My Outlining Epiphany

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Today I had an epiphany about outlining my novel. It didn’t come from one of several books I have read on the topic, nor did it rise from the blogs and podcast to which I subscribe. No, this epiphany came after watching a television program. It could just as easily come from reading a book or watching a movie, but the combination of thinking about a recent series when I wanted to be thinking about my novel actually helped my outlining fog dissipate. The structure of episodic television clarified why my previous outlining attempts didn’t work.

I started writing as a pantster naively thinking that this was how first drafts were always done before edits and revisions drew out the final product. This process worked well for my first year of NaNoWriMo since I had zero plan and barely a story. Since diving into the craft by reading books and blogs about writing, I found the contrasts between planners and pantsters always interested me. I soon realized the more organized manner in which I conducted my work and home life fell in-line with planners more so than pantsters. I resolved that converting to an outliner would lead me to success.

Through books and blogs I explored several writing and outlining recommendations. Some of these approaches were not touted as ways to outline, but the similarities to more formal outlining techniques were impossible to miss. I hoped one of these methods would guide me to a point in my writing where I no longer plodded (or plotted) along blindly wherever my characters or whims took me. Every story needs direction, so why shouldn’t my writing have clear direction, too?

The early outlines I attempted were far too detailed and required so much planning that outlining was like writing my first draft then my writing phase turned into draft number two. I had come full circle; back to being a pantster.

When my epiphany occurred, I had been thinking about why the Netflix series Grace and Frankie included a story line about a burglary and the women’s varying views on owning a gun. Taken alone, this storyline felt like a significant departure, less humorous and far more serious, from events in other episodes. I looked forward and found that the major development the writers were going for was to breakup or disrupt the main characters’ partnership. They could have implemented any one of hundreds of different ideas, and probably sketched out many of them in other drafts and brainstorming sessions. In the end they had to choose the most impactful to the characters and the most unexpected, powerful and interesting for the viewers

My epiphany illuminated the fact that all I needed were the basics for the scenes. The outline should not include all of the specific actions, settings and full cast of characters for every scene. Brainstorming the details should be saved for the writing phase.

The information I needed to begin was as simple as knowing where my story started and where it would end up and then do the same thing scene by scene. Thanks to a suggestion in The Story Grid, tacking on the value changes of each scene (positive to negative, negative to more negative, etc.) in the outline helps in two ways. First, clarifying the direction a scene needs to go from beginning to end, and second, qualifying the value changes from scene to scene illustrating how the story builds and falls to ensure the plot progresses in an interesting way.

From there I simply need to figure out all the “how’s” and “why’s” as I write. There are always options and I need to consider each one carefully before deciding what events between the major points will have the greatest value to the story’s ending and the most interest to the reader.

This of course is exactly what all of them we books and blogs have told me. I guess I didn’t see it at the time. I certainly do now.

In case you are interested, I highly recommend the following books, blogs and podcasts. There are parts of each of the authors’ recommended approaches that have made it into my ever morphing writing process.

Randy Ingermanson’s Advanced Fiction Writing and The Snowflake Method. He has an interesting blog and newsletter full of tips. I also highly recommend his fictional tale/Snowflake Method instruction manual, How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method

Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid has loads of valuable resources that go along with his awesome book, The Story Grid. I have also been enthralled with Story Grid Podcast Shawn does with aspiring fiction writer and book launch expert Tim Grahl.

K.M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success. The book is an enjoyable read and important reference manual and guide to outlining.

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