today’s market. Readers want to feel that they are headed somewhere important. Now, I know there are some writers out there who respond to the idea of outlining a book like they would to government obstruction of their First Amendment rights.  In my experience though, I  find that my writing is better when I take the time to put down what I know is going to happen and then fill in the blanks.

I’m not talking about outlining the story’s every twist and nuance and action. I’m talking about something as simple as “This is Bob. Bob has this problem. This is how Bob solves the problem.” See? Simple. Feel free to insert your character’s name.

Okay, maybe my outlines aren’t that simple, but that’s how they started.

A little bit on my writing process (because it helps in understanding my outlining process): It usually starts with an idea, like a character’s voice or a scene that comes into my head. Which then normally leads to how the story ends. And after that, I figure out the beginning. I know, weird…tell it to my brain, I have little control over how I think. Beginning and end aren’t usually problems for me. It’s the middle bits (the good stuff) that give me a problem. They like to come at me randomly, leaving me to figure out order.

Hence, my outline.

I build it gradually. Starting with what the books basic plot is (beginning, middle, end). Then I grab out the important, story-changing scenes and see where they fit in the grand scheme of things. Should I make Plot Point C into Plot Point D? Or does PPC actually need to happen earlier to help set up what happens in the middle? Then I connect the dots. I have A and I have B, so I add A1, A2, etc. until I have a whole story in my hands.

By writing things down, I’m able to see a basic progression and then figure what holes need to be filled and how to fill them. Now, I do like more detailed outlines, with chapters and what happens (roughly) in each. Which, when combined with my thought process, leads to some pretty funny stuff. For example:

  • “Time to have some fun with David’s head.”
  • “Annette tries to go along –> Surprisingly easy to dissuade (har har, wonder why)”
  • “Horses, escape the castle –> Princess Bride reference it up, Fezzik, window, etc.”

And my personal favorite (for this book at least):

  • “Annette’s super stealthy medieval ninja powers revealed.”

Yes, that is totally a note in my outline–for Chapter 22.

Your outline doesn’t need to be that detailed, but every story needs a beginning, middle and end. So at least jot those down. I can’t tell you how many of my short stories are unfinished because I can’t remember how they were supposed to end. Don’t worry about getting every word and action down, leave yourself plenty of room to move around. If you know your major scenes, jot those down, play around with their order. See what happens when you throw in a few plot twists. Trust me, it is way easier to rewrite an outline than to rewrite an entire book (this and saving multiple drafts will save you much blood, sweat and hair-tearing).

This also helps if you’ve already written the first draft and are looking to adjust/beef up your story a little bit. Maybe you want to gain a fresh perspective or you are thinking of adding an element to your plot. Again, an outline is a great test before you start messing with the actual book.

And the amount of detail is up to you. I go in already with an idea of how I want to break up my scenes, so my outline has chapters. But maybe you don’t. Maybe you like to wait till you’re in the moment. Or maybe you like to look at the book as a whole once it’s finished to see where your chapter breaks need to occur. Maybe you just want a simple roadmap.

There are as many possible outline techniques as there are authors. So experiment, read a little. Look into books that talk about story structure and outlining/planning. My current outlining process was inspired when I read Book in a Month by Victoria Schmidt. Now, I have adjusted and adapted it…because I have a hard enough time being able to stop for an hour and write, let alone pause for a month.

An outline is just another creative tool, just like a character bio, that you can use to help improve the quality of your book from start to finish. It doesn’t mean anything is set in black and white, but it does help gather your thoughts and keep them all in one place (and if you’re anything like me, you need all the help you can get).

Reading: The Medieval Reader by various & Goddess of Yesterday by Caroline B. Cooney

Research: Inside Your Brain by Eric H. Chudler