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The Disorganized Novelist’s Guide to Outlines

18 June 2017

From Publishers Weekly:

Outlining a novel in the traditional sense is impossible for someone whose car looks like a crime scene and whose kitchen cabinets are home to unnatural hook-ups between pots, pans, and Tupperware.

Like guests arriving before the start of a party, my characters inevitably show up before the plot. Which makes sense because I’m wildly interested in people—who they are, how they got that way, what makes them cringe—and congenitally unable to plan. Unlike some of my writer friends, who approach their opening lines only after constructing complete blueprints of everything between preface and epilogue, I’ve found that there’s more than one way to write a page-turner. A good thing, because the idea of creating a scene-by-scene synopsis makes my teeth hurt. So below is my five-part equation.

In lieu of a standard outline, you need a one-line description of what’s going to happen. That’s it. An elevator pitch. Something that you can refer to when things seem to be getting out of hand. Put it on a sticky note on the top of your computer screen. (The North Star for the muddled.) In the case of my medical thriller, Best Intentions, the pitch was: “A hospital social worker committed to helping others witnesses something terrible and ends up on trial for murder.”

The second part of the formula is having a deep understanding of the characters inhabiting your novel (whom they voted for, what’s inside their purses, what they do when they think they’re alone). That way, when they all board the plane you’re ushering them onto (and the general flight plan incrementally reveals itself), the characters will respond to each other and what you throw at them in ways that not only make sense but also help the narrative along.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

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8 Comments to “The Disorganized Novelist’s Guide to Outlines”

  1. My kind of outline.

  2. I used to write like that. My first book was absolutely huge because I meandered all over the place. 53 books later I use a logline for every book but I plot like mad.

    To use an analogy I’ve used before, my plot is like a dance studio with mirrors and a polished floor. I can dance the polka, a ballet, a country western line dance, or a cha-cha. One thing I can’t do is dance down the stairs and out into the street.

  3. I like how this woman thinks. I won’t outline, but I do plot, after I know who my characters are. That way the plot evolves organically instead of being imposed from the top down. More work though. :/

  4. She beautifully describes character-driven fiction. I’ve stopped demanding of myself that I outline. The one book I tried to outline is still unfinished, some seven years later.

    It’s a mistake to force myself into someone else’s work style. Mine serves me just fine.

    • I figure part of learning how to write is about learning your own internal process. Our minds are all so different.

    • Yeah, I can’t outline. I tried really, really hard to do it, but it just doesn’t work. Once I outline, I’ve told the story well enough, so I have no interest in writing it. I can’t sell outlines, so that leaves me in a bit of a bind, don’t you know.

      I’m glad it works for some, whatever way they do it. But it’s just not my thing.

      • That’s funny. I’ve heard a lot of writers say the same thing. For me, though, when I outline, it gets me more excited to write those scenes because now I know what happens and all that needs to be done is the fun stuff. (That is, I’ve worked out the difficult bits and the more loose, creative stuff like specific dialogue or unexpected moments tend to happen around them.) And it gives me something to look forward to (I write linearly, so wanting to write that cool scene that I have planned later helps motivate me to get through this tough scene now).

        I also find that different stories need different amounts of outlining. As Deb says, I find heavily character-driven stories to need less of an outline than plot-focused ones. Not just that they don’t need an outline. Rather, to do them right, I intentionally need to let things develop more gradually as I go, with a broad plan and then only plotting out more specifically a chapter or so in advance. I often can’t plot these in detail very far out because I don’t know what a character will do until I’m writing the actual scene and see the specifics of the event. Sometimes small insertions in a scene can have big results later on. When the story is all about these characters and their choices and interactions with each other, I need to give the story more room to develop on its own terms than when the story is more about the plot.

  5. "James F. Brown

    Everyone has a different way of writing. Trial and error… and then correcting is how people settle on a way of doing something that works for them uniquely.

    Different strokes for different folks. What’s the problem here?

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