A plot outline can either stifle creativity or bring a novel’s plot into sharper focus. I don’t outline before I begin a novel, but when I am revising, an outline helps me make decisions about which scenes to keep and which to throw out. The scenes to keep are those that have tension, meaning scenes where one character is arm-wrestling with another. (For more on tension, read this post.)
Scene Outline of Draft 1
When I began The Vermillion Sea, my forthcoming novel, I had in mind alternating viewpoint characters. Eventually, I found that the manuscript would be too long–way too long, and, thus, unpublishable. The first draft weighed in at 195,000 words.
In Draft 1, many interesting things happened, individual scenes had plenty of tension, fights erupted, but there was no discernible “through-line.” Yes, there was a journey through time and half-way round the globe; but, the protagonists’ inner journeys got lost. The novel had no plot. (For a peek at the research behind this book, go to my Authors Guild website.)
How did I get into this fix? Well, it’s common to muddle about when writing a first draft. It’s common to think you know where you’re going, and then to have the novel take off in directions you didn’t expect. You, the author, are in love with all of it. As was I.
From Draft 1 to Draft 2| Kill Your Darlings
The only way I could trim this whale of a book was to single-mindedly tell the story from one point of view. But whose: the young artist Noël’s, the astronomer Chappe’s, or one of the Spanish naval lieutenants’ POVs? My first draft contained scenes written from the points-of-view of all three.
For Draft 2, I pulled critical scenes involving my young artist into a clean outline labeled Draft 2. In that re-envisioning of the novel, I cut out an important viewpoint character, the famous astronomer, Chappe d’Auteroche. A friend of Benjamin Franklin’s, Chappe would stop at nothing to bring back data from the 1769 Transit of Venus, an event that occurred once a century and that took Chappe from his comfortable life in the Paris Observatory to a remote mission in San Jose del Cabo.
I hated to lose Chappe’s driven personality. Obsession is a good character trait. It puts a protagonist in conflict with other characters. Unfortunately, I had to follow Arthur Quiller-Couch’s advice to “kill your darlings.” Chappe is still in the story, but I never go inside his head.
The “Pantsers” vs. the Outliners
Writers and writing teachers fall in two camps—the “pantsers” and the outliners. The pantsers (seat-of-the-pants’ advocates) call their first drafts their “discovery drafts.” They power through to the end to find out what their characters will do.
Those who favor outlines are convinced that planning a novel’s structure saves time. I appreciate this argument because I’ve seen many novels get off to a roaring start. By page 80 to 100 the story fizzles out. At that point the writer discovers she doesn’t have any idea where the novel’s headed.
“This is such a mess!” she says. “I must be doing something wrong!” Fear sets in, and after fear comes paralysis.
The “fear factor” rarely has to do with characters. Most often fear has to do with plot.
In my post on “Story Arc,” I talk about a simple way to get a grip on plot. Please read it. If you work through the step-by-step instructions, you’ll develop a better idea of where you want your protagonist to wind up.
However, much as this exercise will help you sum up your story’s arc, it won’t help with the middle chapters, and it’s there that plots fall apart.
To help you with your own revision efforts (and maybe give you some hope for your own unwieldy drafts), I thought I’d walk you through my revisions.
To tighten my plot, I began looking for an archetypal story that would—in broad outlines—serve as a template for the scenes and plot developments in The Vermillion Sea. This novel is historical fiction, based on real people; but that’s not important. What’s important are the underlying emotions.
Every novel takes the reader on a journey, both an inner journey and an outer one. A novel can be a rags-to-riches’ story, a tale of boy-meets-girl, or any of several other archetypal plots. Take a look at Wikipedia’s entry on Seven Basic Plots.
I thought about these plots and decided that my novel falls somewhere between “The Quest” and a “Voyage and Return.” Finally, I decided that my young protagonist—a 16-year-old artist named Noël—might actually be heading off on a “Hero’s Journey.”
For more on the “Hero’s Journey, watch the interviews Bill Moyers did with Joseph Campbell. Or, watch Star Wars, a series based on Campbell’s notions of archetypal myths. (If I had written a rough draft about a woman whose main concern was caring for her elderly parents, that outline would not have served me well. A woman in those circumstances would not have had the leisure to set out on a quest.)
The Hero’s Journey Plot Outline
Because I had written the rough draft of my novel in Scrivener, I wanted to use Scrivener for my revisions. I didn’t want to focus exclusively on what the character would do or where he would go. To me the important journey had to do with how he would change from being a follower into being a leader, and change from boy to man.
To keep that emotional change front and center, I looked for a Scrivener template that would allow me to track the obstacles he would encounter and the emotional changes that would happen in the middle chapters.
My book naturally divided itself by geography into seven sections. That’s why there are seven sections in the outline. However, if that structure doesn’t work for your book, then just move the chapters around.
It might help to think about the structure of a Three- or Five-Act play. How many chapters would have to be in each act? Well, probably the last act would have fewer chapters than the first act, where the action is just getting underway.
Import the Template
If you’d like to try the template shown above, download it by going here.
Save the file to your desktop.
- Open Scrivener.
- Click the “Options” drop-down.
- In the bottom left-hand corner of the “Project Templates” window, select “Import Template.”
- Save the imported template to the Fiction folder.
From now on, whenever you start a new project, you will see the 7-Part Hero’s Journey template on the Fiction templates’ menu. Mind you, this will ONLY work in Scrivener, not Microsoft Word. It will also only work on the PC version of Scrivener. If you have a MAC, then use this article to construct your own template.
Dragging Scenes From Draft 2 Into The Fresh Outline
The new outline provided the plot structure for Draft 3. Here are the steps:
- Open a “New Project,” select Fiction.
- Select the 7-Part Hero’s Journey template.
- Save this file as Draft 3.
I now had a clean manuscript called “Draft 3” into which I could drag my existing scenes.
I opened Draft 2. My goal was to strip out everything I didn’t need.
If I couldn’t make up my mind about which scenes should go or stay, I put both in. Later, when I’d finished making notes about what should happen in each scene, I combined scenes or wrote new ones. Finally, I had a clear, emotional trajectory from the beginning of the book to the end.
The emotional logic began to make sense.
The outline for Draft 3 was still a mess, but it was a mess that led me to Draft 4. With each draft I gained a deeper connection to the characters and to the story I wanted to tell.
I guess the moral of this story is “Don’t despair.” With each draft, you have an opportunity to revise and to “re-envision.” The end result will validate your desire to write the best book you can write.
I found that Scrivener allowed me to quickly impose a plot on a book that didn’t have one. My book had things happening, but one event was not logically connected to the next event. When you’re thinking about plot issues, you want to make sure that each scene directly leads to the next one and that what happens in the scene has leaves ripples over emotionally into the following scene.
I’ve pulled together my favorite blog posts into a downloadable pdf called FIND AND FIX PLOT PROBLEMS. You’re welcome to download it by going here.