When most people hear the word “outline” they think of those dreaded roman-numeraled jobbies from high school. You know the ones. If you’re like me, the thought of those subsets and highly logical left-brained exercises give you the shakes. If you’re not like me, they give you a sense of order and linearity, and perhaps even control over your ideas.
I sat on a panel last weekend at Fencon about how to take an idea through to an outline. I’ll admit I had some trepidation going in. I don’t outline in the traditional sense, and the idea of talking for an hour about them sounded about as appealing as, well, outlining. However, during the course of the discussion something occurred to me: Everyone has a different idea of what an outline actually is.
For example, I’m often asked if I’m a plotter or a by-the-seat-of-my-pants writer (aka a panster). The short answer is I’m neither but sometimes I’m both. If you’ll remember in my last post, I advocated resisting the urge to impose structure on your ideas too early in the process. That is because when I sit down to write a story, I focus first on accumulating ideas. I write scenes or images that I see very clearly. These little nuggets are like the shiny stones in a kaleidoscope. I get them down and then I spend a long time shifting them around, looking from every angle to find the vein of gold that will lead me into the heart of the story.
Usually, once I have pondered and shifted these stones around for a few weeks, I start putting them in some semblance of order. I do this by using a tool more often associated with screenwriting: a storyboard. This is not the same as a storyboard used by advertising people or animators to show images. Yet it is inherently a visual exercise.
Here’s how it works. I begin by writing the the main idea or goal of my core scenes on Post-It notes. Those are placed on a poster board in approximately the location I see them fitting into the story. The board has been divided into four horizontal sections. The top section is Act One, from inciting incident to the first story turning point. The middle two sections represent Act 2, which is the longest act and contains two turning points. The third section, obviously, represents Act 3.
When I begin laying out my scenes I may only have about ten or twelve beats, or scenes. Most of my books are around thirty chapters, each with one or two scenes. That means a book requires anywhere from thirty to upwards of maybe forty-five scenes. But now that I have a skeleton for the story with my initial 12 or so scenes, I can start playing with the white spaces. Using more Post-Its, I connect the dots between my existing scenes. Usually, I also use different colors Post-Its for different subplots or major elements. So, for instance, in the story board shown above for GREEN-EYED DEMON, the main plot is blue and another element I was keeping track of is green.
After I get my main scenes on the board, it’s kind of like planning a road trip, where each Post-It is a destination. I know, for example, I need to get from Dallas to Atlanta in the first act. Maybe I have a couple of stops on the way already mapped out. This is where I figure out whether I want to add a detour to see the world’s largest ball of twine or if I’d prefer to take the scenic or more direct route.
I can assure you that this method is not easy. It’s circuitous and non-linear and can be quite frustrating. But it reflects how I think about story–in a visual, right-brained sort of way. Often times, I don’t know what I want to say until I’ve figured out what I don’t want to say by writing lots and lots of scenes that won’t make it into the final story. The story board helps me rejigger my plot on the fly. It also allows me to know with a quick look if my pacing of any of the story elements is off. And because I use short one-line descriptions for each scene, it also allows me enough leeway for inspiration to strike while I’m writing. It also allows me to write the book out of order, which means that I’m always working on scenes I’m excited about on any given day. When the first draft is done, the board also allows me to reorder scenes easily and then apply those changes in the document.
As I was sitting on the panel last weekend, I realized that while I don’t plot or outline in the traditional sense, my storyboard is, nevertheless, a visual outline. They might not work for everyone or make sense to anyone else who sees them, but they work for me.
Part of becoming a writer is figuring out how your mind processes story. I figured out a long time ago that trying to impose linear plots on my ideas results in formulaic story, so I shun any tool that pushes me in that direction. But some writers’ best work comes from linear thinking. Roman numerals get them excited and that’s okay, too.
I guess my point is that there are as many types of outlines are there are types of writers. Some using excel spreadsheets to track action, some use index cards wrapped with a rubber band, some write synopses using the hero’s journey template, some don’t use any outline at all during their first draft and then write one to use for revisions. Your job is to figure out what works best for you and your project.
The process I described above for my process often gets tweaked depending on the story. Sometimes my story boards are densely packed with notes. Other times they’re sparse. Sometimes I create them early in the prewriting phase and sometimes I really don’t create them until closer to the end of the first draft.
If you’re looking for a list of types of outlines, you should check out this post by Check Wendig:25 Ways to Plot, Plan and Prep Your Story. If you’re not already reading his Terrible Minds blog, do yourself a favor and add it to your blog roll.
Every story needs structure. As the writer, it’s up to you when, how and what kind of structure it has. Be open to experimenting with different forms of outlining until you find one that works for you.