Doing a Plotting Outline if You Must


Doing a Plotting Outline if You Must

Having spent the last post dissing plotting outlines, I’ll spend this one suggesting how to do one despite my personal objections, since I recognize that different writers have different approaches.

Doing a plotting outline with left and right sides of brain engaged

I got this idea from a book which I no longer have—otherwise I would credit the author. Anyhow, I used this approach for my non-fiction books (Managing Knowledge Workers and Creating an Innovation Culture) and it worked very well. I have adapted it for fiction use because I think it ups the element of creativity in what is otherwise a somewhat linear process.

There are probably numerous apps which can help you do this but honestly, I have found that the tactile experience of using index cards is best. You’re gonna need a lot—maybe a thousand or so. But it’ll set you back less than ten bucks and having a large number encourages a big flow of ideas.

Using index cards to create a plotting outline

Okay, with the stack of cards before you, start writing down everything you want to include in the novel.

  • One idea per card
  • Write as fast as you can
  • Repeats are okay (I’ll explain why later)
  • Any thought, big or small, is acceptable from ‘number the pages’ to ‘theme: loving to hate.
  • Do this until you are out of ideas. You might want to carry a few cards around for a day or so in case more ideas come to you.

Organize your cards into a plot outline

Once you have your pile of ideas:

  • Group the cards. The grouping will depend on the nature of the novel. You could cluster by chronology with each pile representing rough chapters. Grouping by character (Minnie goes to the market and meets Jeff; Minnie has a nervous breakdown, etc.) is also possible as is by theme. Whatever works best for your novel idea.
  • Repeat cards. You will probably have duplicate or similar cards. Seeing ‘establish Minnie as unpleasant’ several times will give you a rough indication of how important that topic is to you and presumably the novel. It might even be a theme.
  • Assemble your outline. Create the outline using the card grouping as your guide.
  • There will be gaps. There will probably be gaps in the outline. My preference is to leave these for now to allow you to decide later what is needed but if it drives you mad not to have a complete outline, by all means, fill in the holes.
  • Allow yourself to throw away/ amend/create new cards as the story progresses. The cards are not stone tablets; don’t let yourself get locked into the outline.

So, while I prefer the haphazard approach to writing a novel, if your psyche calls out for a plot outline, this is a way to do it that is less left brain and lets the right brain have a look in.

Why You Shouldn’t do a Story Outline


Why You Shouldn’t do a Story Outline

I have described my preferred way to write—the haphazard approach. I’m not alone in preferring to let the story go where it will. The Atlantic makes The case for writing a story before knowing how it ends. Actually, I feel more strongly than that. I think a story outline is a questionable idea, even for memoirs (actually, I want to say ‘bad’ but I am trying to give the impression of being even-handed. Ha!).

Having an outline can give a sense of security because you don’t have to face the empty page without some support. But this benefit, alluring though it is, also has some downsides which I think are substantial.

An outline reduces the possibility of taking interesting byways

An outline is a roadmap to get you where you think you want to go. It might seem counter-intuitive to avoid doing one.

 But an outline may also encourage ignoring interesting opportunities. You’re writing a scene about your heroine wandering through the forest to get to grandmother’s house. It occurs to you that she might stumble upon a secret conclave of fairies. Wouldn’t that be fun to explore? But the outline points you inexorably to getting through the wood to meet the wolf dressed in grandma’s clothes. It, more importantly, doesn’t allow you to consider that the better story might actually be when Red (Riding Hood) meets this band of sprites and her adventures take off from there. So, it’s not just byways you miss but possibly the real soul of your narrative.

An outline is efficient but not effective

A plot outline is a very business-like way to approach writing. In business, the objective is often to get to the end goal with the least use of time and resources. But news—we’re not in the business of business. We want to create something entirely new. And that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a plan, however carefully crafted. It’s using the wrong tool and hoping for the right outcome.

It may rob energy from the writing

 Surprising, no? But that is why writers (myself included) often don’t like to talk too much about a work in progress. Because somehow talking about it makes it harder to write. It can rob the energy you need for writing much as an outline can.

Say you do an outline. You figure out how the wolf lures grandma into opening the door. He pretends to be Red and the grandmother falls for it (need to establish elsewhere that GM is not a brain trust). You get excited recording how the ruse will work and look forward to the writing the scene.

