Writer’s Tip: Outlining—The Ups and Downs of Figuring Stuff Out

Khet6

What It Means To Be A Pantster

I used to be a pantster; someone who wrote books by the seat of their pants so-to-speak. Writing from the top of your head can be a freeing experience, and one that I’d suggest all writers try out at one point or another. I went through a phase where I was cranking out 6-10k words a day—practically blazing through the first draft of a novel.

Don’t get me wrong, being a panster is great; the creativity flows non-stop and you get a lot of writing done in a short period of time. It makes you feel like you can do anything, and it helps train your brain to write without significant pauses… that is, until you hit the brick wall of not knowing what comes next.

The Inherent Problems With Being A Pantster

Every pantster eventually comes to a point where they pause and say “okay, what’s next?” Because they didn’t take the time to plot out their novel ahead of time, they reach a point where they aren’t sure where to go with the plot. Sometimes the plot gets so entangled that they can’t see an easy way out. Sometimes the on-the-fly novel lacks the appropriate amount of character development or conflict. Some writers get past it; they roll up their sleeves, fix a few things, and keep pushing—but not everyone can. Sometimes things go so awry that you have to start all over. I know, because I’ve done it.

Khet

Once upon a time, not so long ago, I began a novel writing project I hesitantly named Khet. It was originally the story of a girl named Khet, and was set in pre-historic times. It was a fantasy/paranormal/historical/romance mishmash that explored the idea of what would happen if a stubborn little girl stood up to an ancient god. That was about as much as I knew about the story when I began writing, and at about nine chapters in, I got stuck. I didn’t know what kind of story I was writing. I didn’t know the characters. I got to the point where I sat back and took a good look at my story and said “I have to fix this.”

What Is An Outline?

Of course, the easiest way to “fix” Khet, was to start over and begin an outline. Think of an outline as a roadmap: it tells you all the stopping points along the journey to the story… who you’re going to meet, where you’re going to meet them, and what your plans with them are. Some outlines are simple—just a few important points to keep the story on track, like when to introduce a particular character or an outside conflict scenario—and sometimes outlines are remarkably thorough, detailing each step in how a scene plays out, conversations that need to be had between characters, and how tiny details from previous chapters play into the current scene. There’s no wrong way to write an outline, but I’d like to share with you one method of setting up an outline that I’ve personally found useful. I like to refer to it as the branch method.

Branching Out

The idea behind the branch method of outlining is that you start with big, vague concepts and begin to define and detail each concept until you’ve whittled things down to the tiny details. The best way to show this is probably by throwing myself under the bus (yet again) and give you an example from Khet’s outlining process.

When I started re-writing Khet, I started with the big, vague concepts of what the story was about. I chose the themes of my story first:

  • Romance
  • Fantasy

This helped me define what the story was going to be about, and helped me pick the setting. I decided that Khet was going to be about a girl (Khet) that is caught in a war between two species. Her love interest, Leander, is of the dominant species (Felnatherin), and she is a half-breed of Human and Felnatherin decent. This introduced conflict for Khet to overcome.

The next step, was to figure out the conflict points of the story… the bits of drama that spur the story on. So I decided that:

  • There would be a war raging between Humans and Felantherin, and Khet/Leander would have to be on opposite sides of that war.
  • There would have to be an outside conflict to drive the couple together and pose more problems for them. In this case, because of Leander’s love for Khet, he breaks the laws of the Felnatherin to keep her alive. This pits Leander against his own kind, and forces Leander and Khet to get along.

Of course, these aren’t the only points of conflict in the story, but these were the major points. Then I took a step deeper and thought to myself “If Leander hates Humans (as do all Felnatherin), what would make him fall in love with Khet? What keeps him from following the law of his people?” Light bulb! Khet looks just like the sister (Arielle) that Leander was forced to kill in the past (because she sided with the humans and broke Felnatherin law herself. He is a peacekeeper for his people). Because Khet looks identical to Arielle, Leander has to step back and take a moment to think before he executes her. He didn’t enjoy doling out punishment to his sister the first time around, and he couldn’t bring himself to do it a second time. Not only that, he was also curious to see WHY this girl had suddenly appeared that looked so much like his dead sister.

This brought up all sorts of conflict. Suddenly I had the beginnings of a real story. From there, I branched out yet again, taking time to decide why certain characters made the choices they did and what the consequences of those choices could be. I introduced new characters and started to plot out how those characters were involved with the overarching plot and how they worked to help or hinder the story of Leander and Khet. I spent time creating the rules of my universe: how bloodlines of Felnatherin transferred from generation to generation, the laws of the Felnatherin Court, the history between the two races that created the war.

Before I knew it, I had an entire notebook detailing the overall plot of my story and a list of characters. From there, I went one step deeper. I went back over my notes, throwing in sticky notes and comments in the margins—dividing my story into scenes, POV’s, and listing important conversations or incidents that needed to happen for the story to work. This gave me time to go back and fix continuity errors, add and remove characters, introduce new sub-plots, love interests, and details, and change things around that didn’t work on a second look (or replace them with better ideas!).

The next step was to organize it all. I started to write out a detailed outline detailing each scene, the location it took place, the time of day, weather, the characters involved, and a run through of how the chapters would play out from the first line to the last. It wasn’t super-thorough… I didn’t write out dialogue or actions, just general ideas, feelings, and context such as:

Chapter 8: The River Valley Village, Mid-Morning, Summer, Hot & Humid. Characters: Khet, Harith (brother), Safiya (sister), Hala (mother). POV: Khet.

