Part One: How to Outline Your Novel So You Don’t Use Up All Your Swears During Revisions
I’m so honored to be a part of the Pen and Muse guest posting team, so much so that I’m going to put you through the logical, mind-bending process that makes you want to tuck your shiny, new book idea back into the ether and forget it ever happened. That’s right, lovelies.
(Pantsers need not apply.)
Now, there are a million, zillion ways to go about planning your pretty little idea, but today I’m going to show you a technique I’ve honed over the course of four manuscripts with some pretty fantastic success. Each and every manuscript that I’ve plotted this way has been tighter, more coherent, and my revision time has gotten significantly shorter (and less painful).
So today, I introduce you to Part One: The Pre-game Outline. Next week, I’ll force upon you Part Two: Oh Crap, I Screwed Up In The Middle of This Book How Do I Fix This OMG.
But before we get started, let me give you a few reasons why outlining is the bomb. Perhaps I can even convert a few pantsers in the process, yes? Maybe.
- You get to see the big picture before the words are on the page. Since you know exactly where your story is going, you have the blissful opportunity to plant snippets of information that will be important to your storyline later on. You’re basically foreshadowing as you go.
- You can usually catch major plot holes before you write yourself into a corner. I write thrillers and mysteries, so there are a lot of clues that have to weave together in order to move the story forward in a logical manner. I need to know where these clues are leading my characters before they’re not leading them anywhere at all.
- You can fix pacing problems before drafting. I use the Save the Cat beat sheet (more on this in a second) to plan the pacing of my novel before I even write it. This helps me see where things could possibly get slow, and helps me to ramp up the writing in those parts, or to move scenes around to make the story flow better.
- Revisions are less painful. No explanation needed, obviously.
Okay, okay, great. Sold. So, um, what now?
Don’t worry, I’ve got you. Let’s get down to the nitty gritty.
Step One: Write down a very loose string of ideas related to your book.
I start with a blank sheet of actual, physical paper and I just start writing. You can also do this with a blank Word document, construction paper, whatever floats your boat. I’d just suggest something empty (no lines) so you can let your ideas stretch out. You never know how they’re going to want to present themselves. When I planned for THE DIARIES OF ELLA GRAHAM, I just wrote a tangle of incoherent ideas across eight pages of blank paper until they were all out. But when I planned for THE DESTRUCTION OF STARS AND LIES, my planning turned into a web and a sketch and maybe a few doodles of a narwhal (no narwhals in that book, FYI) and some swears when I realized none of it made sense. Yet.
Step Two: Transfer that to a fresh Word doc. Start to organize important events in the order you want them to happen.
This is where some of the actual thinking comes in. I take my messy thoughts (sans narwhals) and start to put them in an order that makes sense. Now, this is still incredibly messy, but at least it’s not just brain vomit on the paper. It’s kind of shaping up into a book with a potential beginning, middle, end. But it still looks like one big, fat narrative.
Step Three: Bring in the heavy artillery, AKA The Save the Cat beat sheet.
The beat sheet is one of the most valuable tools I’ve found for pacing. Basically, it’s spreadsheet type thing that allows you to input your goal word count, and then it calculates how long each of a book’s three acts should last, and where all the important plot points should end up. EFFING. AWESOME. So I check the outline that I’ve created against the beat sheet to see if everything falls where it should, and if it doesn’t, I adjust. When I’m finished fixing it up, I should have 15 plot points to match the beat sheet.
(You can download a beat sheet here.)
Step Four: Break it Down
The last step in my pre-game outline is to break each of the 15 major events down into even smaller events, aka scenes. So let me give you an example.
In THE DESTRUCTION OF STARS AND LIES, plot point #7 (The B-Story, or love story) looks like this:
- David and Wren uncover the coordinates. Wren admits she’s been keeping one of the clues a secret. David forgives her and shares the findings of the coordinates and the star charts with Wren. They share a moment, “almost kiss.”
Then I break that down into all of the scenes that fall within that plot point:
7A. David wishes he remembered the exact coordinates from the clock, feels bad that Wren is right. Wren admits she has the other coordinate clue. David isn’t mad about it. They look up the coordinates in Eli Wickers’s astronomy book, and discover the location of the constellation Perseus, along with a highlighted message from Eli.
7B. The highlighted parts of the passage (7 stars, 5 sparrows) confused them both, but while David ponders his dad’s message quietly, Wren gets frustrated. She wonders what all of the connections between stars and birds have been, and thinks about the meaning of her own name. Wren asks, “I don’t get this. What is the thing with birds and stars?” David says, “There are a lot of connections between the two.” Talks about the constellations and their significance. Wren says, “Show me.”
Okay, so there’s that. This was a short plot point, so it only broke up into two scenes, but fatter points (like #9, the Midpoint) have five or six scenes. And by the time I finish doing this, my novel is pretty well thought out, everything is in an order that makes sense, and my whole book is broken down into scenes. WOOT. Give yourself a cookie, that was a lot of freaking work.
But, it’s worth it. Because now that you’ve gotten a lot of the hard, brain-hurty work out of the way, you can just draft in peace (HAHAHA. Okay. Kind of). This is where I crack open Scrivener, start a new document within my project for Chapter 1, and I decide how many scenes are going to go in that chapter. And then so on and so forth. When it’s all said and done, I end up with a separate document for each chapter, and just one document for the entire outline, broken up into acts and then scenes. (I also keep other documents, like “UH OH I NEED TO FIX THIS STUFF WHEN I REVISE” and “Character Arcs. I think,” but that’s a different story for a different day.
So that’s all for now! I’ll be back on Pen and Muse next week to talk about what happens when your story starts writing itself in a different direction than you planned (happens all the time) and how to adjust your outline while giving the story room to grow organically. Stay tuned.
So tell me, what do you guys do to plan for your novels? Are you a psychotic outliner like me or are you more, um, sane?