The Outlining Question

Random excerpt from novel-in-progress: “When I woke up after the plague,” he said, “I looked in a mirror and thought, ‘Well, Paul, that’s it. Nobody’s gonna want to hear a zombie sing love songs.’”

Thanks to a comment on my previous post, I’ve been thinking about outlining. There seem to be as many approaches to outlining as there are writers. Some people start with a very detailed outline that may be pages long, a sort of prototype draft. Others start with some characters and a situation — but no outline — and discover how the story unfolds in the writing. And of course, there’s a whole spectrum of approaches in between these two.

I’ve tried different approaches to outlining. For me, if the outline is too detailed, it takes some of the fun out of writing the first draft. But if I jump in without anything other than the conflict that launches the story, I tend to get lost–and that means lots and lots of rewriting in the second draft (if I even get that far). Also, because a novel is such a long project, there’s a danger of writing a middle that sags or meanders without a clear sense of direction.

For Creature Comforts, I tried working with a loose outline based on Robert Ray’s The Weekend Novelist, which uses a three-act model for the novel. Instead of planning everything out in detail, I identified the scenes that serve as pillars to hold up the plot:

  • Inciting Incident: The event that sets the plot in motion.
  • Plot Point 1: This is the end of Act 1. It’s a point of no return.
  • Midpoint: Ray calls this the “fulcrum” on which Act 2 turns.
  • Plot Point 2: This is the end of Act 2, which pushes events into the climax.
  • Climax: The big, exciting scene where everything comes together.

Ray adds “wrap-up,” the denouement, to his plot structure, but I don’t worry about that at the beginning of a project. I never know exactly what I’m wrapping up until I’ve made my way through the second draft.

For Creature Comforts, I began by asking myself a lot of what-if questions. When I found one that seemed to open up some fun possibilities, I wrote that down as the inciting incident. Then I asked more what-if questions to see how that event might lead to Plot Point 1. And so on. By identifying these key scenes, I gave myself goals to write toward. I had an outline of just five points, giving me an arc for the story but also leaving room for surprises along the way.

As I wrote, I kept revisiting the outline. After each of the key scenes, I filled in a new section: Response to Inciting Incident, Response to Plot Point 1, and so on. I also stayed open to how the key scenes might change, revising the outline as necessary as I went along. So I had both structure and flexibility: the structure of a loose outline, and the flexibility to change that outline as the story took shape. (And it did change. Plot Point 2, for example, was completely different from what I’d originally envisaged, although the climax remained substantially the same.)

I’m still doing a lot of rewriting in the second draft, but not as much as I’ve done in previous novels. This time around, the rewriting is more to develop subplots and themes that emerged in the first draft. So I’ve been really pleased to (finally!) hit upon an outlining method that works for me.

Do you outline? Why or why not? I’m always interested to hear about other writers’ processes.


About nancyholzner

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