Shelley Widhalm

Outlining (or Taking the Plunge or Going with a Plan)

In Shelley Widhalm, Writing, Writing Processes on April 13, 2014 at 11:30 am

I never used to outline stories or essays, preferring plunging into the writing process.

After having to sort through several messy, extensive edits, I realized I needed initial guidance as I let my work unfold to save time and energy later on for other writing.

When I began outlining, I came up with a premise for my story or novel and wrote a few rambling paragraphs, and then started writing. I changed my approach after I took a Meetup fiction class with Michael Soloway, a Fort Collins, Colo., writer, in fall 2014 and learned an outlining technique that starts with a 6-word story. The story is expanded to 150 words, then 500 and finally 3,000 before you begin writing your longer piece.

Soloway suggested writing the longer and longer versions of the story using Nigel Watt’s 8-point narrative arc, which Watt explains in his book, “Writing a Novel.”

The 8 points are Stasis-Trigger-The Quest-Surprise-Critical Choice-Climax-Reversal-Resolution. The main character experiences something that upsets her status quo, sending her on a search to return to normal, but she encounters obstacles along the way, has to make a critical choice that leads to the story’s climax and eventually her return to a fresh stasis.

In three plot points, it’s the inciting incident, rising arc and falling action.
I tried this approach with my latest work, and it worked, though my ending changed, because in this case, I needed to discover the ending from the middle and how my characters interacted with each other and the plotlines.

These are a few things I’ve learned about outlining:

• First, think about what your basic premise or idea is for the story. What will be your hook? How will you introduce your main character or characters? What will be the inciting incident?
• Identify a few of the big plot moments and what character actions or settings could complicate them. What does the character want and what plot complications stand in her way from getting that one thing?
• Think through characters and plotlines to see if you can sustain both to the end of the story.
• Consider the point of view, and think about the character’s back story.
• Find a setting that cannot be separated from the plot and eliminate any extraneous settings.

Finally, think of the outline as a suggestion that can be changed as you figure out what your story actually is about. Writing is a process and not a final product until the story is written and edited.

(This month, I’m blogging about the process of generating ideas and prepping for writing.)

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  1. Great post! I do bulleted planning now after trying every form of outlining possible. I tend to use “Save The Cat” plot beats just to check my story. I like Watt’s Narrative arc that you suggest!

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