To Outline the Hell out of a Story Before I Write It

At 12 pages, I thought I’d outlined my first novel. Oh the ignorance! There were a few plot points, sure. It touched on most phases of the Hero’s Journey, of course. But it was hardly an outline. It fell flat in the middle, no second act to speak of. and complications had to be thrown in to inflate a novella length word count to a full novel.

When I finished outlining The Faith Machine I had 77 pages of notes, one page per scene, one scene per chapter. Now that’s an outline. I kept it in a loose-leaf notebook, so I could easily rearrange, remove, or replace pages if necessary. Each page loaded with bullet points; the opening, end, and critical plot points and character beats at the very least. Lines of dialog, things to foreshadow, foreshadowing to payoff, pop culture references to hide. Every scene modeled after a function in a programming language; a few things come in, a few things come out, a few global variables might be updated, but always keep it simple. If a scene was doing too much work, making too many contributions to the plot, that scene needed to be broken up into two or more scenes.

This wasn’t a ‘fill ‘er up and get ready to write’ situation. When I’d outlined to the end I carried that outline with me everywhere I went. Whenever I had time I’d open it up and add details, thinking about who characters physically moved from setting to setting, edited out the redundant, fleshed out the skeletal. For every character got a continuity pass where I focused on what they were doing and where they were. I was revising before writing.

When it came time to type out the prose, I’d been thinking about these scenes for months. Some of them dropped right out of my brain and into the page. The scenes, and thus the plot, needed very little work going forward. Even after workshops, beta reads, and editorial.

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