In my post, Theme and the Short Story, I discussed how, as part of my pre-NaNoWriMo exercise regimen, I create small outlines of the short stories I intend to write. Using an outline is also how I write novels.
- First, I divide my story arc into quarters, so the important events are in place at the right time. When I try to “pants” it, I sometimes end up with a mushy plot that wanders all over the place and a story that may not be commercially viable.
- What length am I writing to? Knowing the word count in advance will help you keep on track.
- What will be the inciting incident? How does it relate to the theme?
- What is the goal/objective? How does it relate to the theme?
- At the beginning of the story, what could the hero possibly want to cause him to risk everything to acquire it?
- How badly does he want it and why?
- Who is the antagonist? What does he want and why?
- What moral (or immoral) choice is the protagonist going to have to make in his attempt to gain that objective?
- What happens at the first pinch point?
- In what condition do we find the group at the midpoint?
- Why does the antagonist have the upper hand? What happens at the turning point to change everything for the worse?
For novels, I make a larger outline, offering myself a more in-depth exploration of the intended story, and I discussed that process here: Jumpstart #NaNoWriMo2017, the Storyboard.
I do it this way because I can’t keep all the many threads on track if I don’t have some sort of a road map to follow. The outline is my literary GPS device.
Recently, at the Southwest Washington Writer’s Conference, I attended a two-part seminar on plotting, given by Simon Wood, author of such USA Today bestsellers as The One that Got Away.
Simon’s outline goes even deeper than mine. His outline is simple and linear, and color-coded to each character. Numbered from 1 to 80 (or however many scenes you have) each scene is listed with a sentence or two describing what happens at that point, something like Jack meets the dealer at the drop point. Argument ensues.
The sentences are small road maps from which he develops the entire scene. Each line is colored red, yellow, or green depending on whose point of view the scene is being shown from. Green is the protagonist’s point of view.
His outline doesn’t go into so much detail that the story is already written, but it ensures the plot goes in the intended direction with good pacing. Pacing is the reason why I outline—my earlier work was inconsistent.
What struck me in Simon’s seminar was the idea of color-coding each POV—when you have large stories encompassing the points-of-view for three or more characters, all it takes is a glance at your first-draft list of scenes to see if there is an imbalance in who’s talking.
Simon began this style of plotting in 1998, long before Scrivener. Some of you will say you use Scrivener for this, and to you, I say bravo! I find that program isn’t intuitive, is less than user-friendly, and is extremely annoying to try to learn. So, I have it, sitting in my computer taking up valuable real estate on my hard drive, going unused and unloved.
Simon writes thrillers, and I write fantasy, but we both create our outlines in Excel. However, this could easily be done in any word-processing or spread-sheet program (such as Google docs/sheets) or in Word, simply by changing the color of your fonts. You can even do this on colored post-it notes, as some authors do. For visual people who are not Scrivener savvy, being able to use the cut-and-paste function to move scenes around to where they are most effective is critical.
Simon was kind enough to answer a few questions via email about his process.
CJJ: First of all, what do you consider a scene? Is it a chapter or a portion of a chapter?
SW: A scene isn’t a chapter necessarily. It may be made up of 2-3 scenes. It depends on how the scenes connect. Say the chapter was “Robbing a bank.” To me that would be broken into three scenes: Getting into the bank, Getting into the vault, Getting the money out. An over simplified answer but I hope it illustrates the point.
CJJ: How do you decide if a character is important enough to warrant a voice and becoming a viewpoint character?
SW: I just assess whether a particular character has valuable insight to share. If a supporting character’s POV gives additional context to the relationship on how the protagonist and antagonist are behaving then their POV is valuable. Essentially a POV character has to add something to the story.
CJJ: How long are your scenes in terms of word count? For purposes of NaNoWriMo, 1,667 words a day is needed to reach 50,000 words by November 30th and some will plan to write a chapter a day.
SW: Usually my scenes are 1500 words.
CJJ: In your own experience, during the process of getting a novel to the final draft, how many times will the direction of the story and the outline change from the original?
SW: It all depends on how well I did my original outline or how well I had conceived the idea. Sometimes it’s changed several times. Others it’s pretty much stayed true to the original. Usually a couple of times at least.
Thank you, Simon, for sharing your insights with us. For all who are curious about his process, Simon offers several wonderful seminars on writing craft, the links to which are at the bottom of this post. Do yourself a favor and sign up for one!
In the end, we as authors must each find our own best way to free the story from our creative minds. For some of you, a program like Scrivener might fill the bill, but for me, a simple outline to begin with, the willingness to change course when the intended storyline isn’t working, and sheer stubbornness are what it takes to get a book out.
You must give your plot structure. In other words, use an outline to create a good story arc at the outset, but within the structure of your outline, allow your characters to surprise you. We know that the way to avoid obviousness in a plot is to introduce a big threat. How our characters react to that threat should be unpredictable because they have agency.
When we give our characters agency, threats take away the option of going about life as normal and leave characters with several choices, all of which are consequential, the final one of which should be made in a stressful situation. I intentionally used the word consequential relating to the choices your characters must make. If there are no consequences for the bad decisions a character might make, what is the story about?
Simon’s idea of color-coding the scenes in the outline is a great addition to my writers’ toolbox. Being able to see at a glance if my story is imbalanced away from the protagonist’s thread will be a good way for me to avoid having to scrap a few months’ work to get a novel back on the right path.
About Simon Wood:
USA TODAY bestselling author, Simon Wood is a California transplant from England. He’s a former competitive racecar driver, a licensed pilot, an endurance cyclist, an animal rescuer and an occasional PI. He shares his world with his American wife, Julie. Their lives are dominated by a longhaired dachshund and six cats. He’s the Anthony Award winning author of The One That Got Away, Accidents Waiting to Happen, Paying the Piper, Terminated, Deceptive Practices and the Aidy Westlake series. His latest book is SAVING GRACE. He also writes horror under the pen name of Simon Janus. Curious people can learn more at http://www.simonwood.net.
Website: Simon Wood’s Web Hideout
Check out Simon’s workshops here: Simon Wood’s Workshops
Follow Simon on Twitter: https://twitter.com/simonwoodwrites