But when you do, you may find that you can’t infuse your original energy onto the page. A not uncommon event, in my experience.  So save the energy and creativity for the writing, not for the planning-to-write.

It’s not as much fun

It just isn’t. Isn’t the excitement having an idea burst upon you and writing it down as fast as you can, almost as if it is being channeled through you? The ‘Hey, I can do this with the character!’ rather than ‘Okay, what’s next on the plan.’

So, honestly, I think that dispensing with an outline is the way to go. However, I also recognize, especially for new writers, that it is a security blanket which might make the difference between starting writing or not at all. So, the next post is how to do a plot outline if you must.

What is a Story? Do You Really Know?


What is a Story? Do You Really Know?

As a reader, you know instinctively. Because we understand so well as readers, writers sometimes don’t realize that understanding story from a writing point of view, is critical to avoid too long narratives, or worse, end by the reader thinking, “Well, that didn’t go anywhere.” And this post also refers to memoirs—they need to be stories, too.

An example

Let’s say you write this (note: I’m purposely using a lot of ‘tell’ to telescope the action):

Evelyne is a brilliant student who is sophisticated and well-travelled. Colin is also a brilliant student but he has never been farther than the next town.

Is this a story? I think most of us would reply, “Well, not yet.”


Is this a story?

What about if you added:

Evelyne moved to Thailand when she was five when her father was posted as a diplomat. The family then moved to Vietnam. Although she did most of her schooling in England, she often returned to the family as it moved to various postings in South East Asia.

Colin has worked on the family farm ever since he can remember. He’s very knowledgeable about animal husbandry, crop rotation, and feed crops. He has worked with many older farm hands and acquired a level of wisdom far beyond his years.

 I think some might waver here, especially if, as would probably be the case, there are quite a few pages and the events themselves are interesting. They might think, well, maybe it is.

Nope. Neither character is taking action in the present context. As presented, these are descriptors of the characters. Might still be useful but it’s not a story yet.

How about now?

Evelyne and Colin are in the same compulsory First Year English class and are fiercely competitive.

This is where it gets harder. The two characters are acting but is it a story? I think we are creeping up to it because there is a conflict. But not yet.

Say you fleshed out the bones of the idea and showed them competing in a no-holds-barred way to win top honors?

Sorry, no cigar.

Never-ending competition between the two would not be a story nor, ultimately, very interesting.

The requirements for a story

For this to be truly a story, there has to have a crisis, or discovery, or a transformation. How could we add that to our story?

  • A crisis might be that Colin’s father is badly injured in a farm accident and Colin has to drop out of school
  • A discovery might be that, for all her cool sophistication, Evelyne comes from an abusive family
  • A transformation might occur when either Colin or Evelyne learns how to cope with failure when one loses to the other.

So, what is a story?

Typically, there is a setting, some characters, a crisis/discovery/transformation, and a resolution. You can’t really drop any one of the components and still fulfill the reader’s expectation of a story, no matter how brilliant or touching the writing is.

This is where fiction diverges from life. As I have discussed before, fiction has conventions, often invisible to the reader, which nevertheless must be satisfied. Whereas in real life, Evelyne and Colin really might have engaged in nonstop competition, it’s not a story unless they move beyond that point. Similarly, in real life, we don’t always know the resolution of an issue or whether there even is one, but leaving readers hanging in that way will disgruntle your most loyal bookworm.

The Green Book: Character Not Plot


The Green Book: Character Not Plot

The Green Book is an example of the pitfalls of creating fiction based on fact but also of character study films. This category primarily explores the main character’s personality.

Other character study films are Remains of the Day and even Little Women. If you remember (I may be speaking to only half the audience), Little Women focuses on how Jo realizes her dream to be a writer, Amy to be fashionable, etc.  There isn’t one big climax to which all the other component parts contribute.

Similarly, the Green Book is a study of character and, although lots of things happen, there really isn’t a plot.

The movie does so have a plot

I can hear the protest, “The movie does so have a plot—I mean, they meet in New York, and drive through the South…” Yes, yes. But those are events and even lots of events don’t necessarily add up to a plot. It is particularly tough to see in this movie since the character development is so well written (and acted) that you don’t even notice the lack of a story.

How can you tell the difference between character and plot driven stories?

