writing

The Joy of Outlining

I normally consider myself some sort of unholy cross between a “plotter” and a “pantser” when it comes to writing. I can’t seem to start writing a book without at least a bit of a high-level outline — something like the stages on the hero’s journey — but then I never truly know what the book is about until I’ve written it, and then I have to do a lot of rewriting.

For the book I’m developing now, I’m trying something new and doing a scene-by-scene outline, digging into each scene to look at how it progresses the plot, how it affects the protagonist, where the conflict is, what the emotional pivot is, and what the result is. I haven’t started actually writing yet, and I can already tell a difference.

For one thing, there was a scene I envisioned that I thought did a good job of showing what the heroine’s issues were and building toward the decision she ultimately makes. But once I started digging into the scene, I realized I didn’t need it at all. The emotional beats were identical to those in the previous scene, and all this scene did was delay the start of the main action. I think previously I would have written the scene and then agonized over cutting it. This way, while outlining the previous scene I already knew I wouldn’t need the next one, so I didn’t waste a lot of time on it. I’d seen the mental “movie” of it, and I think I got some character insight from it. Some of the bits I like from that scene will probably end up in a later scene that’s more pivotal. The time I spent thinking about it isn’t wasted, but I’ve also saved myself a lot of writing time.

Then there’s something about analyzing a scene this way that forces you to see the nuts and bolts and how they work. One problem I had with a previous project I struggled with and then shelved was that my agent kept telling me my heroine wasn’t proactive enough. She did make decisions about how she reacted to things, but the major turning points in the story were all her reacting to other people’s actions rather than her taking action, and once I’d written the book, it was really hard to fix it without starting from scratch (which is why it’s shelved, at least temporarily).

Once I started digging into my planned scenes, I realized I was doing the same thing all over again. The heroine gets an opportunity to do something, and her parents bring it to the clan leader to decide. The clan leader rules on it, then assigns the heroine to prepare herself for it. After smacking myself on the head when I saw the pattern, I changed it so that the heroine is the one suggesting bringing it to the clan leader for a ruling, then the clan leader leaves the decision up to her, and then the heroine is the one seeking to train to prepare herself. These are minor tweaks to make now, but if I’d already written these scenes when I noticed it, it would have been more difficult. Even if I changed a few sentences to make it her decisions, the emotions and tone wouldn’t have been quite right, and the inner conflict would have been different.

And then after I fixed all that, in a later scene I caught myself setting it up that someone offers her help when really it should have been her asking for help.

Doing this kind of analysis before writing can also help fix those problem scenes — the scenes you need to convey information and set something up but that don’t really have any kind of inherent conflict. By digging into the potential and looking for conflict, I moved the scene to a new setting, made it more active, and added elements from a subplot to it. Now the main plot purpose may be mostly exposition and setup, but there’s stuff going on from a subplot to make it a real scene. I’m not sure I’d have noticed the problem if I’d just written the scene the way I originally thought of it.

Of course, the moment of truth will come when I have to actually start writing and I see if the plans translate well into actual words. That will likely come later today.

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