Outlines, Anyone?

There are two primary schools of thought when it comes to plotting your novel. One of them is that you should do a painstaking outline before you write chapter one, and in it you should include every major event in your novel, down to specific scenes you envision. “You wouldn’t plan a road trip,” the experts claim, “without picking up a map so you know exactly how to get there.” There’s a lot of validity in that line of reasoning, I suppose. But I’m not sure that the comparison between a novel and a road trip is a completely valid one to begin with.

The other school of thought is that you should have a good understanding of your characters, hopefully a good idea of where your story is going or will end up, but that you should let your characters “tell their story” as the story unfolds. In other words, you should let the plot flow more freely as you type and hope that in the end the whole thing ends up where you intended or, if possible, somewhere better than you had ever imagined. To adapt this strategy to the road trip metaphor, it’s like wanting to drive from Sacramento to the coast (since you love the beach), only to end up parking your car in Maui. (Yeah, I know, that would be a road trip worth writing about!)

I suspect that most writers fall somewhere in the middle. I think I do. As I mentioned earlier in my piece about writing school, I was forced to prepare a plot summary for my novel. What I’ve ended up writing, about 110 pages into it, has already varied from that summary. I haven’t bothered to rewrite the summary because I’m not sure I’ve finished making changes to it. My plots require a bit of internal simmering before I can commit to them. I like to ponder the twists and turns and consider the pros and cons, as well as better routes to get there. Even then, I’m not particularly meticulous when it comes to writing down the game plan. I’m not sure that I wouldn’t become bored telling the story if I’ve already told it in short form in an outline.

That leaves me curious, though, about how the rest of you plot out your stories. Do you do an outline at all? If so, do you use a classic outline form or more of a narrative summary? How long is your outline/summary? Do you break it up by chapter, or acts, or even individual characters? Do you plan outhow many page numbers certain chapters or portions of the book will be? Do you even plan out how many pages your finished manuscript will be?

If you’re really bold, I’d love to see a sample of it: without giving away your story, pick a random chapter and give me an example of how you’ve outlined that specific chapter (or, if you prefer, craft a sample of an imaginary chapter that shows your method, if you have one): don’t worry that the plot won’t make sense — of course it won’t, because it’s a short passage taken out of context — we won’t know who the characters are or what they’re doing, and that’s okay.

I think it might be helpful to see how others are mapping out their storyline. Perhaps your strategy might work for someone else; if you don’t have a strategy at all, perhaps even that will make the rest of us wavering between one or the other feel like our situation isn’t that hopeless after all.

The early outline I found, when it was still the plan, went something like this for a single chapter:

Mark packs his car, heads to town: he’s not completely sure why he’s going, and is beginning to think the mysterious woman is a complete crackpot. He nearly wrecks on his way there when he encounters another driver who tries to run him off the road. When his car stops, the driver rolls up next to him and he sees that that it’s a ghost who disappears (along with the car) in front of him.

There’s nothing elaborate in the kind of thing I do. Occasionally, if I know of a specific line I want a character to hear or say, an image I want them to see or a sound or smell I want them to make note of, I’ll write it down just so I won’t forget. I almost never write any exchanges of dialog, unless I hear a snippet of conversation in my head that’s too good to pass up.

As for this scene, I’m hoping the end result will be a chilling, tense scene. I’m fairly pleased with the first draft of that chapter, but there’s a problem or two that I need to fix before I’m ready to pick up where I left off writing completely new material. Did I mention that revising early parts of the manuscript before I’ve finished later parts really drives me crazy? Yeah, I thought I did.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 29 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.