Thursday, 16 February 2012


A few weeks ago, I blogged about learning lessons from screenwriting for writing fiction. Then, a couple of days ago, someone pointed me to J.K. Rowling’s wonderful (if enigmatic) handwritten plot spreadsheets for The Order of the Phoenix.

I’ve been thinking for a while that I should start outlining my stories more. Maybe not short stories, but novels, certainly.

I’ve always told myself that I don’t work well with outlining, that my best stuff comes when I writing blind and in the moment. And to a degree that’s true. But I’m also more prone to hitting brick walls or having to backtrack, or just sitting there wondering where the hell the story should go next.

I think part of my reluctance is because I can get caught up in being a little too mechanistic, sometimes, in forcing my story in directions it shouldn’t go in order to fit a preconceived idea, and then having to do a lot of work to unpick it. I worry that outlining will make that worse.

But I don’t think it has to. Not if the outline has room for shift. And maybe if I do outline properly, I’ll solve those issues before I even come to them.

So, I’m going to try it, but I need your help! Or your recommendations at least. If you outline, do you have a particular method? What kind of things do you include or leave out? Can you recommend any particular books on outlining (screenwriting or novel writing, I don’t mind)?

I’d really appreciate any suggestions. Otherwise my whiteboard will remain empty for a very long time. ;)


Jenn Reese said...

I have more comments about this than I could possibly fit in a blog comment. (Clearly I need to come visit you guys again!)

I read tons of screenplay books, and I do think SAVE THE CAT is a great one to start with. I also really love THE HERO'S JOURNEY by Christopher Vogler for more epic structure theory. It's definitely not as practical, though.

For JADE TIGER I did something similar to Rowling: made a chart of each chapter with several categories across the top: Pace, External Plot, Internal Arc, and Romance. Each chapter had to have something in each column. That's all I did so that I'd still have plenty of room to play and digress, but still a bit of structure.

For Above World I used the Stickies on my Mac to create a visual outline. I have a screenshot of the early days of it somewhere. I had boxes for Beginning, Middle, and End and filled them up with cool ideas, candy-bar scenes, snippets of dialogue, whatever. It was more like a recipe list than an outline.

For the next book, I'll probably use the beat sheet in SAVE THE CAT to start filling in the structure, and then improvise wildly from there.

Looking forward to what other folks have to say!

Patrick Samphire said...

Thanks, Jenn!

I've ordered Save the Cat from our library. I've heard some criticism that it suggests too much of a formula, so it's good to hear it's useful. I'm looking forward to it.

I'll check out The Hero's Journey next.

Jenn Reese said...

SAVE THE CAT is *definitely* too formulaic, but like almost everything, it's good to learn the "rules" so you know exactly why you're breaking them. I definitely don't adhere to every suggestion in SAVE THE CAT, but it really helps me think about my plot in useful ways, and gives me tools that I feel comfortable adapting for my own needs.

tricia sullivan said...

I took quite a bit out of Robert McKee's 'Story', (and maybe you've read my grumpy references to some of what he says). The best bit for me is where he talks rather pretentiously about the 'writer's method' which is THE method used by All Real Writers (pause for vomity moment) but despite the high-handedness, I have found it useful to think in terms of inciting incident, climax, and to work in a parallel process where you build a big pile of working material alongside the process of working out the struture. Sorry if this is cryptic; if you've not read him I'll be happy to send you the relevant pages.

My early outlines are usually done on big pieces of paper and they are as much visual as anything. I try to get a sense of the relationship between events or ideas in the story. I ask a lot of questions and in the act of answering them, the shape of the thing starts to emerge.

Throughout the first draft I tend to go back and forth between writing and outlining. Most of my books were recast--seriously re-envisioned--at least twice during the drafting process, usually because I encountered an insoluble problem or opened some kind of can of worms. So I do A LOT of reworking and doubling back.

I used to hope that by outlining and planning more, I could avoid those awkward corners and phases of screaming terror. At the moment I'm of the opinion that it is the awkward corners that present the greatest opportunities, although dealing with them can be very challenging and distinctly not fun. I do think, though, that there are times when a birdseye view of the story as a whole can be very helpful, even if it turns out to be a map that keeps changing. And if you've not outlined before it might add something to your game to experiment with it and see where it gets you.

One question to ask yourself might be, what do I hope to get out of outlining? What do I want it to do for me? And if you can answer that, then you may be able to avoid following some method that is too restrictive for you, that dries you out.

Patrick Samphire said...

Thanks, Trish. That's really useful. I haven't read STORY, but I'm sure I can get it from the library (so don't worry about sending pages!)

I think part of the reason I want to try this is that when I start writing for the day, I'm often so exhausted that my brain just can't face figuring out what happens next, what's been happening, how I need to tie in all the plot strands and characters, and so on. I figure if I've already got an outline of some type, I might be able to get past that. Once I've started writing, I'm usually fine, but there's an initial barrier.

I also just want to experiment. I've hit a bit of a rut (really since MrD started moving independently...) and I need to try something new to get out of it.

j. meyers said...

Okay, so I'm totally digging your blog, and couldn't not comment on this. The book that threw me into outlining (and consequently, made it so I'd actually finish a novel, not just start it) was WRITING THE BLOCKBUSTER NOVEL by Al Zuckerman, which I borrowed from the library (then bought because it was so good).

What he did that really worked with my brain/thought process was he used actual examples of an outline from first draft to fourth before the writing took place, and talked about the changes. He used his client Ken Follett's outline for The Man from St. Petersburg.

What this showed me was not only the evolution of an outline, a plot arc, and the overall story line, but that the first outline/idea doesn't have to be perfect. You get it down, then play with it, tweak it, until you have a well-rounded story. His outline style was full of details, not bare bones.

I started with a bare bones outline just to have the overall feel for the story, then I filled it in in great detail, ended up with a 40 page, single space outline that I'd played with for a few months to get the story right, letting it come to me as I went along. In reality, it ended up being the book in shorthand, in a way, and made the writing of the book incredibly easy. And some things changed as I went along, but in reality not much, so I didn't end up wasting any time on a tangent or getting stuck not knowing where to go next. And I only ended up with two scenes that had to be cut because they didn't further the plot.

I was surprised to find the outlining process to be incredibly creative because the ideas were able to flow quickly. Plus I was able to look at the whole of the novel in a much more manageable way to see where there were holes, where more twists were needed, or where it needed work. And once I was satisfied, I started writing the thing, fleshing out the entire story.

I highly recommend Zuckerman's book because it's not terribly structured (or at least it didn't seem to be when I read it--it's been a while) but still talks about what needs to happen over all and within each chapter. But what I *love* about it is the concrete examples throughout, showing progression, giving commentary. Really, an amazing resource.

Patrick Samphire said...

@ j. meyers

That sounds really interesting, particularly the examples. I'm going to reserve it from my library right away.