I didn’t write a plot outline when I wrote my novel because, quite frankly, I didn’t know what was going to happen. If I were to do it again—and in fact, I am doing it again, as I begin a new project—I would take the time to write an outline. Why?
It’s become clear that I need one. I’ve gotten feedback from my agent on my big, bad revision, and while there are a lot of things that—thank God!—are working, there are a couple of plot points that need more urgency, more oomph behind them. It’s not the first time that I’ve been told I need to “raise the stakes.” I hope this time I can raise them high enough. There are some good ideas brewing, and I’m hopeful.
Still, I wonder now if this is something I could have avoided, had I plotted things out more completely at the start. Eventually, I created a chapter-by-chapter chronology to analyze the pace of the story, but by then, I was already invested in certain portions that had been written. I moved them around plenty, and I am willing to cut what doesn’t serve the whole, but I think I probably got stuck more often than I needed to with this approach.
It’s also become clear that I need to outline more than the plot. I need to outline the emotional trajectories of my characters as well. I heard too often in critiques that there wasn’t enough of a change in my protagonist from start to finish. My next project deals a lot with grief, and it will be important to show how the main character is different at the end than she is at the beginning.
I have a couple of strategies in mind, but, as always, I’ll be learning as I go. One thought is to print out a “hero’s journey” diagram and make notes on it as to how my protagonist will develop along the way. I looked for an app that tracks this, but couldn’t find one. (Suggestions, anyone?)
Another idea, and one I’m a little more excited about, is a variation on the research projects I did in middle and high school. Then, we had to write out the information we found from various sources on color-coded index cards. Once we had enough information, we’d organize them into a narrative and use them as an outline. I have a lot of ideas for scenes and exchanges in this project that I could organize in a similar way. Perhaps doing so will help me to see where the tension rises and falls, and help me to make the most of each moment—and to easily eliminate those that don’t fit in.
Having worked on this first novel, I have a stronger handle on what works with dialogue, how much exposition fits, and how to shape an environment. But plot is still a tricky thing for me. I want to write realistic stories, but those that are interesting are those with drama. How do I strike the balance?
This time around, I’m starting with a skeleton (there’s your Halloween reference!) and “fleshing it out” from there. It’s possible that every novel will require a different approach. But it might also be that, step by step, I’m finding my way to what works best for me as a novelist.