Structure and Outlines pt 1

Posted by Derek Chamberlain on Sunday, August 18, 2013 Under: Writing

On several different occasions I have talked about different methods of outlining. I have been looking for a way that would work for me for some time now, because, while I enjoy the discovery of pantsing, it takes much longer for me to finish a story that way. Often enough, I end up killing a pantsed story during the rewrites. (I have the… habit?… of complicating my stories, of adding so many layers that, by the time I’m done, the original story is almost impossible to discern. I’m working on breaking myself of that.) So, every time I came across a new way of outlining that seemed to be working for me I got excited and shared it with you. 


Unfortunately, the reason I kept looking for new ways of outlining was because I wasn’t able to get any of them to really work for me to the point that included a finished story. They all faltered. That might have been because I got too carried away with myself. Enthusiasm, you know. 


For my last novel I started using a plot-point system that developed fairly organically out of me just taking a few notes at the end of each writing session, pointing out where I thought the story was going so that I could get right into it when I started again the next day. When I realised that it was working, though, I started developing it. 


The first few developments weren’t all that bad, they were just formatting upgrades that gave me visual clues as to who was doing what. It was a Plotline, sort of a combination of an outline and a timeline. It included points about non-POV characters whose offscreen actions would be affecting things that happened to the POV characters later. 


Throughout most of the first draft I had been using a word-processing program because I’d bought an iPad for work and then discovered I couldn’t use Scrivener on it. At around this point in my development of the Plotline process I discovered how to link individual Scrivener documents across devices and I went back to using that. Unfortunately, Scrivener didn’t let me keep the lovely, relatively simple, column formatting I’d been using in the word processor so I fell back on other, more formal, styles of outlining. And that’s where things started to go wrong. 


I was spending more time developing the outline and filling in all the ‘plot point’ details than I was writing the story, and the outline was getting so complicated that I couldn’t keep it all straight in my head, I had to spend writing time reading the outline to figure out what I was supposed to be writing about. I got the draft done, eventually, but it looked like one of those trees that you sometimes see in formal gardens, the ones that have been trimmed into the shape of peacocks or parrots, and I’ve never found one of those attractive.


That isn’t the only story that I’ve damaged by using an inappropriate outlining device. I’ve tried outlining using the systems that demand you develop full psychological and historical profiles of your characters. I’ve tried world-building my way to a story. I’ve done the Seven Step outline and the Hollywood Outline. The problem with all of these was that I got so wrapped up in the outlining that, when it came time to actually write the story, I felt  overwhelmed by all the information in my plot-development and couldn’t actually write the story. I think this is what pantsers are talking about when they say that plotting/outlining kills the story. I’ve had stories that died on the vine due to too much attention to outlining. 


So why am I coming back to this topic, yet again? Well, like every good craftsperson I know, I find that writing is a constant learning process. I did incredibly in-depth plot development for several stories and killed them. I did minimalist development for another story and finished a draft but ended up killing it in the rewrites because of a lack of consistency in my plotting.


Plotting works. I know it works. There are thousands of writers who can testify that plotting works. And there seems to be a direct correlation between plotting and speed of productive output. I want to become a full-time writer. I want to make my living doing this. Being a self-supporting writer has been my dream since elementary school. And learning how to be a successful plotter seems to me to be a major step towards making that dream a reality. That’s why I keep looking for the plotting method that will work for me.

In : Writing 


Tags: pantsing outlining plotting structure "7 step outline" "hollywood formula" 
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Meet the scribbler


I'm a writer, editor, indie publisher, and dedicated Magic Spreadsheet user. Originally from Adelaide, Australia, I've been living in Japan since 1995. I've had a life-long interest in writing and in speculative fiction. My first book was published in mid-2014.
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