Finding an Outline Plan that Works

I’ve been working on a couple of interesting outlining ideas for The Light Never Lies and they’ve really paid off in terms of word output – I managed almost 3000 words yesterday and if even every second word of that is usable, I’m pleased by the outcome.

A couple of days ago, I took twenty sheets of blank paper and cut them all in half so I had a stack of forty pieces of paper. I went for forty because I think the book will have about forty chapters (mostly based on the fact that Disappearing in Plain Sight was that long). I then dug out a few packages of sticky notes in two colours – bright yellow for current action and a lime green for back story. I started writing action segments on the sticky notes and putting them onto the chapter pages.

This task was fairly straightforward for the first ten chapters of the book – the first draft of these chapters are already written. Chapters eleven through thirteen were sketchier but still doable. I can see that far ahead to where the story is going.

After Chapter thirteen, I had to switch gears and move to the bottom of the pile of chapter papers to fill in stickie notes for the last four chapters – these aren’t written yet but were pretty easy to outline. I’ve known how the book would end for a while now.

That left me with quite a stack of blank pages to cover the middle of the novel. So, I just started brainstorming every idea I could come up with for action scenes, descriptions, and back story, writing each idea onto a sticky note and placing it at random on the leftover pages. The time will come to arrange the ideas in some kind of storied order. The most important thing now is to have a sense of what the action could be. And naturally, the more I write and think about the characters, the more connections I make related to how they interact with one another. The characters definitely begin to drive the action of the story and I need to leave space for that to happen.

The other thing I have been working on are drawings for the layout of certain settings in the novel. By no means to scale (my architectural design trained husband would double over laughing looking at these sketches) – but they give me a spatial understanding of how characters can move around the settings and what they might see in a given location.

I learned something important writing and editing Disappearing in Plain Sight. Well, I actually learned several things but in the interest of brevity, let me stay on track here. I created elaborate back stories for every one of the characters in that book and wrote endless notes and descriptions of the various settings. What I didn’t realize then, was that only a fraction of that stuff would ever find its way into the finished novel. I’m glad to have learned that reality. I think it will make it easier to distinguish, in subsequent drafts of this newest novel, what really needs to be cut. Parts of the story are written for me so I can continue to explore the characters and allow them to move the action of the story forward. This is a necessary process for the author but not something readers need not be subjected to. What is it Stephen King says – first draft minus 10% = finished draft.


14 comments on “Finding an Outline Plan that Works

  1. LadyGrave says:

    That sounds like a pretty smart method for outlining, and I love your Winged Victory statuette. 🙂

    • Isn’t the statuette something – I love it, too! We found it at the gift shop of the Hearst Castle of all places. Thanks for your comment on my outlining plan – it’s working well so far.

  2. Louise Butcher says:

    Thanks for this insight into a novelist at work, Fran. So, this is how all those connections are made, freeing the reader to experience the structure and savor the intricacy of a well-told story. I like the feeling of discovery that I had when I read this latest blog entry. Today I peeked over your shoulder and watched you write. Nice!

    • Oh Louise – I’ve missed your presence on the blog! Peek over my shoulder any time – let’s just hope I can keep the ball rolling on the latest novel. Feeling pretty good about the output for now.

  3. I love this idea and I especially love colored post-its! Nice post!

  4. I personally use 3×5 cards, for drafting purposes. Same concept as you use Francis…it allows you to bridge the gaps, and move stuff around. 3×5 are not just for screenplays, anymore. I dig the King quote,too! -Luke

  5. Christine Penhale says:

    I am wondering if I can somehow adapt this outlining method for my papers and dissertation. Anything that utilizes coloured sticky notes just had to be an excellent idea.

  6. WOW, you know what? I had never thought about it this way before, but when you said this:

    “What I didn’t realize then, was that only a fraction of that stuff would ever find its way into the finished novel. I’m glad to have learned that reality. I think it will make it easier to distinguish, in subsequent drafts of this newest novel, what really needs to be cut.”

    I realized that our “rough drafts” shouldn’t be 2-3 pages for a 4-5 page final draft, as they are typically assigned, but maybe the other way around!!! Breakthrough. This is huge.


    I love your choice of books in the photo. I recently got an illustrated copy of the Elements of Style, from here:

    • My PhD supervisor was always saying – give me more than I can use – it’s easier to cut than add stuff. I guess it all depends who did the writing and who is doing the cutting – but in terms of fiction – I’ve got to write it all down and then see what needs to hit the cutting floor.

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