When I wrote my first novel, I sat down at my computer and waited to be surprised by the story that unfolded. I had no idea how the story would unveil. I was writing by the seat of my pants (the definition of Panster). I never knew where I was going before I got there except for knowing the final destination. I loved the surprise of traveling where my characters led me. I loved the joy of the journey.
The joy disappeared as I started pitching the book. I learned the agent wanted a one to three-page synopsis of my story in addition to sample chapters. Some required an outline and chapter summaries. It seemed no two wanted the same thing.
Sometimes I pitched to a publisher or editor at a writer’s conference. I would get excited when they said yes to look at my book. I found them requesting a chapter-by-chapter outline plus a three to five sentence synopses of each chapter. They wanted to know about the chapters in detail including a synopsis of each scene in the chapter. The work of putting the information together was harder for me than writing a book.
I found myself having to go back and make an outline of the book. The detail needed included information on the scenes just to get it considered. At this point, I decided I would outline the next novel I wrote. I could change the outline if I felt the need to change directions, but I would not have to go back and create an outline from a 300-page manuscript.
While your experiences may be different, mine motivated me to outline first. My goal is to chase away some of those misconceptions about what it means to plot a book beforehand. I view outlining as a work saver.
I Find An Outline Forces Me To Focus.
As I worked on my book I created these fantastic characters, put them in a rousing venue, and gave them all kinds of amazing things to do. When you begin the story, you are probably like I was – excited. You cannot wait to get the story from your head to the page.
I found writing an outline forces me to take a get a clear focus on my vision. I ask myself what is the tale I want to tell? It also helps me determine what the tension is between characters. I think about and plan for the conflicts and resolution. I determine how the antagonist and protagonist will develop and change during their journey. As I have said, I can go back and change the outline if I fell the need to adjust directions in the course of writing a story. An outline makes you think about the details early.
I Find An Outline Helps Reduce My Fear of the Size of the Task.
Writing a book can be a frightening undertaking. You may wonder how you can ever create 300 pages? You may ponder if you can hang in there long enough to reach the end.
Think of an outline as a roadmap. It helps you remember that you do have an objective in mind. The first work of length I wrote was a doctoral dissertation. The proposal had to be approved with a detailed outline before I wrote the first sentence. The outline not only kept me on track, but it was the beacon that led me to my destination. The same idea works with fiction or nonfiction book.
I Find An Outline Helps Me Maintain My Equilibrium.
An outline helps me decide if I have the right balance of parts in my story. Do I have a balance of historical events and relationships or does the history overwhelm the characters? Is my western really a western? Are the science details overwhelming the story in my science fiction?
I Find An Outline Helps Me Plot.
Outlining makes me determine what is going to what happens in the beginning, middle and end of my book. The specifics of those happenings may be adjusted in the progression of writing a book. The outline gives me the framework of my storyline. Knowing the ending helps me point the story in that direction.
Writing the outline puts the conclusion in my mind. I find that as I write my story, my subconscious is always coming up with new and exciting ways to shove my characters toward their failures, trials, and successes.
I Find An Outline Prevents A Weak Middle Third of the Book.
When I write an outline, I quickly find out if I have sufficient action and conflict to support the middle third of my book. You do not want the middle to stretch between the beginning and end of your story like Interstate 15 stretches between the population centers of southern California and Las Vegas, Nevada. If you are not familiar, the highway crosses miles of desert including Death Valley. You want something there in the middle that keeps them moving along as your readers travel through your story.
An outline gives me a chance to think about and reflect on conflict and character development to make that middle an interesting, important part of my book. While you can do the same thing as you write your story, having an outline helps keep the story progressing and lessens the chances of the dreaded writer’s block.
I Find An Outline Helps Me Write Faster.
When I know what is going to happen in a scene or chapter I simply sit down and write a scene or chapter. I do not sit wondering what I will write about. I have already made that decision. I only sit in my chair and do my writing assignment for the day.
I found with an outline I wrote book two in a quarter of the time it took me to write book one. And I did that having a day job that when my commute is added to it takes twelve hours of my day five days a week!
Every author has an approach that works best for them. I have found an outline works better than writing by the seat of my pants.
Some writers use their synopsis (narrative overview of the story) as an outline. Other authors write a summary of each chapter or each scene including the action takes place in that scene or chapter. That is what I do. Here is an example from my current work in progress:
Chapter Two – Supreme Commander of the Unified Peoples Planetary Expeditionary Force (UPPEF) sends Harry to Mars to inspect the damage
1. Scene One: Supreme Commander of the UPPEF recognizes Harry’s sadness. He learns of and understands what caused the melancholy.
2. Scene Two: Supreme Commander of the UPPEF sends Harry Ashworth with letters from himself, Chancellor Wilson, and a commission to The Bradbury Burroughs Rain Dome
3. Scene Three: Harry Ashworth, to the grief of Martian based UPPEF comes to the Rain Dome
4. Scene Four: Harry Ashworth views the ruins of the Rain Dome secretly.
5. Scene Five: Harry Ashworth incites the citizens to build.
I use the writing software program Scrivener. I use the “notecards” in the view mode. I do one card for each chapter in the book. I write a synopsis of the chapter and then list the scenes in the chapter. I also use the cards to write a description of my characters.
Well, without boring you with more mind-numbing details, I will challenge you to consider outlining if you have not tried it. If the idea scares you, try it for just one chapter or even one scene. If you do not have a clue what to outline, just ask your characters to tell you what they are going to do next. They will tell you.
You may find you can write faster, with fewer holes and empty spaces in you story if you outline. Like me, you too may become a former pantser who is converted to be a plotter.
Note: The article originally appeared in “Author Culture” on 11/5/2014.