Refining an Outline: The Pointy
By Nicole Henderson
© 2007, Nicole Henderson
Sometimes, I write an outline for a new
project, look at what I've written, and am perfectly happy.
Then I actually read the words, and the
work begins. It's like sitting down in front of a campfire. For a
moment, I am content. In the next breath, I start poking away with a
pointy stick, trying to make the fire burn hotter and brighter. It's
time to get out my stick, and make my outline glow.
To avoid simply staring helplessly at
an overwhelming list of scenes, I use a simple method -- my pointy stick
-- to get my mind working in the direction I want to go. I outline in a
spreadsheet, because that's what works for me, but this would also work
with note cards or a simple list.
I start by identifying my POV
characters on each scene. I usually note the POV character when I
initially write the scene entry, but this is the time when I take a
quick look at each scene, and decide if my first instinct was the
Next, I make a list of my subplots (or
story threads, or plot layers, whichever term you prefer, or best
applies to your outline). I assign each a keyword, and go through the
scenes again, marking which subplots (including the main plot thread)
surface in each.
Now each scene has a scene description,
a POV, and a listing of plot threads. In a spreadsheet, I use a column
for each type on information; on a note card, I might put the POV in the
top right corner and the plot threads in the top left.
Now it's time for the elbow-grease.
I go down my list of scenes and make
sure POV is distributed the way I want it. (The antagonist, a
relatively minor character, shouldn't have four POV scenes in a row, for
instance, and the primary narrator should have enough coverage to be
identifiable.) I reshuffle scenes or add blank lines/cards with a
suggested POV wherever I think they're needed.
I repeat the process with plot threads,
checking to make sure the main plot doesn't get swamped in the middle,
that I didn't let a subplot trail off into nothing, that my plot threads
surface often enough that a reader can keep track of them, and that I
don't group too many scenes from the same subplot in one spot. Again, I
reshuffle and add blank lines/cards, noting what plot layer they should
be associated with.
Then I fill in the blanks, and leave
the outline alone for a while. I sleep on it. Bake cookies. Go to my
day job. Visit my parents.
When I have some distance, I re-read
the outline, checking out the plot threads and POV to make sure they
still look good. I add more scenes if I feel a plot thread needs more
coverage. I look for places where a single good decision would have
averted conflict, and make sure there are good reasons the characters
don't make those decisions. (I want to avoid dialog like this in the
first draft: 'I'm not going in there -- I'm terrified of carp!' 'What?
The koi pond three scenes ago didn't bother you.' 'It's a new phobia.
Required by the plot.') I look for any other plot holes I can spot, for
missing transitions and for anything else that feels wrong. I annotate,
add scenes, and scribble ideas on post-it notes.
If the outline as a whole feels too
short, then I look for a potential new subplot (either something that's
already in the background, or something I could add in), and decide how
to fit it in with new and existing scenes. If there's not enough
action, I add a new obstacle, conflict, or complication. Then I fill in
the blank scenes, and start the process again.
It can take a few iterations to get an
outline I can live with, but I finish off with a last look at POV and
plot threads, to make sure they're still balanced. Then I tuck my
pointy stick away, ready to settle in to the business of putting words
down on paper.
When I'm done, my outline isn't
perfect. But it does burn hotter and brighter, giving me a much better
view of the story I'm about to write.