Outlines or Index Cards?Okay, I admit it. I’m not cool and hip and an unplotter. I’m a methodical outliner. I have even dabbled with index cards but found them to be a little too free-wheeling for me. They just didn’t give me the high of an organized linear document. I like structure. And, yes, I do write my short stories and novels in a linear progression from Chapter One, Scene One to “The End.” Writing something out of order, sacrilege, I think. I wouldn’t say it--really. What I’ve discovered is that what works for some doesn’t work for all. And, like Terry mentioned yesterday, the key to finishing your novel is to find what works best for you.
You might be an outliner if…
1. You own a Dymo Labeler and you use it on a regular basis.
2. Your gift wrap ribbons are organized by color in one of those plastic shoe rack things that hangs on the inside of a closet door. If people, meaning your husband or child, puts the ribbon back in the wrong pouch, it bothers you. A lot. But I digress.
3. You actually liked writing term papers in high school and/or college
4. You come to a full stop at stop signs in your neighborhood, even when there are no other cars around.
5. You write your daughter’s name on the sole of her pointeshoes and add a symbol to encourage a rotation system of ■, ●, ▲, ●● in permanent marker.
With my first novel, a historical romance, I didn’t outline. I pantsed my whole way through and when at long last I typed “The End,” about 650 pages later, I discovered I’d written at least two books with multiple subplots. With subsequent novels and my published short stories, I found outlining kept me on track. Over the years, I’ve added more and more detail in my outlines to highlight my strengths and to overcome my weaknesses (readers’ emotional connection to characters). I start with characters’ backstory. Then I move on to the story itself. In addition to the actions of the characters, with each scene, I also list descriptions of the setting, sensory details that I might want to use, and the emotions for each character in the scene. I also check to make sure I’ve included a sequel (reaction) built into the plot after each scene. If dialogue comes to me, I throw it in, too.
Here’s an example of what an early version character backstory for Widow’s Kiss looked like:
Christian Redding: Runs father Archibald Redding’s plantation in the West Florida parish of St. Tammany (Louisiana). Father was a former British soldier who fought in the Revolutionary War. Christian’s hard work and love for this property has made the timber plantation successful. He wants stability, but change is in the wind. In the past year, his widowed father has begun to spend their profits frivolously and, worse yet, he’s decided to marry a notorious young widow rumored to have had a hand in her previous husbands’ deaths. If that weren’t enough to disturb his peaceful routine, his prodigal brother, recently returned from the Orient, is trying to convince their father to join with other plantation owners who are planning an insurrection against the Spanish. The family could lose everything. Physical attributes: Tall, broad-shouldered, golden-haired, blue eyes, chiseled face. Rarely smiles. Tiny lines around his eyes from being in the sun and squinting. Browned a bit from the sun from overseeing the felling of timber. Looks like a taller, younger copy of his father. Goal: To protect his father from getting hurt by this woman he plans to marry (even if it means preventing the marriage) and to keep the Redding plantation out of the insurrection.
I then type similar paragraphs about all the main players in the story: the heroine, the hero’s father and brother, the red herring characters if there’s a murder involved (which in this story there is), the real villain, etc.
This is what I did for a typical scene in the same story:
Setting: August. Warm morning. New Orleans. Windy from river. Whale oil lamp posts. Vieux Carre. Wrought iron balconies with plants, plastered brick edifices with some crumbling brick showing through. Lush courtyards and patios. Shutters battened down facing the road. Sounds, drip of water, footsteps on banquettes (boards), hush of Sunday morning. No bustle yet. By afternoon the bustle would return. Creoles enjoyed their Sabbath. Passes the Planter’s Bank at Chartres and Bienville. Rue Royale. Courtyard patio. Enters with wagons through wide gate which faces the street, porte cochere. Passes through high-domed passage way into court with bricked patio. Center fountain. Side kitchen and slave quarters detached from main dwelling. To the rear, a slant of sunlight illuminates the interior of an empty carriage house, with empty horse stalls. Window openings wide with arch at top and fan transoms. Wide window sills holding flower pots and what looked like rosemary. Flat green roof tiles, wet with dew, green was striking rather than half-round red tiles. Moresque style wrought iron railings on the second floor galleries with a D in the center. First husband’s monogram. Glimpse of brocade upholstery in parlor when wind shifts a lace curtain. Emotion: Angry that his father is marrying, that his brother is encouraging father to side with nationalists, and that his father sent him to escort the widow to the plantation. Action: Christian sees heroine Desiree for the first time. She’s as beautiful as she’s rumored to be. He learns that her cousin is also coming to the plantation with them (something he’s pretty sure his father doesn’t want) and that the widow isn’t bringing any of her expensive furniture (which he knows his father did want), which she’s sold along with her home to improve her finances. What happens merely confirms his suspicions that this marriage between Desiree and his father is ill-fated. She’s surprised that her fiancé sent his son and that his son looks so much like his father. Once she convinces Christian that her cousin must come with her, she seems particularly concerned by the time. He realizes why as the wagons make their way through the city and the people leaving church treat Desiree with disdain. He feels sympathy for her, which he doesn’t want to feel. Hook: A man in the road at the edge of town calls out to Christian, warning him that no one survives the widow’s kiss.
I may not use all the details I list in the setting, and I may add more when I actually write the chapter. For example, I added in sunlight hitting the wet tile roof and blinding the hero when he initially meets the heroine, so that he can hear her voice but not see her face until she moves out of his blind spot. I also added sounds and smells. I add dialogue when I do the real scene. But what I’ve written in outline gives me a good starting point. If I’m smart, I’ll go back and add in all the characters’ scene goals if I haven’t included them the first go round of outlining.
One of my writing friends swears by index cards. I think they’re for people who need some structure to get started but don’t want the detailed formality of a thirty-five page, single-spaced outline. Yes, mine are that long. This friend, though, writes important plot points, scenes, sequels, turning points, the black moment, resolution, etc. onto separate index cards. Then she organizes them. She puts the character GMC’s on index cards, too. At times, she even uses colored index cards to delineate hero and heroine plotlines so that when she spreads them on the floor, she can see where her hero and heroine’s journeys might need a little more attention.
You might be an index card plotter if:
1. You like to spread things out on the floor
2. You like shuffling cards
3. Outlines give you hives* (this could also make you an unplotter)
For me, outlining is a comfortable method of organization; it’s familiar, and I like that it’s linear. It’s essentially my safety net. I do diverge from the outline if something I’ve planned isn’t working or if I get a brilliant idea that makes the story work better. Sometimes, once the first draft is done, I throw away completely written scenes (I save them in a file for future use—just in case), I might add some new ones, and I might move some around to better suit my plot. The biggest benefit to me of outlining is that I can see without writing a full chapter what I need to cut or add to, whether I have enough conflict, whether my plot is moving, etc. In the long run, it saves me time revising.
How about those of you who outline? What makes this method comfortable for you? What tips for outlining do you have to share? Anecdotes?
Labels: outlines for novels