Thursday, July 7, 2011

Plotting and Outlining

When I go on a trip, I like to plan my journey. I look at a map and calculate which route to take. I do some research and figure out what highlights I want to see along the way. Planning a trip means I know where I’m going and what I’m going to see, but it’s not so rigid that I can’t take a side trip or trip if I discover something interesting along the way.

Writing an outline for the plot of a novel is a little like planning a trip. It helps you figure out what direction your novel is going to take and what your major plot points are going to be, but still allows room for creativity.

So what is outlining?

It’s writing out all the events of your plot from the beginning of your novel until the end. There are many ways to outline. You can do a quick set of notes on one page, write out scenes on index cards, scribble the highlights about each scene on Post-it notes that you can change and move around, or complete comprehensive scene-by-scene analysis that you keep in separate binders. There’s no wrong way to outline, just the right way for each individual writer.

Here are some reasons for writers to outline their novel before they start writing:

Using research to better effect:  An outline can be changed at any time, even during the writing process. If you discover some interesting research as you write or pre-write, you can make a note of in your outline and know that that interesting tidbit will not be lost. Robert Kernen, in “Building Better Plots”, says that outlining will “help you more smoothly and effectively incorporate new plot or thematic elements you discover during the writing process.”

Saving time: Randy Ingermanson claims that using his Snowflake method of outlining can reduce the time to write a first draft from 500 hours to 250 hours, including the 100 hours or so needed to complete the outline. He also points out that by working on an outline first, all the work of your synopsis is basically done, further reducing your writing time. Writer Joanna Penn says that when you have limited time each day to devote to your writing, you don’t want to spend half of it staring blankly at your computer because you have no idea where you’re going next.

Makes the writing process easier: Robert Kernan says that outlining will “free your mind and your intuition to work on the writing of your story, the characters, the dialogue, the language, etc., unconcerned about whether the structure is sound.” Rather than restricting the writer, Kernan claims that outlining will “liberate your writing by giving you a map, allowing you to focus on other elements of the writing and helping you avoid frustration.”

Will this idea fly?: The reason I plot my novels in advance is to figure out whether they’re going to work or not. What would you rather do: spend a few hours outlining and discover that the plot you thought so clever has too many holes in it to work, or spend 500 hours (translation: weeks, months) writing a first draft, get to the middle of it, and realize the story is totally unworkable? If you outline, you can plug holes in your plot, give your characters better goals and conflicts before you start writing your first draft. You can avoid deadends that take up so much time and cause writers so much frustration.

Whatever method of outlining you choose, it needs to hit all the highlights of a romance novel. It needs to present and resolve the goals and conflicts of the characters. It needs to show the rising action of the story and the developing romance between hero and heroine. Here is a template for plot structure that I came across some time ago.

Template – Plot Structure

Part I The Set Up

- Introduce characters (main and secondary)
- Introduce setting
- Introduce Goal and Motivation (external and internal conflict)
- Introduce first major obstacle
- Introduce romantic attraction
- Snappy opening – the “hook”

Part II  Plot Complications

- Characters’ efforts to overcome obstacle make situation worse. They realize at this point how big their problem is.
- Romantic attraction fully developed. (Perhaps the first love scene occurs here.)
- Characters mistakenly believe a solution is near.

Part III  Switch-a-roo and Misery

- Insurmountable obstacle shatters romantic trust. (The Black Moment).
- Something happens to one or both characters that causes them to see a solution which turns around the plot.
- This event triggers realization that they love one another more than they love their original goal.

Part IV  Resolution

- Characters take action based on the realization.
- One or both (usually the one who is being the biggest jerk, the one who is most wrong) make a sacrifice that proves their love.
- The scene that shows this sacrifice is the climax.
- Subplots are resolved and loose ends are tied up.
- External goal/conflict resolved. It does not have to be achieved in the way characters thought in the beginning.
- Internal conflict/goal resolved. Original internal conflict must be satisfied. Conflicts must be resolved in this order – external then internal.
- If necessary a short denoument scene to tie up loose ends.

Here are some links and books I’ve found particularly helpful with plotting and outlining:

Save the Cat! By Blake Snyder, published by Michael Wiese Procuctions, ISBN-13: 978-1-932907-00-1. This book is actually about screenwriting but a lot of the information applies to novels. And it’s funny and entertaining.

Building Better Plots by Robert Kernen, Writer’s Digest Books, ISBN 0-89879-903-1. Everything you wanted to know about plotting but were afraid to ask. A really great guide.

Hooked: Write fiction that grabs readers at page one and never lets them go by Les Edgerton, Writer’s Digest Books, ISBN-13:978-1-58297-514-6. Although this book is focused mainly on openings to novels, it has a lot to say about plotting in general. I highly recommend this one!

Helpful links:
I like the way author Lynn Viehl  explains how she builds her outlines, starting with a simple statement for each scene and adding on.
Randy Ingermanson explains his Snowflake method of plotting/outlining.
Alicia Rasley tells us how to outline a novel in 30 minutes.
Blank novel outline from Writer’s Digest.
Author Joanna Penn discusses the merits of outlining.

Are you a plotter or a pantser? If you plot, how do you outline? Do you think outlining and pre-writing saves time in the long run?

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