I Do Outline Eventually

The comments on Monday’s post (The First Draft is a Slog) got me thinking more about my process, especially as relates to outlines. Becky Miller’s link to  a post on Harvest House editor Nick Harrison’s blog about getting stalled because you’ve let go of the tension, also sparked some thoughts.

Letting go of the tension means you’ve resolved your main line of conflict long before you reached the story’s end… which is not a good thing. And the outline method I use does address this potential pitfall.

(I was amused by one of the author’s suggestions for figuring out what to do — i.e., consider that perhaps you don’t have enough plot for a novel.  I have never had the problem of too little plot material for a novel.  LOL!)

But back to the subject at hand, which is that eventually I do outline. In fact, before I ever start to write, I spend time gathering notes on 3×5 index cards I’ve cut in half. (being smaller, more cards can be laid out than if I used the 3×5 cards whole)  Notes about characters, the world, possible motivations, possible events, incidents… So it’s not like I’m diving blind into the book. If anything, it can feel like I have too much material. Some of it I’ll use; some of it I won’t. It’s hard to know, sometimes, which is which.

In her book Novel-in-the-Making, Mary O’Hara (also the author of My Friend Flicka) talks about various ideas for what might happen needing time to sort themselves out. At first you may not be able to tell which one you like, which one fits, but over time they will sort themselves out as some rise to the surface while others sink into oblivion.

All this work with the cards is a way of allowing some ideas to rise to the top and other to sink out of my awareness.

Once I’ve gotten started though, tested the waters a bit, as I said I do have a form of outlining that I use, which is based on information Jack Bickham provided in his Writer’s Digest Elements of Fiction Series book Scene and Structure.

The structure is based on cause and effect and the notion of alternating “scenes” and “sequels”, all oriented to an overall story goal.  Bickham uses an example of Fred needing to be first to climb a mountain .

“I must be the first to climb that mountain,” Fred said.

Thus the reader wonders, “Will Fred succeed in being the first to climb the mountain?”

So Fred begins his quest. First up, he must convince the bank to give him a loan of sufficient money to  finance and equip his expedition. Thus, in the next scene, taking place at the bank, his goal is to get a loan.

If he gets the loan, everyone’s happy, and his plan moves forward but the reader will be asleep, or worse, annoyed, wondering why he was made to read through such banal material.

No, we have to have conflict. Therefore, the banker is opposed to Fred’s absurd notion right at the start and they have a fight.

This little scenario illustrates the components of a scene

First, it is active, something that could be staged in a play. It has a viewpoint character (Fred) with a goal (get a loan), and an obstacle to his achieving that goal (the banker). He and the banker conflict over the goal, and the scene ends in disaster for Fred’s goal. (the banker says no, and never come back to this bank again; the banker says yes, but you’ll owe me for the rest of your life; or yes, but you must take my bratty, 14-year-old son with you.)

A sequel, on the other hand, is static, it’s reflective. After the above scene, Fred will have to go away and think things through. Review what happened, deal with his emotions, decide what he really wants, consider his options and come up with a plan of action, which should involve a new goal related to the overall story goal of climbing the mountain.  A sequel then, recounts the character’s feelings about what’s just happened, these move into thoughts about what to do next, and culminate in a decision.

I try to organize my stories based on this framework, and I’ve found it helps at least not to end up with everything wrapped up before you want it to be, seeing as the scenes always have to end in some sort of disaster, or they’re not a scene.

Obviously there is a LOT more to all of this, or Bickham wouldn’t have been able to write an entire book on the subject. And it’s not quite as simplistic or as formulaic as I’ve made it seem here. Sometimes the viewpoint character is not the one with the goal for example, but the one being acted upon. That is my situation right now with Chapter 1. My POV is reacting to events that have suddenly come into her life, which is part of what’s making this chapter so difficult. Plus elements of the hidden story are emerging, but of course, neither she nor the reader will realize that at the moment.

Anyway, I had written about two-thirds of Arena, got bogged down, got hold of Bickham’s book and spent three weeks reworking the book in accordance with the scene/sequel structure. I think it helped a great deal. I’ve used Bickham’s approach on all my subsequent books, though maybe not as religiously as I did in Arena. After awhile you start to get a sense for doing it automatically. But when you hit a wall, it’s these principles that have most often helped me get around/over/through it.

And just writing about all this has been helpful as well. Because I have rediscovered all those note cards I had, which I knew I had but didn’t feel ready to look at yet… Maybe tomorrow I will.

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1 Response to “I Do Outline Eventually”


  1. 1 KC Frantzen and May the K9 Spy October 5, 2011 at 5:59 am

    Bickham’s book is a MUST!!!!

    Good thoughts here Karen – thank you!


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