From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Monday, January 31, 2011

Writing a Novel: Outline Versus Vamp

I'm about done with chapter 3 of my novel and so I've been thinking about method lately. Here's what I've done so far: in the very beginning I did a very, very general outline, basically a one-sentence or short paragraph summary of what happens in each chapter. Then I've been taking it chapter by chapter, including the parts I've outlined for each one and sort of vamping the rest. The thing is, though the vamping is fun, I'm finding that I wish I'd done a more extensive outline.

I know some writers do pages and pages of outlining, and others just have a first sentence and go from their, letting the story go as it may. What do you do? More specifically, what is it like, following your own method? If you vamp the whole time, how do you know its working, where do you come up with ideas for the next scene, etc? If you do extensive outlining, what format do you do it in, how specific do you get?

Any advice, input you have about your own novel-developmental ideas, would be great. What works for you? I'd love some specific ideas.

Thanks and happy writing!
Sarah Allen


  1. I'm what I like to call a "plotting pantser". :)

    I know what I want the ultimate resolution of the novel to be, then I make a list of the events that I think need to happen to get me to that point. Then I think about subplots and side stories and I do the same thing - come up with the events that need to happen.

    From there, I write, and let things go as they may as the words arrive on the page. In the past, I have tried doing a firm outline, but found it oppressive. I'd look at the paragraph describing what happens in the scene or chapter, and then realize I have no idea how to expand on it. Or the reactions from the characters and all the stuff I'd written has led me on a route different from what I'd originally planned and then I'm stuck, wondering how the heck to get back to where I'm "supposed" to be so the next scene happens as the outline demands.

    The format I use for my plotting is index cards - I write everything about a scene on the card, along with a label for which plot it belongs to. Sometimes a scene can move two or more plots forward, so it's important to make a note of that. What is the "everything" I write about the scene? Who's going to be in it, where it might happen (if location is important), ideas for what could happen, and notes on anything that has to happen.

    If a scene is supposed to foreshadow some later event, then I make a note of that on the card. I write what it's foreshadowing - the specifics of it too (as in "this is where Marvin's motive for wanting to destroy the Earth with his death ray on Mars comes out).

    If the scene contains a revelation about something that happened earlier, I make a note of it on the card. If it's a revelation about something I hadn't originally thought was important, or if I realize something needs to happen earlier for the scene to work, I make a note as I'm writing to go back and add it in (or make the appropriate change).

    I hope this helps you out in some way.

  2. This is wonderful advice! Thank you, thank you. I really appreciate it, and I'm definitely planning on keeping it in mind for future plotting. Thanks!


  3. I'm probably not much help cause I don't write down my planning. On the rare occasion I'll do a slight outline. Most of the time I've thought about the story in my head at least 20 times or so and then I start writing. And often when I do the slight outline, I rarely ever even look at it while I am writing the novel. I've used notecards to keep track for a rewrite but that's it. So you do way more preparing than me.

  4. Wow, what a comment the first person had! I plan like mad. But because I write mysteries with complex coding, it has to be that way. I will often vamp my novels when it comes to the relationships in the novels or side plots. Great post.

  5. Thank you guys for your input :) Seeing what other people do is inspiring and helpful to me.

  6. I usually let the story dictate how extensively I outline it. If a story is simple and fairly linear, I'll just map the general actions and plot turns. If I'm working on something more complex, with intersecting POVs or non-linear narrative structure, I'll have a VERY complicated formal outline, complete with color coded subplots, footnotes, and graphic organizers.

    When I'm working on screenplays I'll use the traditional three-act structure to create an outline. Otherwise, I'll just figure out how to get to an end point like Lisa describes.

    Great blog, by the way. I've been blog-hunting for new stuff to read today, so this is a nice find!

  7. Hi Sarah, we met on LinkedIn a couple of years ago. You gave me some good ideas about finding an agent for my book. I decided to self publish on Lulu.

    Since I write non-fiction, I don't think about plots (but maybe there's a way to write non-fiction in a plot-like style). I had a rough outline for my book and wrote content for each chapter, then arranged the chapters in order. I've always written that way - in bits and pieces, then hitching them together. I find outlines confining, so I keep them loose and allow the book to almost put itself together.

    I am writing a fiction piece in response to a prompt from someone in one of my writing groups. It is writing itself, and I am enjoying the process. I don't consider myself good at writing fiction, but if I did, there are many points that could be expanded upon and the piece could become a novel.

  8. So happy to hear from you, Nancy :) Again, I'm super grateful for all these wonderful ideas and ecstatic that I'm getting so many. Thanks everyone!


  9. I've always thought this was an interesting question. Many writers think plotting is the devil. Some do it obsessively. Myself, I think too much plotting is a bit suspicious. If you can sit down and work out an entire story before you've ever heard your characters' voices and seen how they interact, one wonders about the balance between creativity, spontaneity, and rote cliche.

    I'm not implying that people who outline at length resort to cliches to get through their stories. I know many of these people do tons of preliminary writing before they write the novel. I simply think there's something to be said for keeping the creation of art a little dangerous and unbalanced.

    Then again, there are writers, such as Stephen King, who claim they have no idea where they are going the whole time. I find this hard to believe. Don't they think about their novels when they aren't working on them? I plot when I'm on the train, at the gym, at work, etc.

    I have a tendency to begin with an idea (or a number of ideas, or ideas and images in my head, or people I want to write about, etc.) and sort of pants my way through for a little while, but as I progress, more of the story will reveal itself to me. Generally it won't be long before some sort of arc enters my head, but I won't be exactly sure how I'm going to get from A to B to C. It's more like, "Okay, they're at A, and then this happens, and then this happens, and then I'm not sure what happens until we get to B".

    I find this tends to actually be advantageous to me because it allows a certain amount of freedom. If I am, say, stuck about what direction to go in, I'll just bring in a previously introduced character whom I haven't developed much yet, or if I'm feeling really bold, I'll introduce an entirely new one. And so, the plot thickens necessarily without losing a general sense of where I'm going.

    Before long I want to be on solid ground with my story, but I never want to be too locked in to my vague outline. I always keep the gate open. I enjoy allowing a level of spontaneity to play a part. After all, if I surprise myself with my plot as I'm writing, hopefully that means I can surprise someone else!

  10. I started writing very recently. Done with about 5 chapters of my first novel.

    Me too did simple outline starting for entire novel in a page or two.

    With each chapter materialzing my outline is growing and growing. I am adding new stuff. And I understood the key is being organized else you will have to spend lot of time trying to understand what changes you did in your original book.

    but it is all fun. Enjoying.


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