Thursday 15 June 2017

On notebooks & outlining lite: lubricants for the imagination – by Rowena House

Outlining, plotting or whatever you want to call it isn’t for everyone, but being a fan of structure – with a tendency to over-analyse pretty much everything – I do plan out story ideas quite a lot.

Even so, outlining in detail is way too time consuming even for a control freak, as well as being deadly for the intuitive, subconscious workings of the imagination.

So while I think “pantsters” are right when they say we’ve got to stay fluid and open to the unexpected, that’s not the same thing as wandering aimlessly through a story to see where it ends up.

The answer for me is balance, i.e. finding the right system. AKA outlining lite. These are my current favourite techniques – plus one I’ve decided is definitely to be avoided until after a first draft.

The three-sentence pitch

This is a great exercise to focus the mind, with the added bonus that we have to squeeze our masterpieces into three sentences max at some point anyway to get it passed an agent, editor or acquisitions meeting (and, if successful, a bookshop buyer too) so why not start out by thinking in terms of the story’s pithiest possible iteration?

Getting an idea down to three sentences reveals flabbiness, vagueness, unevolved situations, the yawn factor, and when focused on character, saves months of wondering what on earth the protagonist is actually up to.

Blake Synder in Save the Cat recommends successful one-line pitches should contain one adjective for the protagonist, one for the baddie and a compelling goal we all identify with as human beings. The three-sentence pitch gives you two more sentences to play with. Luxury!

The three-paragraph synopsis

Personally, I won’t attempt a three-sentence pitch until I’ve got this one nailed. The three paragraphs include the basics: who is the story about, what do they want, what stands in their way, what do they stand to lose if they don’t get it? Setting and style/tone are in there too.

Another thoroughly useful outlining tool I’ve come across in various guises is the “through-line” or spine of the story defined as a binary question. Will Jill win Jack’s love? Will the baddie kill the hero? Will Indie get the treasure? As long as the answer to this question keeps flipping Yes/No, there’s inherent (and coherent) dramatic tension throughout. I’ve found that if I can’t define this binary question within three paragraph, then it’s back to the drawing board.

Some people recommend using the three-paragraph approach like a book jacket blurb to test if the outline comes across as exciting/intriguing enough to tempt a reader to open the cover, but that’s not necessary. Practical and prosaic works too; no one ever has to see it.

A structural outline

Basically, this means hanging your story outline onto the key structural hooks as identified by whoever is your favourite writing guru at the moment (Yorke, Snyder, McKee, Vogler etc).

At a minimum these hooks include Inciting Incident, Midpoint, Crisis and Climax. Snyder adds an opening Disturbance. Yorke’s Into the Woods has tables about the different structural or turning points used historically and now. Romances have their own hooks, so do thrillers etc. It’s all useful stuff.


This is the plotting system that recently killed a promising contemporary YA romance stone dead. Having worked on an outline for months, and nailed the theme and the villain and the twists and turns, I couldn’t summon the will or energy to write the damn thing.

I’m now convinced that structure is best retrofitted after the completion of a free-flowing first draft. Yes, it’s great to keep the big “hooks” in mind, but then just let rip.

Character transition

Ruth Hatfield made the point very well earlier this week on ABBA that if character is your thing (and like she says, character is the soul of most stories) then we neglect them at our peril.

I’ve not tried it myself, but I imagine it would be perfectly possible to ignore plot entirely at the outlining stage and rely exclusively on character development. If that works for you, I’d love to hear how you do it – unless you’re selling one of those lists of 200+ questions, including the protagonist’s favourite flavour ice cream, which – to put it politely – don’t work for me.

I blogged before about OCEAN personality profiling and character development when editing, so here’s the link rather than a repetition.

But I prefer looser systems at the initial outlining stage, such as…


Mind-mapping on big pieces of paper is Fan.Tas.Tic. By big I mean A2 at least, i.e. sheets x4 the size of A4, spread out on the kitchen table.

I write freely, in spirals or bubbles, making connections. Chaotic thoughts get scrawled in corners, together with anything that keeps springing to mind for no apparent reason.

I also jot down random ideas for the Big Binary Plot Question, and experiment with ways that question might interact with the protagonist’s belief system and personality traits, as well as the interplay between plot and the dynamics of the protagonist’s relationships.

Mind mapping captures fleeting ideas, and comes into its own whenever an element of the story becomes bogged down or the whole thing is turning out to be predictable or dull.

I’ve been told the energy of mind-mapping is directly connected to working with pen and paper, which seem to unlock different doors in the imagination from a computer keyboard.

The notebook

OK, so this isn’t as an actual outlining system, but a beautiful notebook is a wonderful creative lubricant to stationary aficionados everywhere.

Personally, I reject the criticism that some people level at proud notebook owners that we’re being way too precious about our writing as if preserving each word for posterity.

For me, that moment when I’m ready to buy a seriously gorgeous notebook – one with an ornate hard cover, roughly the size of a book – is an expression of confidence: a story has reached a degree of maturity that demands more than instantly erasable (or delete-able) scrawl.

The purchase denotes purpose and the value of the time, effort and love I’m preparing to invest in the writing, while the simple physicality of an idea taking form within actual pages is nurturing and uniquely satisfying.

Happy outlining!






Lynne Benton said...

A really helpful post, Rowena - many thanks! I especially like the "three sentence" idea, and will try it with my next book.

Rowena House said...

Best of luck!