Panster to Plotter: How I Outline Now


In my last post, I shared why I’d made the switch from pantsing to plotting, and why I’m glad I did. Now, I’ll show you some of the nitty-gritty of how I plot! As a reforming pantser, I needed an outlining system that would be flexible, forgiving, and help me plan out my books and get a feel for a story’s strengths and weaknesses without triggering my, ahem, commitment anxiety. I still begin my stories with some grey areas, but this gives me a wonderful jumping-off point.

My system is a mish-mash of ideas from several authors:

  1. Melanie Jacobson, who taught a class at LDStorymakers 2015 on how she uses the Rachel Aaron method to increase her productivity even though she doesn’t have the liberty of writing 8-hour days
  2. Rachel Aaron, specifically the techniques in this post and this post
  3. J. Scott Savage, who taught a phenomenal class on Four-Part Pacing at the same writing conference. His lesson plan for that isn’t online anywhere, but point #5 in this post gives a broad overview of how it works. (Robin LaFevers also touches a bit on this idea in the link shared in point #4.)
  4. Dan Wells’ 7-part Story Structure model, although to be honest I hate the long second act idea and so I interpret it much more as Robin LaFevers lays out in this blog post—four equal-length acts (which fits nicely in with the four-part pacing idea in my previous bullet point)

The first thing I do is to make some sort of a quick-and-dirty key to my broad, overarching story shape. Usually, that takes the form of a query-like document: maybe 3-5 paragraphs, eloquent or not (usually not at all), which convey the story’s heart and the major plot points, if I know them. Before I do anything else, I try to at least know the way the story starts and the way the major event that happens at the climax. Lots of writers say that it’s essential to begin knowing your ending, but I find that for me it usually takes some fiddling around to discover what my ending needs to be. My end usually comes out of both the story’s themes and the direction the climactic event. I also try to isolate what my character’s goal is and the steps they try to take to achieve it (and how they’re foiled). I didn’t know this technique when I was outlining my first plotted novel last year, but as I’m going through the process again I’m finding Dan Wells’ 7-part story structure very helpful as a way to pin down key events that shape the story. Often at this point, these events are pretty fuzzy—along the lines of “Something happens that makes Rose see Bryony with more sympathy.” Detail can come later!

Also at this point, I like to take some time to tease out my central character’s desires, needs, contrived persona vs inner essence, etc. I really like these questions from Robin LaFevers for doing this. Martine Leavitt also has some good ones (I learned them in a class from her last year, and unfortunately can’t find them online anywhere). Essentially, any questions that get you thinking really deeply about your character is a good jumping-off point.

My next step, usually done either before I start outlining or while I’m in the early stages, is to draft a first chapter. I write voice- and character-driven stories, and so it’s really important for me to be able to feel like I’ve nailed down a character’s voice before I dive into plotting the book out. Both times I’ve done this my first chapter has ended up changing somewhat, but for me, it’s still worth it to gain the extra glimpse into my character’s head and voice that drafting the first chapter gives me.

Once I’ve done that, it’s on to outlining!

I use a notecard method to outline. Because I have a toddler and so really don’t have the space or ability to use actual notecards strewn about the room, I use the notecard function on Scrivener (you can find lots of simple tutorials online for how to make this work). I make a folder in my Scrivener document called “Outline,” and that’s where all of my cards go. I begin simply and not at all chronologically, much as Rachel Aaron suggests here.  I begin with a brief line about the scenes that I know (I don’t worry about dividing those scenes into chapters until drafting)—usually the basic structure I’ve figured out in my pre-writing. I usually write only one line on my cards at this point, often very vague, and I fill in more details as I go along and find the world becoming more vivid and real to me and the small pieces of the story lining up better in my head.

After I’ve gotten down the scenes that I already know, I look at my notecards and figure out where I can build bridge scenes. I ask myself questions: What will it take to get my character from this card to this card? I slowly lay out the story as it comes to me, one card at a time, jumping around to whatever part of the story arc feels most accessible and easy to pin down. If I find myself getting stuck, I do as Aaron suggests in her post and switch tracks for a little bit—I’ll go back to my character dossiers and fill them out some more, or write a couple of paragraphs about the setting, or flesh out more details for the scenes I already know I need. Before long, whatever element I was missing in the outline will click into place and I’ll be able to keep going forward. I’m both a commitment-phobe and a nervous writer, and this stage is both exciting and incredibly nerve-wracking. I frequently feel like flinging up my hands and shouting “WHAT EVEN SHOULD HAPPEN HERE?!” Usually, I just have to ride that feeling out, and the next step ultimately comes to me!

