Check, Double-Check, Then Check Again – Outlining: Stage 6

So, now you have a chapter-by-chapter outline.  This gives you a rough idea of what’s going to happen in each chapter, how many chapters you have, and what your plotline is going to be.  But, it’s probably not quite right.  Our writing requires revision, and so do our outlines.

The first thing to look for is gaps in the story.  A story requires a certain amount of flow.  Sure, you can skip around a bit for effect, but the story has a logical flow that you need to follow.  You need to make the connections in each chapter—especially if the story isn’t delivered chronologically—in order to ensure that all connections are there.  Notice any glaring gaps and fill them in, which may require additional chapters.  Look for minor gaps and fill them in, which will probably require a little reminder in an appropriate chapter.  While some gaps may only require a line or two of explanation, you need to provide yourself with reminders in your outline so that you don’t mistakenly leave out vital information.

Once you’ve thought your story through and looked for gaps, then you need to go back and look for the set-up and payoff points.  Each plot line, whether it’s the main plot or a sub-plot, has a set-up and a payoff.  Correction: Each plot line should have a set-up and a payoff.  Problems don’t come out of nowhere.  They are set-up and introduced.  This is the point at which the writer makes a promise to the reader.  Problems don’t just evaporate.  They conclude with some kind of payoff.  The question you asked in the set-up is answered and the promise you made is fulfilled.

Look for your set-ups and make sure you provide an appropriate payoff for each.  Then, look for your payoffs and make sure you have appropriate set-ups.  Even a simple, straightforward novel is likely to have multiple set-ups and payoffs.  You don’t have to make all of them obvious to the reader.  You don’t have to scream, “HEY, LOOK!  THIS IS NEW!” at the top of the page.  But you, as the writer, need to know they’re there.  And, if you’re leaving out a payoff or a set-up, you have to know you’re doing it and you need a pretty good reason why—if, for no other reason, so you can go back and fix it if your attempt to leave it off doesn’t work.

A story, of course, isn’t all about plot.  As you examine your outline, you need to keep an eye out for character inconsistencies.  Does a character do something for the sake of the plot that doesn’t seem to fit?  What experience can the character have that might make it work?  Do you want to insert that experience into your story?  If not, then you’ll have to re-work the plot.  Plot can be a driving force in a story, and outlines are often driven by plot.  But plot is not the only consideration, nor is it necessarily the main consideration even in an outline.  Sometimes it’s appropriate to re-work a character to suit the plot, but (especially in the case of main characters) sometimes it is more appropriate to re-work the plot to suit the characters.

You also need to look for moments of important character development.  As the plot unfolds, your characters are going to have opportunities to change.  As the writer, you need to recognize these opportunities and note whether or not the character chooses to change.  Again, the answer will affect plot: Either a character changes and the plot must be appropriate for the change, or the character refuses to change and the plot must be appropriate for that refusal.

Personally, I prefer the concept of story-driven works over character- or plot-driven works.  The story encompasses plots, characters, themes, settings, and more.  All of these elements must work together to create a compelling whole.  Make sure you have a solid concept of each of these in your outline.  Check, double-check, then check again.  Are you sure?  Got it down?

Next, you’ll take those scribbled notes and turn them into a map of scenes which you can use to navigate your way through your entire story.

About Stephanie Allen Crist

Stephanie created and produces in answer to a call from God to use her experiences and gifts to help others. Stephanie is also the author of and two books that can be found on that site. Stephanie strives to share her love, faith, and talents in an inclusive manner to help others who know spiritual pain and who know the bitter taste of the dregs of despair.
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