Working With An Outline, part 2

Last time I talked about the specifics of how I lay out and compile a detailed outline. This time I want to talk about what I use that outline for.

This post covers both things I’ve already done (or am in the middle of) and things I plan on doing once the outline is complete. Many of these activities are also going to be things to be applied iteratively. Keeping multiple versions of the outline file might be a good idea too, but that is a subject for another post.

Finding Big Holes

As you’re making the outline notes, insert commentary and questions about the plot or setting or breadcrumbs you want to include. In this contrived example, I’ve got a couple of questions to raise for when I’m going through the outline later.

1: Introduce Mary, shepherdess. [Once upon a time, there was a young woman called Mary. She was a shepherdess, which means she spent long periods of time up on the moors away from other people but surrounded by sheep.]
2: Describe how Mary is well-suited to this isolated work and does not care for the villagers. Q: did Mary grow up in the village? [This suited Mary fine, since she generally found the villagers who owned the sheep to be about as bright as the sheep themselves.]
3: Recount that the villagers reciprocate by not caring for Mary much either. Q: do sheep have harnesses? [Despite entrusting their sheep to Mary, her work as a shepherdess was not highly-regarded by the villagers and so they didn't always keep the sheep harnesses in good repair.]
4: Mary had a little lamb. Mention that she got it from the blacksmith. [Mary also had one lamb of her own that the blacksmith had given her in lieu of payment for her shepherding. She tried not to play favourites with the sheep (not that the sheep would notice, of course) but she was very fond of this little lamb, who she called Algernon.]

This is where I am at the moment in this process for Shapes – adding outline notes and notes on holes.

Making It Just An Outline

Next up is the need to remove the actual text, and start working on the outline itself.

1: Introduce Mary, shepherdess. [Once upon a time, there was a young woman called Mary. She was a shepherdess, which means she spent long periods of time up on the moors away from other people but surrounded by sheep.]
2: Describe how Mary is well-suited to this isolated work and does not care for the villagers. Q: did Mary grow up in the village? [This suited Mary fine, since she generally found the villagers who owned the sheep to be about as bright as the sheep themselves.]
3: Recount that the villagers reciprocate by not caring for Mary much either. Q: do sheep have harnesses? [Despite entrusting their sheep to Mary, her work as a shepherdess was not highly-regarded by the villagers and so they didn't always keep the sheep harnesses in good repair.]
4: Mary had a little lamb. Mention that she got it from the blacksmith. [Mary also had one lamb of her own that the blacksmith had given her in lieu of payment for her shepherding. She tried not to play favourites with the sheep (not that the sheep would notice, of course) but she was very fond of this little lamb, who she called Algernon.]

As a reminder, the vim command to do this is:

:%s/ \[[^\]]\+\]//

Fixing Big Holes

Now we can start fixing holes.

1: Introduce Mary, who came up from the lowlands with her family and is now a shepherdess.
2: Describe how Mary is well-suited to this isolated work and because she does not care for the villagers who seem foolish to her.
3: Recount that the villagers reciprocate by not caring for Mary much either.
Tell how the villagers treat their sheep poorly when they are not with Mary and so her job is harder.
4: Mary had a little lamb. Mention that she got it from the blacksmith.

Obviously this is a contrived example so the “fixes” don’t necessarily help, but note how I’ve added an unnumbered outline element between lines 3 and 4. This will become relevant in the last step of the process.

Trying Out Ideas

We now have a much more manageable piece of text to work with, do it easier to experiment with large scale changes to the structure of the story.

This is where you get to mutate the story into something else. I’m not going to work through this since it’s pretty meaningless in this example context, but things I’m looking at for the Shapes outline include:

  • changing the initial conditions: make the protaganist different, add or remove secondary characters, and so on. Work through the consequences of the protagonist being a half-orc who suffers uncontrollable rage at the smell of bananas after the change is made.
  • add or remove sub-plots: is something the protagonist does coming out of the blue? Maybe she needs to go on an adventure with her kid sister to explain why she would be such a killer shot with a rubber band gun. Or perhaps the quest to find the last My Little Pony figure in the 1993 set is distracting from William’s primary goal of putting together a crack squad of goat herders for the Capricorn Cup. Add or remove such sub-plots as necessary
  • fill out truncated writing: this is an especial problem for me during NaNoWriMo – if I am running out of November to finish the story, I will trim the closing chapters to finish the story arc. So, a large part of my outline work will be to fill in the missing plot points so as to explain why the head Bad Panda has such an animus against the protagonist.

… and so on. This is where you play with the storytelling to make it better.

It seems likely that you’ll make the new plot points at a macro level and then refine them. This kind of iteration and refinement is used in the Snowflake Method, although this is rather more organic.

Making It A Story Again

You may have wondered about those line numbers in the outline format I use. It is when reinflating an outline back to a full story that they come into play – you can use those line references to find the original text and copy it back across.

The process goes like this:

  1. copy the original text back into the outline form. This is something I will likely use a script for when it comes to Shapes (and I will post that script here when I write it), unless there have been a great many changes in the outline structure, nut the basic point is to restore the text so as to have something to apply the outline notes to.
  2. go through the outline + text combo doing the following:
    • changing the original text to match the outline
    • writing new text to fill in the new elements of the outline
    • updating the outline notes to match new insights into the text

This is going to be a fun bit.

Once you’re done, you now have a new text version and a new outline to match. Separate those into distinct files if you like, and copy the text into the processing tool of your choice.

Whatever’s Next

This series has been predicated on working with existing text in order to analyse and (one would hope) improve upon it. The next thing for me to try is to write the outline first and turn that into a story. I’m thinking I might do a worked example of that on a short story at some point, since I’ve always had trouble writing short stories.

One Reply to “Working With An Outline, part 2”

  1. Kim says:

    This has been great! I am in the beginning stages of a story right now, but I have two partial novels that I really want to go back to after I do this story. I haven’t been quite sure how to get back into them, but I think I’m going to adapt your outlining system and start from there. It looks like it should be really good for that sort of work. Thank you!

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