Plotting and Outlines

The other day, I and another writer were talking shop about how to write novel-length fiction, and the subject of outlines and plotting came up. I use outlines in my writing, but I realized it would take me some time to figure out how to explain what I do and why. Since the subject basically demanded writing a blog post anyway, I decided to go ahead and put my thoughts on my blog.

Plotters vs. Pantsers

Plotters are writers who figure out the plot first, then write. Pantsers are those who write “by the seat of their pants,” discovering the plot as they write it. Both methods work, but most writers are one or the other, not both.

I am a plotter. While I do often discover things about my story by watching what happens as I type, I’m basically a non-linear thinker, meaning that the end of the story is just as likely to pop into my head first as the beginning. Thinking about a story is, for me, less like going on a road trip and more like looking at a map.

I don’t start at the beginning and move forward, creatively speaking, I start with a vague map and work to make it more precise. That vague map is the outline. The precise version is the written-out story.

The reason I bring up this distinction is that I rely on plot outlines to do certain things for me as a writer, things I could not write novel-length fiction without. But since pantsers obviously either do write without these things or have some other way to get them, I don’t mean to imply that you need a plot outline. If you’re a pantser, you probably don’t–but if you are a pantser, you’ll probably have to turn to someone else for advice, because I only know what works for me.

Now, then.

What Are Outlines Good For?

Not all stories need outlines, or at least, I have not needed to write outlines for all my stories. For short stories (and for short essays, such as this blog post), I still have a basic idea of what I want to do in my head, but the piece is short enough and simple enough that I can keep it in my head just fine and don’t need to write the plan down. I might use an outline to discuss a project with a collaborator or a client, but if I’m working alone I just write.

But when a story starts getting long and complex, I can’t hold it in my head anymore. I need to write my plan down so I don’t forget it, and so that I can literally get a good look at it.

It’s like that map I mentioned. If the area I’m dealing with is big enough that I can’t see both the big picture and the street details at the same time, I need a zoomed-out version of the map I can refer to so I can remember where the streets I’m looking at actually are.

There are several types of outlines–by which I don’t mean the different outline formats you may have learned in high school English class, I mean several different jobs an outline can do, both in writing and in editing. The one I want to focus on here is the plot outline.

There are two interrelated reasons to write a plot outline: to make sure the plot makes sense; and to help you deal with issues of pacing, tension, and narrative structure.

Making the Plot Make Sense

Imagine that you are L. Frank Baum, writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. You know you want Dorothy to meet three traveling companions, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and the Cowardly Lion. But does she meet them all at once? If not, whom does she meet first? And does she meet them in quick succession, or do you want to put a couple of scenes in between each meeting? By writing a plot outline, you can figure this stuff out, trying a couple of options without having to rewrite the whole book four times.

And once you have your outline written, you can refer back to it so you don’t, for example, leave the Scarecrow out of the Tin Woodsman’s first scene by mistake. The outline tells you that Dorothy meets the Scarecrow first, therefor he is there when she meets the Tin Woodsman.

Pacing, Tension, and Narrative Structure (Oh My!)

Different parts of the story have different jobs to do. The first few scenes must hook the reader and establish the basic circumstances of the story–for example, if this is a fantasy full of magic, you’d better let us know quickly, or we’re going to get confused. Then you’ve got to introduce the main conflict and leading us up to the climax…. Writing an outline lets you figure out how your scenes fit within this narrative structure and at what points you have to shift gears because you’re in a different part of the plot arc, now.

You can use the outlining process to look for, and then fix, holes in your plot–for example, in your mind, does the story jump from the introductory scenes right to the climax, with only a vague muddle in the middle? Outlining makes you notice the vague muddle and tells you it’s time to fill in that space with something.

