You Might as Well Plot It
By Sherri Williams, Bluegrass Writers Studio
I admit it, I used to hate outlining what I was going to write. Sometimes I still do.
The reason is that as we write we typically flow away from the outline even if it does give us some sense of where we are going and what we are trying to do. It’s that frustration of feeling like you put all that work into it for nothing when you finish the paper or the book and you think, “well, I didn’t even really use that!”
Outlines are a way of plotting your novel that help you in immense ways even before you type your first sentence. Sometimes you have a million ideas in your head. Then, one idea, a picture, or some sort of inspiration sticks with you and you want to write something based on it. You’ll sort through it mentally at first, perhaps jotting down notes. Then you come up with a basic plot line. The character is this and this happens and then becomes this and this happens, etc.
Then, you come up with all these neat details. Character One is a smoker, has his wild scar on his face, Character Two is this blonde with blue eyes but she always wears feathers in her hair and eyeliner. Your third character has a thing for wearing really fashionable clothes but can kick the bad-guy’s butt.
Imagine writing without a guide. Suddenly you are 15,000 words in and your smoker has smoked one cigarette without cravings. That bomb you mentioned that was under the seat of the bus in chapter one never went off, and Juliet isn’t wearing her eyeliner and no one noticed.
Just the other day I sat down and re-plotted my novel Nock. Diana was born with irises that are solid white. This is rather noticeable among mortals, but I had forgotten to include that detail in a few places, among other issues. My plotting and outlining technique is not fancy, or special. I simply grabbed a piece of computer paper and wrote the first scene, then started drawing arrows from one scene to the next until I had pages of it. That is where you find out any major plot holes that you didn’t realize you had. For instance, was a character kidnapped in chapter five but then you have them do something in chapter six? Be careful! This helps prevent that. And now that you have the bones, you can write the scenes in your notebook and add the muscles to tone it.
However, your outline is not set in stone. Many authors like the team of James S. A. Corey, previous BGWS winter residency guests and authors of Leviathan Wakes, (on SyFy soon as The Expanse Series!) constantly correct their outline as they go. If you deviate from your original outline, finish what you are doing in your story, then update the outline and change what is necessary to keep you on the right track.
Something else that is useful is to organize your outlines in a chart once you have most of your ideas figured out, or even to get started. J.K. Rowling does this, as do many authors. The chart can have as many rows and columns as you need, but J.K Rowling did it for each year in Harry’s life. She made each row a month so she would know the weather, then showed the main events, but also allowed for columns to keep other things straight such as what side characters were doing during certain points in time. So what was Snape doing while Harry was with Dumbledore on a certain night? She might know, but we do not necessarily know unless she finds it necessary to tell us. Even if this knowledge is just for you, it helps you keep your events straight.
- S.A. Williams
Published on November 23, 2015