Updated: Sep 28, 2020
Hi, everyone, and welcome to post #6 in my “Plotting Your Story” series:
Plotting Your Story, Step #6: Detailed Outlines!
The first five steps we’ve done so far were all setup for this: fleshing out your story.
Now that you have all the big pieces, you can either free-write between the guideposts we’ve created in previous steps, or you can plan things out in a detailed outline (which this step will help you do!). Some people prefer not to use an outline, but I recommend using one because it helps avoid writers’ block and keeps your story on track.
I like to use a loose-outline approach that gives me plenty of check-in spots along the story but still leaves freedom for me to roam within them. This allows me to go where I feel the story is taking me, without losing sight of where I’m supposed to be headed next. It gives me focus, which is a huge factor in avoiding writer’s block or overwhelming rewrites. I’m going to explain my loose-outline approach in this section.
So, in the previous steps, we created a visual for the story’s arc. It looked something like this:
Or, once we’d added some of the ideas from other steps, something like this:
You’ll notice it’s basically an upward arc of tension until you hit the climax.
Now, imagine the upward arc between the external plot points being a wavy line with dips, rather than a simple swoop upward.
For example, let’s take the REACT section from the image above, and visualize the tension being in waves rather than a plain arc. This is the idea – to provide variance in the story tension while still maintaining your upward climb, midpoint change, and downward descent in the overall arc.
You’ll notice I marked Scene (capital S) and scene/sequel in the image above. This is because your Scenes make your peaks and valleys. Let me take just a minute to explain this:
A Scene (capital S) is the term for the larger unit, in other words, it is a complete section of the story with a particular goal, attempt, and result. Full Scenes are actually made up of two smaller parts: the scene (lowercase s) and the sequel. In simplest terms, the scene is the action part of the Scene, and the sequel is the reaction part of the Scene.
(I know this terminology is confusing, and I’m sorry! I didn’t make it up. For more info on this particular concept, check out this post by K.M. Weiland.)
All Scenes (even those in the larger “Reactive” phase of the plot arc) should have an action/reaction balance. Basically, your character needs time to both do something (or have something done to them) and to process what was done in every Scene.
Every Scene should also have its own goal, conflict, and result within the scene part, and then in the sequel part of the scene, the character reacts to what happened and makes some kind of decision or choice for moving forward. This processing phase of the sequel is very important for the pacing of the story — it may seem as though it slows things down, but it is what gives the characters depth and helps the reader connect to them by experiencing their thoughts and feelings.
In the wavy line above, the scene represents the hump of the little wave (because it is a spike in action/tension), while the sequel represents the dip.
The idea is to put a bunch of these waves together, but intentionally making the tension of each wave increase as you go, so that the tension of the story arc is still moving upward overall, building toward your climax.
Each Scene should complicate the story further, amping up the tension (even with the small dip of the sequel inside it), so that you are building inevitably toward your climax.
The Reactive attempts should build toward the Midpoint, which will result in a change in the character and a change in the character’s plans, moving them into offensive mode. Then the problems will further intensify, building toward the Climax or final battle. The secrets and revelations will be plugged in wherever it makes most sense, and the thematic threads will be woven throughout. (For more on any of these individual points, see previous posts in this series!)
If you’re totally new to Story Structure and need more help deciphering plot points or figuring out what to do on the Arc, there are some amazing resources out there for this specific part of story-planning! Check out K.M. Weiland’s Structuring Your Novel, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! Writes a Novel,and/or James Scott Bell’s Write from the Middle for some amazingly helpful and thorough resources on this topic. Google search for “Story Structure” and you’re to find a whole bunch more!
Visually, your plot will end up looking something like this, once you’ve plugged everything in.
Now, you could then take this and just write in all your detailed scene descriptions, but it would get pretty cluttered. So here’s the part of the process where I do one of two things (or probably both):
Use note-cards to organize the order of Scenes and to insert revelations, etc.
Write a bullet-point Chapter outline that reflects all of this in a linear way
My note-card method can get a little intense, but I love it as an in-between step because it allows me to physically shift and rearrange parts of the story while also getting a visual for how everything is progressing. I also like to color-code the cards based on whether it’s a scene, a revelation, or sometimes even by characters (especially if my story contains multiple plot arcs or POVs). I generally arrange them on the floor, and then pin them up to a corkboard once I get them all in order. This results in both my floor and walls looking a bit like the lair of a crazy person, but it helps.
Once I’ve got that sorted out, I usually transfer these into a typed outline so that I have a copy I can reference easily if I’m not right in front of my crazy corkboard.
This becomes my Detailed Outline, and though I tweak it as I go — and sometimes even make major changes, if the story shows me it needs to adapt — I use it as my master plan to keep myself focused and on-track while I’m writing. If I hit a point where what I had planned in my outline no longer seems to fit, I simply take an hour or so to rework what’s left of the outline from that point forward, adjusting it to what the story has taught me about itself. I know that may sound weird, but it happens — sometimes the characters show you that they were really meant to be and do something different, and that’s okay. But I still keep an outline… I just update it.
Having an outline throughout the process is one of the biggest ways I stay on track as I’m writing. I must have gone through dozens of updated outlines with The Edge of Nothing, and that’s okay… with every iteration, my story plan got better and truer to what it was always meant to be. Outlining doesn’t mean you have to be inflexible. It’s just about having a plan so that your story doesn’t lose its way.
When I do the Detailed Outline phase, I also look at my story’s tension and decide where it would make sense to break each chapter. I like to end chapters on some kind of cliff-hanger or at least something that would push the reader to move to the next chapter immediately… so I generally end up with one or two Scenes per chapter, ending on either a high-point in the tension of a scene or a poignant decision in the sequel phase.
Here is one example of what a Detailed Outline may look like, in its typed form. On this example I’ve used just generic phrases to describe what would be in each spot, but your outline should be more specific. For example, rather than “Normal life shown,” it may say “Bob is at work at the garage on a Tuesday morning” and “Lie introduced” might say something like “Gwyneth comes in, yelling at him for leaving the stove on again. Bob feels like an idiot, and thinks why do I always screw things up?” These little bullet-point descriptions are the guideposts you’ll follow as you move through each chapter.
As you’re writing you’ll also find that you need transition scenes at some places, to explain what happens between the major points or how the characters get there. Plan out as much of this on the outline as you can — it will save you a lot of headache later! — but it’s also fine to adjust your outline as you go if you realize you missed something. I don’t fix the outline while writing a chapter (I let the chapter lead me, using the outline as a guide), but I do tend to revisit my outline after every 1-2 chapters just to make sure my plan still feels right, and if I need to adjust it, I do that before moving forward.