Plotting and Outlining

Posted by Derek Chamberlain on Monday, March 4, 2013 Under: Writing

I had planned to write a post about plotting about a month ago and just talk about the different methods I’ve seen discussed and where you can find more information on them. I went through this thing last year where I was really into outlining and trying to learn as much as possible about it. I’d been trying to deal with the Wayfarer edits and was hopelessly stuck and hoped that by learning more about outlining I might be able to make one for Wayfarer that would show me the way forward. It didn’t work, but I did find out a fair bit about different styles of outlining and writing, and I thought I’d share some of that.

Well, that was the plan. I even went and got up a list of links to sites and books dealing with outlining and plotting. Then I got so busy finishing the first draft of my latest novel, tentatively titled Oath-Bound, that I didn’t have any energy left to work on anything else for several weeks. After that, well, I didn’t want to jinx myself by talking about my new system until after I’d seen it perform. So, now that I’ve actually finished an entire draft of a story, and have started doing the continuity rewrites and edits, I finally feel comfortable talking about how I came to like, and be able to use, an outline.

I’ve never been much of an outliner. The few times I tried in the past, once I had that outline done, my interest in the story died. I’ve had similar problems in talking about stories. If I talked about it, that seemed to satisfy whatever crazy sprite it is that drives me to create. The only time I had any success with outlining was when I created an outline for a story that I’d already finished but wasn’t totally satisfied with. By creating an outline for it I was able to see where the holes were and fill them.

Inspired by that success, I wrote a detailed outline for a story that was only half completed. I used several of the methods described in the links below – the Hollywood formula, the Seven-Step formula, the Hero’s Journey. [see links at the bottom] I ended up with a beautiful outline, and a dead story.

So now we come to my latest novel, tentatively titled ‘Oath-Bound’. I started it, sans-outline, during my writing binge late last year. And it died. It was originally a writing exercise based on a writing prompt from, I think, one of the Writing Excuses shows. I can’t recall the exact wording of the prompt but I think it was something like, ‘Retell a fairy story with a totally new twist.’ So my idea for that was to have the princess be the one rescuing herself from the ‘tower’ and having to perform all of these crazy quests in order to break the power of the sorceress who had supplanted her as ruler. Not a bad idea, but it had nothing concrete behind it. It was too vague, which was why it stalled out.

In mid January this year, inspired by the Magic Spreadsheet (a Google-doc created by Tony Pisculli), I returned to that story and tried to write myself out of the corner I had written myself into last year. I did some character and plot development, the broadest strokes of an outline, and some editing of those early chapters, leaving me with about 10k words. Then, February 1st, I started writing. 

That first, broad-strokes outline was not a roadmap, it was more like a series of signposts identifying natural landmarks. It was a list of plot points that had arisen out of a series of questions that I’d asked myself – Who, What, When, Where, How, and, especially, Why – about my story. And, key point, making sure that for every desire, there was an obstacle. Out of the crisis of obstructed desire comes plot.

As I wrote, I discovered new things about my characters and began to add some more specific details to those character sheets I’d filled out in January. I still found myself surprised, frequently, by what they were doing and saying, because I was discovering who they were as I went along. 

About this time, when I realised that I needed more than one POV character, that list of plot points began to get longer and, because there was more than one POV character now, more complicated. Some points only related to one of the characters and not the other. So I flipped my document on its side and divided the page up into columns, three at first, then later adding a fourth to use for the character arc points.

I created what was, in essence, a plot timeline. Each page was a separate scene I had my page into four columns. The first was for character arc points; the second and third were for POV1 and POV2, to show what they were doing in the scene; and the fourth was for all non-POV characters. 

In each column, I put check-box lists of all the signposts that were supposed to take place in that scene that related to that character. And, like signposts in remote places the world over, they were subject to vandalism, the wear and tear of nature, and repurposing.

This ‘outline’ document included all those questions and answers that had lead to the original plot points, a list of characters with the bare bones of who they were, and a list of locations with bare bones descriptions so that I had a quick reference for, say, the name of my main character’s horse, the antagonist’s head henchman, or the name of the town a specific event happened in. I know that without lists like those I can spend a frustrated hour looking through my text for that information, unable to move on until I’ve found it. (Obsessive-compulsive behaviour, I know. I’m working on it.)

Every day I would open up the document with my outline and character arcs in it and have a look at where I was and what was coming up. Once I had looked at what I thought was going to happen, I’d go to the story document and I’d read just a paragraph or two of what I’d written the day before, just as a reminder of where I had left my characters — no editing — and then I’d start writing. 

At the end of my writing day, or sometimes in the middle if something drastic happened, I’d go back to my outline and update it to reflect what had actually happened. Sometimes that meant just checking off the various ‘signposts’ that I’d managed to include. Other times, though, it meant going both backwards and forward and rewriting large parts of the outline to reflect some major change.

There was a third document I used throughout the entire process, a ‘notes’ document. I put dated notes in this whenever I made a significant change that would affect the earlier part of the book – like when I made the decision to change the name and gender of my main character – so that I could keep writing without having to go back and spend time on edits. Whenever I made a decision about something, I made a note of it here. It included notes about things like the three different types of magic and how they differed from each other and what they were each able to do. Notes about the social fabric of the culture, notes on dress and hair styles, technology, history, and politics. Basically, anything that impinged on the telling of the story, anything that I had made a decision about and would probably need to reference later, and any ideas for edits or future plot points.

After I was well into the story, beginning to write Act Three, I put all of these notes, the document, and the various parts of the outline, into a Scrivener file. I hadn’t used Scrivener with this project because I was using my iPad to write parts of it while I was going to and from work and Scrivener doesn’t yet have an iPad app. But I found another app, Textilus, that can sync with Scrivener via Dropbox, and I started using that.

Using this method, I was able to write over 62,000 words, almost the entire novel, in February because I was following, however tentatively, an outline that included both plot and character points, a system that I stumbled into, but that I knew was possible because it is very similar to the one that Brandon Sanderson talks about using, except that he develops his before he starts writing rather than as he goes along.

There’s a bonus, too. As I go back and start the rewrites, I’ve got all my notes to look at and see what I was thinking when I wrote most of the scenes, and notes on what edits I need to make in order for them to mesh into the story better. This is making the editing process much easier than I had anticipated, given the painful time I had of it trying to edit Wayfarer. Admittedly, Wayfarer was probably about three or four times the length of this one and a lot more complicated — I wrote a million-word encyclopaedia for Wayfarer, my notes for this one only clock out at around 16k. 

But, and here’s the thing, by doing the outline, I actually gave myself ideas for sequels; major landmarks that entire stories could pivot on; with ideas connected to them that I’m actually excited to explore. I’m actually finding writing fun again. For a while there, in the declining days of Wayfarer, it was like pulling teeth without anaesthetic; something that had to be done, but not something to look forward to. And I think rediscovering the fun in writing is the biggest bonus of all.


Michael Hauge’s Six Stage Plot Structure

Dramatica’s Comparison of Seven Story Paradigms

Seven-Point Story Structure

Hollywood Formula

Brandon Sanderson on Plotting 1: Lecture at Bringham Young University

Brandon Sanderson on Plotting 2: JordanCon 2010

James Scott Bell, Plot & Structure

Ansen Dibell, Plot

Victoria Lynn Schmidt, Ph.D., Story Structure Architect

Dead Robot's Society, Podcast 1: Outlines

The Snowflake Method

In : Writing 

Tags: plotting outlines "magic spreadsheet" "writing excuses" 
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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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