I have now written 4 novels, mostly with the SOP method. Oh, there were notes and I had a good idea where I was headed, but really, I was pantsing it in the truest sense of the word. Here’s my conclusion: not writing an outline is too much work!
In a little unplanned experiment (and thanks to a certain author whom I will leave unnamed for her own protection), I took what I considered my best novel, number 3 out of 4, and went into a major re-write. It was just before this process that I discovered Larry Brooks and his book, Story Engineering. The very title sends tendrils of horror through my panster friends. The words “engineering” and “art” shall never coincide.
Well, as an engineer in my real life, I must disagree.
Beauty, my friends, does not exist without structure. Yes, some authors have written best-sellers without an outline. But I promise you most, if not all, wrote multiple drafts before the final product. Their rough draft was their outline. Now, I don’t know about you, but I prefer to write and make changes to a ten page outline over a three-hundred page rough draft. Been there. Done that.
More importantly, and a big thank you to K.M. Weiland for spelling this out so nicely, is the necessity to bring elements of your novel together at the same places for maximum impact. An easy example: Your protagonist resolves her inner struggle at the same moment she resolves her external conflict. Maximum impact. It just wouldn’t do for Luke Skywalker to trust in The Force thirty minutes before blasting the Death Star into individual Lego blocks.
But there are critical points, with similar impact, throughout the story that most of us can agree on. Your character’s arc leads him to the place where he must turn from what he wants and begin the quest toward what he needs (thank you again K.M.!). He also must begin to reject the Big Lie. And don’t forget foreshadowing. And theme! Oh so much to remember! How will we get in all in the story?
The outline, of course.
Luke’s Big Lie is that he’ll “never get off this planet” and that there’s no such thing as “destiny.” Uncle Owen did his job in keeping Luke safe. Maybe too well. The Big Lie takes a direct hit at precisely the same time we get to Plot Point One, when Luke returns home to find his aunt an uncle in charred heaps. (I’m aware I use Star Wars for my examples all the time…perhaps Hunger Games next time?).
That interception of course-changing action and shift in character arc didn’t happen in a wild night of passionate writing after George Lucas had a few umbrella drinks on some beach in Aruba. That took careful plotting and hard work. When I was ten years old and cheering Luke on for the first time, I didn’t know what had just happened because George had done it so well that it was seamless (I also didn’t realize those were the bodies of his aunt and uncle, but I was ten, and it didn’t matter).
A pantser can pull off the same thing, of course. But you might have had the Big Lie in draft #1 as “Luke thinks he’s worthless.” That one’s as cliched as my red-headed stepchild. Then you would have written the scene when Luke makes his irreversible choice. He finds his dead aunt and uncle and heads out to save the universe. But wait…doesn’t he believe he’s useless? No way is he saving the universe.
So you go back and re-write the beginning, being sure to have Uncle Owen telling Luke he needs him on the farm and telling his wife that he’s worried about him turning out like his father (you also slipped in that bit of foreshadowing). So draft #2 fixes the Big Lie so the first plot point has greater impact.
Now onto the mid-point, plot point 2, the conclusion. After five or six drafts, maybe everything falls into place. Or maybe you’ve lost your marbles and decided poetry is easier.
In an outline, you can create a template to help you remember to insert these key elements where they need to be before you start the first draft. Say, in your notebook you’ve scratched out the plot points:
Inciting incident: Droids escape attack and land on Luke’s planet. A queen…no, a congressman (oh sure who would care?)…ah! A princess is captured but sends a distress message to the planet (how is that going to happen…twitter?)
Act 1: Luke is a farmboy on a desolate planet. Dreams of joining the rebellion against the bad guys.
Plot Point 1: Luke’s family is killed and farm destroyed. He has nowhere to go but join the rebellion (note you’ll insert some steps, or scenes, that get him to this point later, but once you know the destination, that’s not so intimidating!).
Act 2: Luke and the Old Guy work on getting to the princess and saving her because she’s kind of a hottie.
Mid-point: Bad guys blow up a planet! Wow! Can’t wait until the editors fight over this one!
Act 3: Luke and Old Guy get to the bad guy’s space station and free Princess Hottie. Hmmm….I need a tough guy, nerf-herder sort and maybe his hairy sidekick.
Plot Point 2: Luke escapes from the bad guys and the Mean Star (need to work on that). Now he begins his attack.
Act 4: The rebels attack! Luke blows up the Pain Star (still needs work).
Okay. Maybe George’s initial outline was a bit different. He’s not returning my calls so I’ll have to make some assumptions. But really…could you write a story around that? I think you can. But now you’ll go down your checklist. What’s my hero’s Big Lie (that he has no great destiny)? What does he want (to be a great warrior in the rebellion)? What does he need (to trust in The Force and his friends)?
Now you can go back to that outline and figure out where to insert these points, along with foreshadowing, etc., so that each plot point and conclusion will have the greatest impact.
Your required reading, besides this, is this fantastic summary from K.M. Weiland on how to use character arc and story plot structure together. That way, when someone asks you if your story is character driven or plot driven, yo can say “all of the above.”
And that, my friends, is what makes a good story a great one.
* Okay, it’s really a mild debate, but that would make a terrible story now wouldn’t it?