I recently altered the way I approach outlining a story. For the first draft of my novel, my outlining was very detailed. Each bullet point had a lot of descriptions. As I would write down what was happening in the scene, I’d get ideas on what was going on in the character’s head, or twists that other characters in the story didn’t yet know. I needed to keep track of it all, but where else would I put it? The result was a mess, and it showed in the first draft. The notes I took were too long, confusing and conflicted with each other. I spent a lot of time trying to fix the inconsistencies and ended up taking even more notes in the draft itself. It was painful.
I decided to do a complete re-write. I started a few days ago and am forcing myself to follow the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Sugar — I know, it’s actually Keep It Simple, Stupid, but who has time for all that negativity?). For the outline, I kept each chapter description to one or two sentences. At the end of each chapter, I left the character at a decision point or event that would be addressed in the following chapter.
1 – Sally is walking to the laundromat to wash her clothes when a thief snatches her purse. She gives chase, but the thief is stopped by a superhero.
2 – The superhero offers Sally her purse back and asks her on a date while holding the thief. Sally agrees before remembering: she has a boyfriend.
Maybe these could be more simple, but I’m just trying to make a point. There are so many other details that could be packed into these outline events. Emotions, thoughts, setting details, character descriptions, how each character talks and reacts. Even now with that made up situation, I’m thinking of all the things that would make that scene a lot of fun to write and read.
However, it’s not possible for me to hold all of those detail ideas back. They build up, and with enough build up, eventually there’s a flood. A lot of times, I’ll write something down, and then realize 10 minutes later that I’ve been zoned out thinking about all the cool stuff I could do with the idea. Not very efficient. That’s why I created a separate “notes” document for each story outline.
While I outlined this last draft, I had to remind myself constantly to keep each chapter description short and straight forward. I kept wanting to add on little caveats. If I can’t stop thinking about an idea, it goes onto the notes page for possible reference later. The best thing about a notes page is that it gets stuff out of my head and makes room for more ideas. Creating that outlet helped drain the buildup of new and interesting ideas while keeping my outline nice and clean.
It’s hard to keep the perceived importance of one idea in perspective. The thing is, those caveats will most likely change as I write the draft. Fleshing out a scene reveals more details that weren’t apparent before and those details often evolve into something better than what I planned. Even now, I’ve changed quite a bit of what I first dumped into my notes. The important thing is that I have the foundation, the skeleton, the path. With that, I can fill in all the framing, meat, and twists I want. So far, writing this draft has been a lot more enjoyable.
A least it’s working for me so far.