Saturday, May 12, 2012

12. Outline or Wing It? Three Ways to Plot a Novel

Beginning novelists often want to know whether they need a detailed outline, or whether it’s okay to just start writing and see what happens. In my view, there are three basic ways to construct a plot:

1. Follow an outline. Your outline might be very detailed, with headings and subheadings, much the way you outlined term papers in high school. Or it could be a list of points to be covered, in the approximate order in which they occur. I have a friend, a successful author of mystery and science fiction stories, who will not put a word on paper until he has a thoroughly thought-out outline. He’s told me that sometimes the outline is longer than the finished project.

I’ve written a number of YA series novels for book packagers, and they always require that a chapter-by-chapter outline be submitted for approval before writing the story. Usually, the outline just hits the high points of what would happen in each chapter, but sometimes I’d include bits of dialogue or description to show the flavor of what to expect. (In Chapter Six, Sara realizes she has turned into a werewolf. We see her horror and fascination as she examines her newly hairy, clawed hands. “Oh, no,” she thought. “What will Drake think?”)

I found writing the outlines tedious, but ultimately very helpful for meeting my daily writing quota.

2. Wing it. As I mentioned in my first post in this series, I just started writing Pandora’s Genes and kept going.  This got me to the end of Part 1, a little over 100 pages. But what then?

There are many writers, including some very popular mystery writers, who maintain they do not know what is going to happen until they get to the end of a book. I believe that this is possible, and have some ideas about why it can work for some writers (I will explore this topic in a future post).

I’m not sure it is a good idea for a beginning novelist to completely wing it, however. There is too much danger of losing any thread of plot and having to throw out a few dozen or even hundred pages, or--worse--losing interest in the novel. Instead, I recommend a hybrid method of plotting, which is:

3. Plot-as-you-go. This is what I ultimately ended up doing with Pandora’s Genes, and it began before I reached the end of Part I. What happened was that ideas for the rest of the story started occurring to me, almost randomly, so I scribbled them down as I thought of them--sometimes on a page I was working on, sometimes on index cards or scraps of paper. I consulted these notes often, and added to them continually.

I’m doing something similar with the third book in the series, which I’m working on now. I have in my head a general idea of the story’s main themes and where I want it to go. But there are a lot of possibilities, and I just found around a hundred pages I had written a few years ago that I don’t remember. So I’ve stopped writing and am reading--and making lots and lots of notes.

Agnes-NixonThe soap opera doyenne Agnes Nixon once told me, of her soap opera’s “Bible” (the long-term outline for a year’s worth of plots), “it is like a road map. You know you’re leaving from Chicago and ending up in Los Angeles. But you never know what side trips you will take along the way.”



Agnes Nixon

Tomorrow: The political world of Pandora’s Genes

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  1. Great choice of photo. Wish I could remember my novel-writing dream. I am sure it would have been brilliant.

  2. Take a nap. Maybe it will come back to you.

  3. I've always outlined in my head. In school when I had to turn in a written outline, I'd reverse-engineer it from the finished paper. Teachers were impressed by how well my papers followed the outlines. Other way round, actually.

  4. Kathryn, great post and timely for me as I am heading into this phase very soon with my novel. An outline is attractive for keeping me on point, but I wonder if it might hamper creativity.

  5. Kate--I love it! And that was how I outlined in school also. When I actually wrote the paper (first), I did it the same way I do articles or novels now: made notes as I went along, as things occurred to me. Anne--I am not sure that an outline would hamper creativity, unless you followed it slavishly. But in my opinion spending too much time on an outline is yet another way to avoid actually writing.