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.