Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Outlining: It's Easy

I know a lot of you out there don't outline your stories.  And through that maybe you've come to great success.
Maybe you haven't, like me.

It all, of course, depends on your style.  There's nothing wrong with "pantsing" a novel.  There's nothing wrong with plotting.  It's all about tastes and styles.  I, personally, have attuned my taste buds to outlining, so let me give you a few tips on it.

First off, if you're outlining a novel do not - I repeat do not outline every single event, especially if this is a new idea.  I ruined one whole promising trilogy over outlining too much and stifling creativity.  That's not to say, however, all outlining ruins creativity.  My outline was so in depth, it was more of a short story than an outline, with lots of events, and a poor amount of description.

Don't write it down - sketch it down.  Draw a simple box - don't ink it all in.  When you're writing, that's when you fill it all in.

Now I'm sure there are some who might benefit from doing extremely long and detailed outlines, that's why it is critical for us all to test each method out, but from my  own experience, you're likely going to ruin your plot (unless you're a control freak - then you'd benefit from this method...).  Most importantly though, you need to find your style and what works best for you.

So here's my sage advice on outlining a novel.  Yes, even pantsers would benefit from an outline, even if it's just a paragraph, because I think we all agree (unless you're really far out) it's best to think before you speak.  Even more so with writing.  It gives you a vague route to trace along, while you can still let your mind run like mad in the plains of creativity - even jump down a rabbit trail for a while.

A Form for Pantsers:

How did past events tie in, and lead up to, the Inciting Incident, the first major thing that happens?  (This is the backstory.  Give it a quick sentence like this:  Daniel Formouth entered a writing contest and waits expectantly for the announcement of winners to come in his mail.  Or, he might not even expect to win the contest and had forgotten about it, creating a more intriguing inciting incident, such as when he learns he's the first place winner and is quickly becoming a buzz over the internet.)

What is the Inciting Incident?  (This is the first major event that spurs on the plot.  Give it, too, a brief sentence such as:  Daniel has become a writing star now that he has won the national contest, and the country is abuzz with his incredible talent.)

What Emotional and Physical tension, along with other events, goes on during the Rising Action, or the period before the Climax?  (Here you can put in a bit more detail, but if you don't like outlining that much, a simple paragraph is perfect.)

What happens during the Climax?  (Don't go overboard, a sentence or two is great.)

What happens during the Falling Action?  (Tie this up in a few sentences.)

And Finally, what pulls everything together in the end? (Keep this just at a few sentences as well.)

Aha, see what I did there?  Your plot is now outlined, you have plenty of space for creativity and random inspirations, and it wasn't hard, nor did it take any great length of time.  I use this method to sketch out a very wide, shaky circle, which can then be inked in with a bit more detail before the writing process actually begins.

Now, this is very plot oriented.  There isn't much character development outlining in there.  So why not outline the character arcs?

What was your character like in the past?  (This is the backstory.  One of the essential things in creating a character - remember what he is, and what he becomes.  We'll get into more detail later.)

How did the Inciting Incident change him, and why did the Inciting Incident move him to do something?  (A death is a very common (though cliche) and realistic example, while things such as a simple move to another house (even the non-haunted ones...) can provide enough tension and motivaton.  Daniel Formouth slowly became more snooty as he grew ever more popular.  In that short sentence we explain how the Inciting Incident changed him.  Now in a second sentence we see what the Inciting Incident moved him to do.  He began to push away his friends from the past, disassociating and ignoring them more and more with each passing day.)

What Emotional tension and stressful decisions must he go through during the Rising Action, and how does that change the character?  (This is definitely an important part, as this is the setting up to what makes the climax really nerve-wracking or heartbreaking - this is where you develop a bound between reader and character.)

What personal decisions and changes happen in your character during the climax?  (This is the climax of your novel - the emotional side of things.  Be wild, be creative.  What must he do to come out on top as the lone survivor of a gruesome human bloodsport?  Must he break a relationship?  Kill an innocent man?  Or maybe he realizes that he doesn't have to come out at the top - maybe for once it's okay to let go and sacrifice himself for others or for a greater cause.  It's all up to you.  But be wild - be insane.  Torture your character at this point - drag him through the toughest times of his life - don't go easy on him just because you think you've got enough for him to struggle through.  Press him, press him harder - press him to the brink of death... or beyond.)

What decisions does your character need to take now that the climactic fight is over during the latter periods of the falling action?  (Yes, more decisions.  Decisions are a pivotal point in exploiting how your character has changed.  Here we're beginning to tie things up, but as the slow character arc is progressing, this is where you'll find the last stretch of the arc coming into place, just before meeting up with the final point.  In the aspect he's been changing in, it's become ever more clearer he's changed.)

During the Resolution, the ending period, what major things does your character realize has changed inside of him?  (Is he bold and courageous now?  Is he kind and caring?  While the first sentence might sell the book, this is what sells the series - and possibly your reputation.  This is what makes people spread the word voluntarily to their friends - but most of all, this is the satisfying ending.  Make it take whatever course you like, but remember, unless it's a series (and sometimes even then), we all want a satisfying ending, else we'll feel cheated.)

So?  What are you waiting for?  Go get out there and write!  You now know most of the basic information about your plot, and your character arc is well fleshed out for a fledgling, yet ever growing story.  And it is your story.  The story we all want to here you put to words.

A short list of things you may also want to fill out.

What are your character's quirks?
What are your character's major flaws?
What are your character's positive traits?
Does your character feel ashamed of any of his quirks or flaws?
Or for an interesting twist, does he feel ashamed about his traits?
What things has your character done that he is ashamed of?
What are the lies he believes?
What is his main driving goal?
Is that goal just slightly off touch with his allies and/or leaders?
What kind of a person would this character most likely open up to if he usually hides his emotions from others?

The final one can be very useful if you're trying to reveal his character, because no matter who the person is, there is always someone out there that they will find more comfortable talking about themselves and their feelings with.

Now obviously, there is an endless amount of other helpful tips out there.  I cannot give you all the advice I have in one post, but all of the things above are essential to every story, but be persistent and you won't fall astray.  What are your thoughts on outlining, character arcs, and the like?

~R. A. H. Thacker


  1. My most recent attempts at seat-of-the-pants writing met with a long bunny trails. I'm an outliner. I prefer to write down a summary of the book and then either write it or outline further.

    I've never plotted a character arc. I should try that. And I'll ask your questions for my characters, too.

    1. I started out as a pantser, but after writing my first novel I realized it wasn't me. Outlining is my style now, and I tend to over outline, so I've switched to this method. I can expand from there if I wish to.

      Yes, plotting a character arc can be quite useful. And those questions are indeed helpful.


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