Usually by the elevator speech about the story. Someone asks what the Green Book is about. Which are you more likely to say: “It’s about two men who find the humanity in each other despite their differences in race”; or “It’s about two men getting into trouble in the Deep South during the 1960s.”? Both are correct but I think the first in more accurate because it gets at the real intent—character.

Why does it matter?

Well, it doesn’t for the reader since both types can be very satisfying. But it does for the writer.

At some point, you need to understand whether you are writing character or plot. Is it about the growth of your main character’s humanity? Or does the story have a climax moment which resolves the issues presented in the novel?

The annoying bit is that you often want to do both—develop your characters into real people and put them in situations which they resolve. And frankly, it is a better piece if you can.

Both character and story

So why the fuss?

The problem arises when writers just keep writing interesting, entertaining, or even touching events which don’t really lead anywhere. Just stringing a set of scenes together, no matter how true or life-like, will not necessarily make a story.

In fact, novels or memoirs written this way often dissatisfy the reader without her knowing why. She might say something like, “Yeah, it was okay—lots happened to him.” But won’t say “Wow, I really understand how his life shaped who he became,” OR “Wow, it was fascinating to see how he overcame such a difficult challenge.”

What about your writing?

You don’t need to start a writing project knowing which direction you want. In fact, might impede your creativity if you do. Instead, consider this after the first draft when you’re looking to create a final product.

Do you have a classic story arc with interesting characters who change? Or is the essence the growth of the main character, illustrated by events in his life? Which you decide will help focus what needs to be added, cut, expanded or shortened in your second draft.

I know this is a tough one so I will do another post (later) on a movie where this events- without-story is more evident.

The Green Book: Inspired By


The Green Book: Inspired By

The Green Book won the Best Picture Academy Award for 2019 for a story ‘inspired by’ true events. It was controversial with some challenging its depiction of American racism.  That aside, the movie can provide an interesting writing lesson.

What does ‘ inspired by’ mean?

Movies seem to make three distinctions:

A true story is a pretty close to real life events, sometimes using transcripts or historical records.

Based on a true story allows artistic license to perhaps combine real life people into one character or alter the flow of events to increase the drama.

Inspired by a true story is a kind of all-bets-are-off movie. The real events can be a springboard for the writer to weave in scenes and characters which may not have existed. This is the category closest to, but perhaps not actually, fiction.

 All this is fine as long as the viewer knows what he’s getting. But for the writer, the ‘inspired by’ category can cause problems, perhaps illustrated by The Green Book.

How does this apply to the Green Book?

On his 1960s tour of the Deep South, a black pianist is forced to stay in black-only accommodation, generally depicted as down-at-the-heel places. His white chauffeur is not confined to these choices.

The exception occurs when the pianist, his chauffeur and two of the chauffeur’s (white) buddies all stay at the same hotel. Now, I can imagine that white people might have stayed at black-only hotels during this era. However, given that segregation of accommodation is an important premise, I think that the movie makers made a mistake by not explaining away this seeming anomaly.

But I also wonder (just wonder) whether the ‘inspired by’ allowed the writer to get carried away.

A speculation

The incongruity just discussed could have been caused by information edited out in the final cut or because it was assumed that everyone knew white people stayed at black inns but not vice-versa. I grant what I am about to propose is pure speculation but bear with me.

Generally speaking, interest is heightened when the protagonist faces a challenge. After the pianist and the chauffeur have started to understand and even like each other, the chauffeur’s buddies offer him a job. To set this up dramatically, the pianist needs to overhear the other men discussing the offer and agreeing to meet later to finalize the details. It is only with this knowledge that he knows he’s in danger. So, the writer needs a setting where all four characters are present and a hotel is chosen, even given the jarring aspect.

Because the setting is at variance with the major premise of the movie and is not explained, it made me wonder whether the meeting actually took place or whether this was just the writer heightening things with some conflict. I.E. did he make it up?

Staying true to the spirit

A lesson can be derived for writers. Creative use of the material is of course important. This is true even in a memoir.  However, in doing so, you need to stay connected to your setting, characters, and historical period. I understand the need to build a good story and applaud the effort. But you’ve gotta stick with the essence of the characters and settings you’ve created.

Depicting characters doing or saying things not consistent with who they are doesn’t make a better story. It might be better dramatically but it won’t ring true to the reader.

The Green Book is interesting in other ways. Next post.