Detailed Outlining

I’m rereading Shapes of Chance at the moment, which is a positive experience so far. I particularly enjoyed the characterisation on one of the more odious side characters.

There’s a lot to fix in the book, though, including some experiments I want to try in reworking the premise a bit. My usual process has been to do a complete redraft for these kinds of experiments, but that’s monstrously inefficient and rather off-putting – if it’s going to take a month of hard writing to try out a different opening and to work through the ramifications of that change, then it just won’t happen no matter how much potential the change might have.

For both of these reasons, then, I am going to try some much more detailed outlining than I have done so far.

Truth to tell, I’ve always needed some kind of outline when I’ve been writing novels. Even for my very first NaNoWriMo I wrote chapter summaries, and those summaries have been getting more and more fine-grained ever since*. What I’m going to do now is to perform a beat by beat breakdown of a scene, maybe even down to the back and forth in dialogue where appropriate, to capture what actually happens in enough detail to not have to make any plotting decisions at all during the actual writing.

I have been inspired to try this by reading this post about increasing writing productivity. That post really struck a chord with me, and I find myself excited by the idea of working with larger chunks of story and shifting those around. It’s like the difference between writing linear assembly language code compared to modular programming, or using a shovel to shape a pile of sand rather than tweezers: it’s still work, but the scale of it is not so overwhelming.

What I’ve tried to do before is to use the outlining mode in Scrivener and occasional spreadsheets. That seems to be fine for coarse outlines, but not much use for the level of detail I am interested in here. The goal is to have an outline which I can paste into the working file and replace, element by element, with the actual text.

For an existing manuscript, I am going to try reversing that process by taking a copy of the manuscript text and describing each beat in situ. Once I have that I can do the kind of broad plot manipulation and notes on breadcrumbs that I currently try to do at the scene level, but which end up being too general to be useful. I’m guessing that for a 100k manuscript (which both Shapes and Song are) I will end up with something like a 5-10k outline, or roughly a 10 or 20:1 word count ratio. I will be interested to see if that holds true.

If this works out then the next stage will be for me to write an outline like this first before the draft. I am wondering if the Scrivener annotation feature will work here: turn the outline into an annotation, and insert the replacement text in between. This will help with checking back that the text properly represents the outline.

Or this will all collapse in a heap of excessive detail.

How much detail do you go into on your outlines? Have you ever outlined an existing manuscript?

[*] and the time I didn’t have solid chapter outlines all the way to the end was the hardest year to finish the story that I ever had.

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