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Effectively Outlining Your Plot
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
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
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
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.
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 -
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.
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
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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