Untangling ideas into a story

I couldn’t tell you when I started working on the book I’ve only rather recently committed to writing. (I.e. I have a deposit down with an editor and deadlines to meet.)  My first outline draft dates to March, but I know I had the idea to write it, and a short premise, well before then.

Early this year I went to my now writing partner Dan and said that we’d both talked about writing a novel for ages, possibly years. We should just do it, holding one another to getting it done instead of talking about getting it done. For clarification, we are working on our own, entirely different projects, but helping each other along the way by reviewing outlines and offering advice… or at least in theory. I tend to feel that Dan offers excellent advice on story structure while I mostly poke holes in his plots.

That’s a roundabout way of saying the two of us work in very different ways, but perhaps we complement one another well. Take, for example, our novel outlines. Mine is currently a long bulleted list of about 9,000 words. It lists major scenes, breaking each down into specific things I intend to include in each scene. There are notes to myself on pieces I need to tie all of the pieces together — like a note towards the end reminding to establish earlier that a certain character is dead, otherwise the current scene won’t make sense. I’m not sure when or where I’ll add that, but it has to be somewhere. The whole document is highlighted in three different colors: important notes to myself in blue, a certain type of scene in pink, notes on the driving emotions of the main characters in yellow. It started as a bulleted list and has grown as I’ve figured out pieces of the story. (The pink highlights only appeared yesterday because I was having trouble finding things and I only added the yellow today to try to clarify character motivations.)

Dan’s outlines are in neat paragraphs, with each describing a scene and each character’s actions. It’s brief, but covers all of the story beats and lays out everything you need to know. His most recent outline was about 2,600 words, a number I managed to hit after very significant paring down.

So why am I trying to pare things down, when my outline has all the details laid out so clearly? Because I’m doing an outline review with my editor. It will outline three books in this series and help me make sure the plot holds together. But my editor wants no more than 2 pages per book — my 9,000 word outline is over 20. It’s packed with scenes I intend to write and how I want to write them, but not all of them are essential to the plot and almost none of the details and notes to myself are relevant. Sure, they’ll add color, but they aren’t the plot.

The paring down has been an interesting exercise in writing on its own, because I’ve had to seriously consider what the essential parts of the story are. What are the bones of the story upon which all of that “color” will rest? My result, so far, is about 2,800 words, or about five and a half pages. Dan’s first, sparse but clear, outline would have been exactly what my editor was after. But I started so focused on the details it’s been a struggle for me to zoom out to see the bigger picture.

Today Dan suggested focusing my outline on the emotional development of the main character. You want the character to drive the plot forward rather than the plot buffeting them around simply because it’s the plot you’ve written. (Side note: this is the exact issue I have with Garona in the Warcraft movie. The plot seems to shove her along without her intervention or, often, even response. She seems to exist because the plot needs her to rather than because she has any wants or needs of her own.)

It’s good advice… but I still have two more outlines to figure out after this one. Hopefully they’ll be easier, because like I said, I have a deadline.

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