Pantsers don't run away screaming how outlines stifle your creative freedom. Let me tell you a little secret first... I don't outline everything. EEEP! My plotter cover is blown. Well, maybe not. Here's the quick back story: a few months ago in a #Writersroad chat, I revealed my strategy for drafting a novel, and I've been asked to write a blog post on it ever since. So, here it is in all it's gooey glory.
Before I begin that first draft, before one word of the story hits the computer screen, I create an outline. It's not a play-by-play of the entire book. Instead, it includes the basic structure of what the novel might look like. Think of it like a skeleton. There's no meat, no muscle, no blood, just the bare bones. Heck, it's not even a complete skeleton. A foot there, a hand here. Nothing is holding it together...yet.
This bare bones outline includes a working title, a one sentence tag/pitch line, a brief background of the story (3-5 lines), any creatures (if it's paranormal), a plot synopsis (a paragraph or two), the reveal or climax (usually this idea hits me first), the ending or epilogue (where it may end up, emphasis on MAY), and the conflicts (including main and sub; think of common tropes). Now, this sounds complex, but when you start to fill it out, you'll see it truly is only the basic components of a story. To start adding on the meat, you need...
Say what now?
Character sketches. The plotter kicks in. Biting and clawing, she says, "Don't start that draft without knowing your characters." Don't fret, pantsers. We're not talking about an in-depth heart-to-heart, I-can-blackmail-you-with-everything-I-know relationships, but the basics help. Think about your character's physical traits: eyes, skin, height, weight, hair, etc. Then, go deeper. What's their fears, hopes, dreams, family life, enemies, friends, personality? And how do those things play into one another? My favorite thing is to hold an interview with the character and answer in that character's voice. It helps me get inside their head and know them better. Now, the trick is, I will NOT fill out this character sketch completely. I'll fill in more as I write and get to know the character better through the story's events (and that's the muscle of our skeleton, in case you were wondering). But, this rough sketch gets me started.
What a pretty sketch. I'll color you in later.
Finally, you'll need the blood. That's the chapter outline. It gets the plot pumping. Some plotters will construct a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the entire novel before beginning the first draft. That's cool for them. I don't do it. I consider what I know about the characters from my sketches, and what I know about the plot from the bare bones outline, then I write notes--about 3-5 lines--on what I think will happen in the first chapter. Then, I continue these notes for chapters two through six. After I've written anywhere from 18-30 lines of outline on the first six chapters, I start drafting.
Ah see! Tricksy, I am. I love chapter outlines because they are my road map. The help me see where the story can go. However, I am not bound to them. By sketching out my characters and six chapters at a time, I allow my story to breathe. Sometimes, I'll discover a snake in the grass or a sharp curve for the next set of chapters. Other times, I'll discover a nuance of my character's personality I didn't know before, and I'll change the chapter outlines to reflect that revelation.
The most important part of outlining for me is the ability to be flexible. I am a planner, a thinker, an organizer. I don't jump into the water without trying to deduce what might be on the bottom. But, once I do jump, I allow myself the opportunity to adapt, to kick my feet, and swim to shore, all the while knowing that what I thought was under the surface might be something entirely different.
Are you a pantser or a plotter? How do you keep the story flowing and flexible? What have you discovered through writing?