Khet enters town, blinded, but she can get around easily enough. The village is alive with the sound of drumbeats and the smell of roasting meat. People move past Khet with purpose, barely paying her any mind. Everyone is focused on the upcoming ceremonies. By now, most people are used to the crippled girl getting around on her own and maybe, are even a bit wary of the fact that despite her blindness, she navigates with certainty and ease. They may believe there is some supernatural aspect to it.

The drumbeats at the village center reach a crescendo and then stop abruptly—signaling the arrival of the Felnatherin presiding over the maturing ceremony. The sudden silence sends a chill up Khet’s spine and she stops in her steps for a moment, turning towards the center of town—though blinded or not, she would not have been close enough to see.

A hand grabs her arm and a familiar voice guides her away from the center of the village, towards her home. She recognizes the voice immediately as that of her elder brother, Harith, and she is glad that he’s come to greet her. She needs to watch her actions and be careful not to draw attention to herself while the Felnatherin is in town, and without being able to take off her blind, it was difficult for her to tell who was around, even in so familiar a place.

He scolds her in a not-unfriendly way, telling her she is late and their mother is agitated beyond belief. Khet apologizes, but they both know her mind is on other things. If her ceremony ends up in marriage, these will be the last few hours where Khet has any freedom without her blind. It’s a daunting prospect. He compliments her on her new necklace (given by Adala in the previous scene).

Harith guides Khet home and then leaves (he has duties to attend?). Khet enters their meager family hut, which is bustling with activity.

Transition Setting: Khet’s family hut inside the river valley village, mid-morning, summer, hot and humid—but cooler indoors, and dark. Characters: Khet, Safiya, Hala. POV: Khet.

Khet removes her blind. Her elder sister (Safiya) is diligently finishing the last few bits of adornment on her ceremony outfit. When Khet enters, her sister scolds her for being late and threatens Khet to be sure that she pretends they aren’t related. She doesn’t want her association with the blind girl to ruin her last chance at marriage (Having failed to secure a husband at her first ceremony the year before).

Their mother scolds Safiya for being cruel to her sister, but asks Khet to understand… Safiya is nervous that she may miss out again this year. Khet shakes her head and says that Safiya is right. She has no intention of ruining her day, and she certainly hopes she doesn’t find a groom for herself. Her mother chastises her for wishing something so odd, but Khet explains her worst fears: that she will have to hide her secret for the rest of her life. She can’t explain to a husband that she’s been pretending to be blind her entire life, and she can’t explain why their children would be born with green eyes—the eyes of the Felnatherin. The voiced fear puts a stop to her family’s activities. She shrugs and says that she’d rather live the rest of her life alone than live with that fear.

Safiya tells Khet not to sulk, and ready, leaves to join the ceremony. Khet’s mother tells her not to worry and helps her to quickly get read.

Notes: Make Safiya’s dislike of her sister clear. Show that although she puts on a brave front, Khet is frightened by what her future might entail, and though she says she hopes to never get married or have children, she secretly wants both… just not at the expense of her freedom. Khet at some point should ask about Ruwa (Khet’s eldest sister)—where she is, what she’s doing. (Side note: Ruwa is also unmarried)—she is helping their grandmother set up the ceremony. (Side note: The Grandmother is one of the village elders).

As you can see, there’s enough detail to give a complete run-through of what will happen in the chapter and any important points that need to be made, but not so much detail that it’s a chapter in-and-of itself. I didn’t add in their conversations word-for-word or the little movements they make (like ducking under the entrance to the hut, or removing Khet’s blind and tucking it in her waistband), but I have a pretty good  idea of where the chapter will go, what will happen, and what conversations need to take place. The next step would be the First Draft.

There are a lot of ways to outline. Some people make point-by-point lists. Some organize scenes onto notecards. Some outlines are incredibly detailed, and some are vague. This isn’t the only way to create an outline, and it won’t work for everyone. I like it because it allows me to study the bigger picture of my story first, and then slowly whittle it down to the details. By the time I get to this final version that’s scene-for-scene, I don’t have any major points that need to be moved around or fixed. If I get ideas along the way for new characters or new conflict, it’s easy to write them on a sticky note and slide them into the outline. I can go back chapters ahead of where I am and add in side-notes of things that need to be addressed that have an impact on later chapters. This kind of outline feels natural to me because as the outline progresses, so does the fleshing out of the story. It’s easy to fix, and in the end, I pretty much know what’s going to happen in my story, all that’s left to do is to get to the fun part: writing it.

As I’ve said before: there’s nothing wrong with being a pantster—I encourage everyone to try it—but personally, I like being a prepared pantster. I can sit down and write my heart out after I know where the story is going rather than trying to figure it out on the fly. Ultimately, I know it’s going to lead me to having a better book because I’ve had time to really stop and think about things like bloodlines, historical events, the reasoning behind character’s actions, and the possibilities that their dialogues spur on. By the time I’ve gotten to the first draft, I know I’ve made sure I have enough conflict and that the characters actions will make sense… and the most pressing problem I’ll have is my sentence structure and punctuation.

Outlining isn’t an easy process. It takes time—lots of time. Sometimes it takes me a day or two to figure out how to solve a problem Khet and Leander face. Sometimes I create more problems for myself by changing a scene that other scenes relied on later in the story, and I have to then go back and figure out how that change butterfly-effected it’s way on down through the rest of the plot. There were times I got to chapter thirty-something and realized that I had a much better idea for how a scenario would play out and I had to go back to chapter one and remove a character that no longer needed to be in the book. Outlining is like trying to piece together a puzzle that is constantly changing it’s picture…. but it’s a lot of fun, and it’s so worth it in the end when you sit back and say “I know where my story is going.” and then sit down and write it.

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