The Outline

Last week I made the comment that: “Writing is easy. You just have to know where to start, where to stop, and what to put in between.” In essence, what I was talking about there was the outline.

Now I can already hear many of you groaning, thinking back to your junior high days when you had to learn to diagram a sentence as well as learn to outline in preparation for writing essays. Those outlines were pretty highly structured, with Capital A, followed by #1, followed by lower case a, etc under each section and subsection. The outline I am going to talk to you about is a little more freeflowing, but the purpose is basically the same.

There’s two main reasons to have an outline, nay three: (1) outlines serve as a framework–a skeleton–for your written piece, and give it predictable structure; (2) outlines make it easier to write by telling you what goes where; and (3) outlines make writing faster.

I mentioned last week that there are authors who say they start each book by sitting in front of a blank screen and just typing. From experience, I would say that the danger would be that the story would go in directions where it couldn’t be handled, and there would be lots of blind alleys writing that way. My first novel was written in this fashion. It was an old-fashioned space opera that was pretty contrived and got my characters constantly into trouble that they couldn’t get out of. It also took two years to write, and I was constantly out of ideas how to get the story back on track. Looking back, I would have saved myself a lot of trouble by sitting down and charting out in advance where I wanted the story to go.

Here’s how my novels take form today. I usually have a brainstorm while I am traveling or mowing the lawn or washing the dishes or some other mundane task. It’s usually just a sentence or a paragraph, such as “A battle between vampires and Amish.”

The first chance I get, I write it down, then give myself permission to forget it. If the story idea comes up again and again, I mull it over in my mind and eventually try to flesh out my original idea a bit more, say several paragraphs.

When the story develops into maybe two pages of notes, it’s time to start charting it out by chapters. I determine how many pages the publisher is going to want–or how many pages the story can really carry–and I break it up into chapters with about 12-15 pages per chapter.

At Park City, they told us that chapters can be any length, from a few sentences to hundreds of pages. But usually the time to change chapters is when you make a major scene change, or start telling the story from the perspective of another character. I understand and appreciate that, and very likely I will break up my chapters using this method in future books. But my intention in appointing 12-15 pages to a chapter is to help with the outline. Then, within each chapter, I plot out 3-4 scenes.

My writing is done in scenes. There are advantages and disadvantages to this. The disadvantages are that it sometimes makes transitions between scenes a little difficult, and there’s more focus on moving the plot along than getting us more familiar with the characters. When you are writing a character-driven story, that can be awkward.

The advantage is that you can visualize a scene better than you can a chapter. Plus, if you think of writing a book as a series of scenes of 4-6 pages each, writing the massive thing is a more doable project. Just like how you eat an elephant: one bite at a time.

So when I start outlining, I need to have a pretty sharp view of how I want to write the opening chapters. That vision becomes more cloudy and scarce as the chapters get further and further away. That’s OK. As I write, I come back to the outline and update future chapters. Most of the time, the characters and the story itself tell me where it is going. I never lose track of where I want to end up at the very end. But how I get there changes as the story writes itself.

Julianna Baggott, my teacher at Park City, talked about taking big pads of paper–I would recommend rolls of butcher paper–and outlining through a series of big circles. She’s write things about the major characters here and there, and then draw bridges between the circles as she sees how everything connects. This is a technique that was also recommended when I was preparing for my doctoral dissertation. It’s great for brainstorming ideas, especially when you have lots of disconnected ideas and you want to see how you can plug them into the story.

But once you have a pretty good handle on how to get that first chapter written, you should be up and running.


3 thoughts on “The Outline

  1. “A battle between vampires and Amish.”

    Just so you know, I want to read that. ^

    I just wrote a similar blog on note taking, though it was less wellthought out as yours, methinks 😛

    Also, this technique of writingcircles onbutcher paper and stuff… I’ve never heard of it, but it sounds interesting. If you could ever tell me more about the secifics of it, that’d be great.


  2. Glen, do you run the risk of becoming formulaic and predictable when you start out a project with a pre-set structure of how many pages/scenes per chapter you want?

    Should the story or “scenes” dictate how long the chapters are? and not vice versa? Don’t be afraid to write the 1 sentence chapter!

    Enjoy the blog Glen, thanks!

    1. No, I don’t think so. The trick is to not make your structure so stiff that you can’t go where the story goes. I chart the chapter-scene thing at 12-15 pages as a beginning goal, but that varies a lot. The main reason is so that I will end up in page count where i want to be. But often dialogue goes long, or I decide to delete whole scenes. And as I say in the blog, when you make a major change in the scene or the perspective, that’s a natural place to start a new chapter. You have to start somewhere, but that doesn’t mean you are locked into that routine.

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