The Outline is Your Novel’s Life Preserver

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I wrote the ending of my WIP the other day. I finished the first draft of what will one day be a YA fantasy novel. It came in at about 57,000 words. After bragging on social media, I enjoyed the congratulatory comments and counted the ‘likes’ on Facebook while I finished the storm drain around the back of the house. It was a good day.

I met Joe O’Connell my first semester of grad school at St Ed’s. Joe teaches a great class with a modifiedNaNoWriMo format. It’s simple: if you do all the reading and exercises and take part in class, you get an ‘A.’ Oh, you also have to finish a 40,000 word novella rough draft. You know, while carrying the rest of that semester’s workload and, if you’re like me, holding down a job.

Early on, Joe insisted we make outlines. He didn’t insist we follow them, necessarily. He just wanted to make sure we had some kind of life preserver for when we found ourselves adrift in the middle of our stories.

Like many in the class, I scoffed. Obviously my teacher, despite having made his living as a writer for quite some time, was some sort of lesser being if he needed an outline. I bristled at the idea of hobbling my genius with anything as a base as forethought. But I also wanted an ‘A,’ so I half-assed something together.

Then I pretty much ignored that plan until the moment came, right smack-dab in the middle of my MS, when I found myself completely and utterly lost. Hmmm, I thought, maybe Joe was onto something with his zany theories. Desperate to get drafting again, I dug out my crappy outline. What I found there had little to do with what I had since written. But it did save me by reminding me of all my original, misplaced intentions.

I made it to the end and earned my ‘A.’ There was much rejoicing.

Then I read the thing.

Oh well.

At least I learned a lot about the process.

But that’s the past.

Last year I wrote a two part post on Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. At that point, I was using Snyder’s three act structure manual as a map to create an outline for the draft I recently finished. (Snyder’s method can be applied to any writing genre, not just commercial films.)

Unlike during my grad school experience, I forced myself to make a strong outline that hit all the emotional beats my hero needed to hit. And I stuck to my plan. Don’t get me wrong, many of the specifics scenes I put into my outline didn’t make it to the page. But all the major points in my hero’s emotional arc landed where they needed to.

Pacing and plotting have always been my weaknesses. But keeping to my outline – and updating it as the storyline morphed – forced me to stay on emotional track even as the details of my story changed. It kept my plot rooted in my hero’s desires. And that translated into my most tightly paced and emotionally compelling work to date.

At least I hope it did. I’m forcing myself to wait as long as possible before reading it.

Then I’ll start making an outline for the second draft.