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  Effectively Outlining Your Plot
by Lee Masterson

Have you ever had an idea for a novel, and then just sat down and began writing without knowing exactly where the story was going?

It happens to everyone at some point, but most people begin to realize that the events in your plotline get confused, or forgotten in the the thrill of writing an exciting scene. There are those who continue to write on, regardless, fixing any discrepancies as they work, or (worse!) those who do not check that events are properly tied in place to bring their stories to a satisfying conclusion.

And then there are those writers who believe that creating a plot-outline is tantamount to "destroying the natural creative process". The belief is simple; by writing it out in rough form, you've already told the story, so the creative side of you will not want to write it again.

Whichever type of writer you are, creating a simple, inelegant outline to follow s not the same thing as already writing the story, and it could save you an enormous amount of time and rewriting later.

The purpose of an outline in this case is to be certain that your storyline is not straying too far from the original idea. It is also a useful tool if you need to determine if your idea is big enough to be developed into a novel-length work, and not left as a short story or novella.

Your outline should be a simple reminder that, no matter how many events or characters or situations arise, your main theme will never get lost in the jumble of scenes.

Of course, this brings us to the problem to what was discussed above. There are writers who have a tendency to over-plot, thus really killing any spontaneity as far as the writing process goes. The biggest difficulty here is forcing your characters to go through motions that may not fit into their personality make-up simply to fit into your pre-existing, overly planned plotline.

So how do you strike a fair balance between aimless writing and over-plotting?

There are several ways to accomplish this.

Synopsis First

This is the technique I use most frequently when writing novel-length pieces of work. I find that, by writing a basic synopsis for the completed novel before it is begun, I have an understanding of where the story will end before I even start. It also helps to organize where each character should be, and what he or she needs to do to get certain points across.

Basically, a good synopsis will encompass the major plot points of a novel, without going into any detail about the setting, characters or dialogue, but still showing what happens to propel the story forward. A plot outline is even less detailed than a synopsis.

This method does not strangle the creative process. Even though you know what is going to happen at the end, you still have all the freedom in the world to create the individual scenes that will get your characters through to that climax.

In an outline, a note to yourself which reads "Hero catches bad guy" could actually take several pages of action to tell. Don't be tempted to leave a note for yourself which reads: "Hero sticks foot out and trips bad guy, who falls into the room and drops his gun, the rolls over and..."

You would have already written the creativity out of it - almost.

A basic outline also gives you the benefit of letting you see at a glance whether or not that "extra" scene will fit into the grand scheme of things, or whether it will only bog down your story. This saves a lot of time later down the track in the editing stage.

Chapter-by-Chapter Guide

Writing a simple one- or two-sentence outline for each chapter will help to maintain a focus for where each chapter must end up. This method is particularly useful if you are the type of writer who meanders through events, allowing the characters to take you in any direction they wish to go, or if you never quite seem to know when a chapter should end.

Separate each chapter into distinct parts of your story, and be sure you don't allow a chapter to end until you've reached the resolution you originally set out to achieve.

This method also ends the tendency to end a chapter way too soon. There's absolutely nothing worse than reading a 200 page book which has more than 50 short chapters, where only a few of which ever reach any kind of culmination.

Outlining through Character

This method is not a simple as the first two. Creating a marvellously complex character structure, and then knowing that your Hero needs to live through specific experiences to end up the changed person he or she becomes in the end is a great way to keep events organized within your story.

The problem with this method, is that a less-experienced writer may be lured by the temptation to add "just one more" conflict for the protagonist to overcome. And then another. And another.

This convolutes a plotline, weakens a character and confuses a reader.

By knowing in advance how your events must unfold in order to reach the climax, you will drastically increase your chances of completing a first draft of a novel. You still maintain the element of surprise in that you would not have written the "nuts and bolts" of the scene, even though you had the benefit of knowing what the overall outcome will be.

Copyright Lee Masterson. All rights reserved


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