You can also use the outline to help you stay within the rough size range–you can write the same story idea in ten pages, or a hundred pages, or a thousand pages, depending on how much detail you go into and whether you use any subplots and so forth, so how do you know which page count you’re on track to make? Ok, being off by an order of magnitude seems unlikely, but especially if you’re new at this, you could easily set off with a pacing and style at odds with your projected length. To avoid that, use a plot outline to figure out how much “stuff” you really want to put in this story. Simple plots make short stories, while complex ones need to be long.

How to Use a Plot Outline

I could tell you what to do, but instead I’m going to tell you what I’ve done. Seems a bit more honest that way, and you can adapt my experience to your situation (or not) as you see fit. I should point out that there are places where I could have used outlining more carefully when writing and didn’t, and ended up having to outline more during editing. We are all works in progress, and most of us learn most things the hard way.

I did the initial work on my published novel, To Give a Rose, so long ago that I don’t remember why I did most of what I did. I can tell you that the project went through several different phases (the original idea bears little resemblance to the book I actually wrote), and that when I developed the basic structure that I eventually used, I did write it down as a plot outline.

Let me tell you about one of my current works in progress in more detail.

Ecological Memory began with the idea of writing a kind of teacher story, along the lines of Way of the Peaceful Warrior or The Teachings of Don Juan, except that the teacher would be an ecologist, and his teachings would be scientific rather than explicitly spiritual. That science can have an implicitly spiritual dimension was to be part of the point.

Yes, the teacher figure was to be male, for the simple reason that the people who fill that role for me happen to be. I could have changed the character’s sex simply to buck stereotype, and I do that sort of thing on some projects, but happened not to for this character.

Anyway, I wrote the first page or two, establishing the characters, their world, and how they interact, and then over the course of about two or three days, the general elements of the plot downloaded themselves into my brain; the student character remembers nothing from her early childhood except a few flashbacks of playing in certain forests, and so the ecologist helps her figure out where her childhood home was, based on her descriptions of those forests–these flashbacks would occur several times throughout the story, each time revealing more clues to the puzzle.

As I developed the story further, I realized that the teacher could not and should not be an enlightened guru figure. In fact, he has his own issues that drive a second plot that is intertwined with the first. But that complication evolved gradually, and I was only dimly aware of it when I wrote the first outline.

Anyway, once I figured out where the student character was from, I realized five clues would be enough for the ecologist to solve the puzzle. So, I outlined five chapters, each of which contained three elements: a clue to the whereabouts of the student’s home; a passage in which the teacher told part of his own backstory; and the introduction of a new thematic material.

There were problems.

For example, when I was writing that first page, I noticed that the student sounded like a child. I decided that was just a quirk of their relationship, that she played little-girl with him sometimes, but I wanted to make cleat she wasn’t a child and didn’t act like one usually, so I did the first thing I could think of to make her seem like a bad-ass–I gave her a gun. Except, having introduced a gun, I knew I needed to have it go off at some point, so I had to find some place in the outline where I could put in some gun play.

So, in the course of solving these problems, I created other problems, all of which I used the outline process to resolve eventually.

The actual writing was rather like adding flesh to preexisting bones. I added more ideas, divided several chapters in half because they were too long, and let go of the neat five-sets-of-three structure I’d planned out. With a help of a professional editor (there are many kinds of editor; this was a collaborative or developmental editor), I then tightened up the pacing, added even more scenes, and clarified my ideas substantially–a process that involved another type of outlining, which I hope to discuss in a later post.

Plotter or Pantser?

I am a plotter, yes. But having plotted, I then pants. Then plot again, then pants some more. The plot outline is not written in stone and can change as I get new ideas for the story, as when I nearly doubled the number of chapters, or when new ideas I had while writing radically altered some of the themes and structures of the story. My fiction grows organically and intuitively, just as I imagine the writing of pantsers must. The main difference, as I said, is that my creative process moves from vague understanding to detailed story, instead of from beginning to end.

And outlines are the tool I use to zoom out, to look at the whole picture at once, so I don’t get lost or confused or overwhelmed as I write.

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About Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.
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