I also find it helpful to make lists of things I want to remember to include as I go—subplots, character arcs, small details that become important, literary devices like objective correlatives that I want to keep present throughout the story. As I skip around in my outline, adding more and more scenes and more details to the scenes I’ve got, I often refer to my list to make sure that I’m keeping all my metaphorical plates spinning the way I want to be. For example, in my last book, the MC’s younger sister was an extra-difficult toddler, and it was important for various reasons that a reader could see that. As I outlined and after I’d finished, I went through and made sure that I was having consistent scenes showing the toddler sister throwing a tantrum or doing something else that illustrated the stress she was placing on the family.

Once I’ve got what feels like all the scenes in my book briefly sketched out on my notecards, I color-code them. This was the serious lightning-bulb moment for me as I was experimenting with outlining for the first time! In Scrivener, I used the icon at the corner of the notecards (if doing physical cards you could use a highlighter), and chose a color for each of the four quadrants of my book. I identified the scenes that were transitioning into new sections (Plot Turn #1, Midpoint, and Plot Turn #2), and then I color-coded everything from that transition point to the next according to the quadrant of the book it was in. When I was done my document looked like this:

Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 10.33.50 AM
(The actual outline begins at the blue flags; all the cards before that were about scene, backstory, etc.)

This was the point in my first outlining experience where the angels really started to sing, because all of a sudden I realized that not only could I get a feel for how my plot would play out as I wrote, but I also could diagnose pacing problems before I even began drafting. I was able to make sure that all four quadrants of my book had equal weight, and recognize which sections were too long and which needed more scenes to flesh them out. Later, when I hit the point about 2/3 of the way through my first draft at which I decided to make some major changes to the plot, I was able to refer to the outline in order to make sure that the new plotline would carry similar weight to the old.

The last thing I did with this book—which I didn’t do perfectly all the time, but which definitely did increase my writing speed when I did it—was to use Rachel Aaron’s scene pre-writing from this blog post. I had a notebook specifically for this book that I used to block out each scene before I wrote it, in the most basic of ways. This was especially helpful for those times that I would get interrupted in my writing session before I finished the scene I was working on; because I had it neatly laid out in short form in my notebook, I could easily jump back in later when I had more time. The instances where I didn’t do this were typically scenes which had come to me more fully as I outlined—there were some scenes in my outline that were already basically blocked out, because they’d been so clear in my head as I was outlining (or, alternatively, because I’d struggled knowing what should come at that point and so done some free-writing to figure it out).

Obviously, using this method didn’t get me writing 10,000 words daily, as it did for Rachel Aaron (I don’t even write every single day!). But it did consistently up my daily word count and, even more crucially, make it so much easier for me to pick my story back up and keep working on it when I’d been interrupted, something that had previously always been a struggle for me. And it did help me to create a much more powerful, tightly-woven, well-paced, and emotionally resonant book than I had ever managed before—a book that ultimately landed me my stellar agent! While I imagine I’ll still have projects that I prefer to discover as I go, I also imagine that I’ll fall back on this system much of the time, simply because it improved both the quantity and the quality of my writing so greatly.

At the end of her productivity class last year, Melanie Jacobson finished with a challenge for any of the students in the class who wanted to boost their productivity to give her suggestions a try. Since that challenge was what ultimately pushed me into stepping out of my pants-y comfort zone, I’ll extend that same challenge to you: Are you feeling frustrated with how many words you’re tossing in revisions? Are you never living up to your word count goals, or struggling to get into the flow of your story and losing it easily? Just for one book, try this out—and go right ahead and make changes and modifications so that it suits your writing style (I most definitely did).

Now: Go forth and write!

Cindy Baldwin is a Carolina girl who moved to the opposite coast and is now gamely doing her part in keeping Portland weird. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of someday writing just that kind of book. Find her on Twitter at @beingcindy.

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