I belong to several Facebook groups where people ask for and support the members in productivity, goal achievement, ownership and intentionality. Many of these are focused on writers, so when reporting on what the goals are, there are often people who say they want to create a solid outline for a WIP.
Nearly every time I see someone indicate this is their goal, I see a dozen replies of, “HOW?”
I tried to write as I went once. It was a red-hot mess and I swore I’d never do that again. And yet, I like the feeling of allowing a character to really guide me to where she wants to go, to reveal secrets and hopes in a way that I can’t anticipate until I really get to know my character, and I’ve never been able to get to know them well from filling out a profile for a story bible, and I’ve yet to come across a character sheet that really lets me get to know my characters.
So, I outline, leaving spaces and opportunities for what my characters will share as we journey through the book together.
The first thing to acknowledge is that there are LOTS of resources already out there for people who want to learn how to outline. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat – you can get an overview and see his beat sheets here.
- Jami Gold has also created an invaluable resource for different kinds of beat sheets
- Dan Wells’ 7-point plot method (series of videos)
- Sarah M. Eden’s 7-point plot for romance writers (presentation & sheet to help)*
* This was an absolute miracle in helping me plot my current WIP
But what I always have to do, after I know my characters and the places that are important to them, is ask myself three things:
- Where is my character at the start of this novel?
- Where do they want to be?
- What is preventing them from progressing?
That’s it. And that’s hard. Where I tend to write (and read) mostly character driven works, the where is usually referring to a mental or emotional state more than a physical location. Do they start broken? Do they start with the idea that they have everything going for them? Is there something in their life, big or small, that, if able to attain, they could check the box of being content?
Once I know this, I can go to one of the resources I listed above and consider what kind of story the resource was intended to help with, and what kind of story I’m writing. If using any beat sheet, I can often learn a great deal about my character by understanding what kind of activity would qualify as her fun and games. For a character I previously wrote, it was redecorating a space. For a character I’m writing now, she destresses by jamming out to Janis Joplin.
Then I start thinking about conflicts. I’m of the opinion that a character can’t just be pushed around (literally or metaphorically) and hold a reader’s interest. We want a character to fight back, to be willing to fight, even a little, for where they want to be by the end of the book. But someone who tries something and always gets it is jerkishly annoying.
Again, I don’t always know exact details of how my character is going to deal with these complications – that’s for them to tell me. This is one of the reasons I refer to my kind of outlining as connect the dots outlining. My job in the outline is to get the big things into place, and see how detailed the picture gets when I’ve written my way from one dot to another, have this the end, and can sit back and look at the whole picture.
But an outline isn’t meant to JUST assist in drafting.
After I have drafted to the best of my ability, I go back again, this time really paying attention to who is doing what when, where they are growing, if they are playing an important role to the story AND if what I said they were going to do is what they do. For this, I break out my colored sticky notes and give each main character one. I jot down 10-15 words of what is happening at a particular time and group them together by chronologically.
This is a do or die time for my characters because if their color only shows up once or twice, they either need to reveal that they are essential to the story or they’re out. The son who is only there to whine about missing his dead mom? Gone. The two best friends who say the same thing, drink the same thing, wear the same thing but have different names? Kill one.
Side Note: Almost every pantser I’ve talked to has said they create outlines, timelines, character profiles, etc. once they are done with the first draft so they can have a concrete understanding of the story they created.
Then I go back to my original outline and see if there were plot points that I thought were important when I first started and if they still are. Sometimes, in the act of drafting, I forget things. Sometimes they needed to be forgotten. But then I am keenly aware of the structure and the goals of the story and the characters and the role of the setting so that when I embark on revising, I am focused.
How does my outlining process resemble yours? How about differences?
* * * * * *
Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as a board member for the Women's Fiction Writers Association. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.