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A question I get more often than I could have ever expected is, “Do you outline?” The interested party is almost always someone who has tried writing themselves or at least given it serious consideration. It’s not an easy question to answer, and not because each book is different, although it is. No, it’s because my first thought goes to what is really being asked. Do they want to know if I know the ending before I’ve put fingers to keyboard? Or is it more along the lines of wanting to understand how locked in to a story line I am?Before answering, I ask about their own writing and experiences of planning a storyline. I like to ground myself in their process before I try to explain my not-quite-normal process, before revealing that I don’t have any special magic.
I do outline…usually…kind of.
Although what I do more closely resembles a flow chart (see totally fake version below). By the time I’m ready to start putting words on a page, I’ve envisioned the key characters (protagonist, antagonist, sidekick, and sentient monkey-dog), several handfuls of supporting roles (rover caravan that dies off in the first act, colony of elusive elves who exclusively make belts and hats, convict in hiding not realizing he’s no longer wanted), twenty key story elements (usually complete with location), and the key themes I want to keep coming back to throughout the story (see your English 17A text book for the classic conflicts).
Each box is a scene. Each diamond a recurring theme. Questions and comments sprout up alongside each box, helping flesh out the scene and its possible repercussions. Arrows point from scene to scene creating the chronology of the story, sometimes arrows go from one to many or in a circle revealing key plot points in need a great deal more setup or conundrums needing attention. New scenes start appearing to answer questions posed on the far side of the page. Others get deleted or shelved for reconsideration. All these things help me see the breadth of the story, and the coherence or through-line of what I’ve thus far only plotted in my imagination. When it works, wonderful things happen, whole sections of the book can be told out of chronological order, flashbacks appear to explain a character’s fears and flaws, links to themes become crystal clear only because of that one last impossible diagonal, connecting arrow.