Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Weekly Writing Wrambling - Plotting vs. Freestyle, Part Four

For the past few weeks, I have been posting my thoughts about writing a novel with an outline, without an outline, and with a loose outline. These are all very valid techniques. But what happens after the novel is written? I propose: reverse outlining!

(Or first outlining, if you freestyled originally.)

Back in my former life as a Writing Tutor, this was my favorite technique to teach students who were editing essays, and it's still my favorite technique to edit novels today. Looking at hundreds of pages is a very daunting task; I think it is much easier to distill what you have, and then start moving things around from there. You will still need to look at the whole, but this is much easier for when you are starting off.

What sort of outline you use is up to you. For longer works, I find a chart is easiest, while I prefer a traditional layout for essays and the like. In any case, the first thing I do is make a list of all of the scenes in the novel. This is not a list of chapters; chapters can include many scenes. Similarly, a scene might change within the same location. If there is a chapter break, I generally like to call it a new scene, but the choice is yours.

Once you have a list of scenes, list what is happening in the scene in as short a sentence as possible. "Bob feeds Kitty" is a valid description, as is "Bob and Jill almost kiss before Jill is shot in the gut and dies" is also valid. After that, list why the scene is important and what it does for the characters. For example:
Bob feeds Kitty
Bob remembers he is in this for Kitty
Bob remembers he is in this for Kitty
Kitty finally starts liking Bob
Bob and Jill almost kiss before Jill is shot in the gut and dies
Jill realizes Bob’s telling truth; Bob gets in trouble; Kitty runs away
Bob realizes Jill isn’t involved with the mob
Kitty runs away and is now in hiding
Jill now realizes that something is going on
Bob is questioned by police
Bob finally learns about Big Eddy
Bob becomes a suspect
Bob realizes the police are against him

Sometimes I also like to include highlighting, so I can easily view the distribution of action scenes to characters scenes to discovery scenes (when the characters follow a clue). Obviously, if you're in a more character-driven novel, you might prefer highlighting how the character feels or something like that. Highlighting can help when you start figuring out pace and potential pacing issues, such as if you have too many deliberation scenes in a row and not enough action. Color is helpful because you can see everything at a glance.

Now you are also able to look at the character arc, as it is written, and figure out if the characters are behaving logically. Is Bob is angry at Jill in once scene and then okay with her in the next? Did Kitty get sick, and then she was fine, and then she was sick again? Again, once everything is distilled into an outline, you are able to look at what you have done and if there are issues with the characters. Now you know you want to make Kitty sick in the middle scene, or have Bob mention that he has cooled down towards Jill.

 This also works for when you need to start--gulp--taking words out. Maybe you figure out that hey, scene 35 really isn't necessary and can be taken out. Maybe you figure out that hey, scene 36 should really be split into two so Bob and Jill have a greater connection. This is particularly important when you freestyled the first time around--you need to make sure that everything flows in a logical manner. It's easier to figure this out in a chart than it is when you are dealing with pages and pages of manuscript.

So: are you editing? Try reverse outlining. It helps--a lot!

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