Novel Writing · Writing

Walking the Line: How I Outline the First Draft

So I thought I’d talk a little about my process of starting a story. This past week I broke ground on the sequel to my novel, Trial by Song, which I’m prepping for publication, so I’ve been paying a lot of attention to how to get this new story off to the races. I’m always interested in the different approaches writers use when sitting down to write a story. I know people who rigidly plot every detail scene by scene. And that method tends to create very tightly crafted stories. I know other people who sit down and let the stream of consciousness carry them away to see where it takes them.

I fall right smack dab in the middle.

I prefer a very loose outline. I know the major beats of the story, but I give my characters the freedom to react to those situations. I view it as a test for how strongly I’ve built their personalities. If it’s not immediately clear how they’ll respond then I obviously don’t see them as fully realized people yet. For me, this gives the story a more organic feeling. A character picks the red door because that’s the one that speaks to them.

Now obviously as the writer I have to know know what’s on the other side of the red door, but sometimes it’s good to stop and think about why they choose the path I want them to. If I want them to choose the red door but really their personality leans more toward the blue one then it opens up opportunities to create a reason for them to act out of character to choose the path I need them to take.

An example for this method would be a story I wrote years ago when I was still in high school. Basically it was your standard fantasy about a stable boy who dreams of becoming a knight but wasn’t of noble blood so he wasn’t allowed. He trains in secret anyway and when a local nobleman’s daughter gets kidnapped by a random batch of raiders (villains weren’t my strong suit), he rescues her and becomes a hero–only he still isn’t of noble birth so the nobles actually end up treating him worse because they are embarrassed that he accomplishes something they can’t.

Pretty much that last paragraph is the level of depth I go into before I write my first draft. Sometimes I write a character sketch for the main characters, but most of the time I’m already so sure of who they are before I sit down that I just let the story flesh them out along the way. In that particular case I knew that I wanted my stableboy to be a hot-head who had to keep his cool every day pretending to be helpless whenever he got picked on. The nobleman’s daughter was supposed to be head over heels for him even though he thought she was the most annoying creature on the planet. He had to put up with her anyway because she outranked him. It was a fun story to write, though it will probably never see the light of day.

In the case of Evan and Amaryllis–my young knight and his lady–I never had a really clear picture in my head of how he would respond to getting picked on by her brothers until I got to a scene where he was getting pushed around. If you know you have an argument coming for your characters don’t try to force words into their mouths just because you need one of them to get angry enough to do whatever your plot needs them to do. In a first draft feel free to let the argument balloon. Let them drag up old history, get in a few low blows. That’s how real arguments happen. Whatever sparks a feud almost always has its roots in something that happened before that moment. You can edit out all the unnecessary bits later, but you never know where you might find some hidden emotional trigger you weren’t expecting.

For me that’s the beauty of writing, the exploration of who these people are who’ve taken up residence in my head. The only downside to my method is trying to edit the monster that you’ve just created. Just because that argument you wrote brought up ‘that one time when…’ doesn’t mean it’s really all that relevant to the reader. If you fall in love with your own words and have a hard time sending them to the trash heap then either do what I do and keep a file set aside just for the spare bits so you can keep them forever –you know, on the off-chance that the amazing phrasing in that one paragraph is just too good not to recycle somewhere else–or accept that this method might not be for you.

It’s perfectly fine if it’s not.

If you have a story to tell then find your best method for getting it out of your head. If that means plotting out scene by scene, writing a loose outline, or just sitting down to an empty page and seeing what springs to your imagination to fill it up, go for it. There’s no wrong way to tell a story.

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6 thoughts on “Walking the Line: How I Outline the First Draft

  1. I’m with you on the middle ground. I also enjoy having some room for discovery writing, but I need to know how the story ends before I get too far into it. I pantsed my way through my first six novels (although even with those, I knew how the story ended), and after wading my way through more revisions than I care to remember, I decided more outlining would be a definite plus. So now I write my thousand word synopsis first. 🙂

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    1. Yes, editing can be much more of a chore without a serious structure, but I have found that letting my subconscious take the reins in the first draft opens the door for more themes and subplots I can choose to explore. Not all of them make the cut, but sometimes some good ones sneak in there that I wasn’t expecting.

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