Grammar

Outlining the Plot

Recently, Turtle left the following comment:

Just remember, I’m a newbie, so don’t become upset at what I’m about to say. You, Shelly, and Andrea all talk of forward momentum and revising and moving things around…it seems to me that you are all happiest when you’ve crystallized WIP as opposed to the tenuousness of sketched out outlines…true? It isn’t necessarily having the entire story in your head, it’s more firming things up as they are that makes you feel good?I’m asking because I’m trying to learn, and yes, I know that the process is different for different writers.

I’m not upset at all, Turtle. We’re all trying to learn, after all. You’re right that the process is different for different writers, so I can only speak to my own writing habits.

As a writer, I would love to have a structured outline that nailed down every loose end and showed me exactly which way to go and how to get there. Director Alfred Hitchcock always had a detailed storyboard of each scene, shot by shot, before the first frame of film was exposed. He was once heard to say that the actual shooting of the film was the boring part because he had already created the images during the storyboarding process.

Likewise, for me, the more detail I have put into outlines, the less I have enjoyed writing the manuscript that followed it.

I don’t mean to imply that it was “stifling to the art” or anything so high-brow. Simply put, the more details I put into the outline — and I once did an outline that even suggested how many pages each chapter should be — the more I found myself trying to fill pages to get from one plot point to another. I suddenly found myself no longer writing a novel, but trying to connect pre-conceived events that I already decided upon. That isn’t to say that I didn’t make changes as I went along…I did. But even so, I felt weighted by the outline.

For my current manuscript, I know how my story will end. Recently I actually wrote the final scene on a whim. I know certain scenes and how they will unfold. I also know (for the most part) what it will take to get from Point A to Point B and so on. I don’t necessarily like writing it this way better, but at least I feel like I can make it to the end of the manuscript without keeling over from boredom.

My current phase of revision began when a friend of mine pointed out an error in where I had set one scene very early in the story. It was close enough to the beginning of the story that I just used it as an excuse to go back to page one and have another look at things. I have since rewritten nine chapters…and I’m still going. I find it easier to write new material if I am happy with what I’ve written before it. When the error was pointed out to me, I felt the need to make some changes and decided that revising would give me a chance to review everything up to that point and to tighten up what was already on paper.

I would love to find a way to perfect that “happy medium,” so that I could outline more before writing. It would probably have helped me avoid many of the holes that kept me at a dead halt for months at a time. But until I do, this is the best way I can write.

(If anyone out there has a successful method of outlining that they’d mind sharing, I’m sure many of us would welcome seeing it.)

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 28 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.