How to keep track of your plot when your brain stops working

I worked on chapter outlines this weekend and am proud to say I finished the revised chapter outlines for the second trilogy of the Morningstar series. I got to thinking that if (by some small miracle) it does get picked up by a publisher, I’m going to need a revised outline for the rest of the series. So I thought I’d better have something down on paper before I go to pitch it at the Realm Makers Conference in St. Louis in August.

I never used to outline anything I wrote. When I was a child first starting off on this great adventure of storytelling, I didn’t need to outline. I wrote my first novel when I was 11 years old, and if my math is right I wrote my first 150,000 word novel when I was 14. I hadn’t outlined any of it, and at that point, I didn’t imagine that I ever would need to outline.

But something happened to me when I turned 17. My brain stopped working.

No, not literally. It just didn’t function as well as it had when I was 11 or when I was 14. I’ve only recently begun to realize this, but when I first started writing, I would shut myself away in my room for hours and hours at a time. Or I would go out to the far southwest corner of the farm, and I would pace and talk to myself and create dialogue and weave intricate plots. I did it all in my head, and once I had established where the story was going, I’d go over it again and again and again until I knew every aspect of the story before I sat down to start writing it.

But a little thing called high school happened in between my 150,000 word books, with the added pressure of summer jobs, preparing for college, and volunteering at my church. I got busy. I got too busy to lock myself in my room and go over my plots. I got too busy to spend hours and hours talking to myself. And when I sat down to write what I knew would be a massive, complicated book, I realized that I couldn’t keep track of anything that was happening.

So, I outlined my first novel when I was 17, and I haven’t tried to write a novel without an outline since then. My brain can’t handle it anymore. Granted, that probably has something to do with the fact that most everything I write is immensely complicated. But even a relatively simple manuscript, like The Mountain Requires Blood, needed an outline before I could get my brain to kick into gear.

Some people don’t need outlines to write, and if you’re one of those people, that’s awesome for you. But I’ve got to have one anymore because my brain is so full of everything else that’s going on in my life, I can’t keep track of my plots anymore. And if you’re stuck at a point in your manuscript and you don’t know what’s going to happen, I really recommend that you take a step back and outline your story.

But how do you do that?

If you’ve never outlined a novel before, it might be intimidating, but outlining isn’t difficult. It can be as complicated or as simple as you want it to be. I know people who outline every word—everything a character says—from page to page, and that doesn’t work for me. Going to that level of detail bores me to death.

This is what I do. I outline the main plot points and anything extra that needs to happen to advance the story. I might put in my outline that “Barb and Jim talk” or “Jake and Mica fight” but I don’t take the time to write out their entire conversation. I know what the conversation is about. I know what the content needs to focus on. I know the characters involved. And I know what the conversation needs to accomplish. That’s all I need to know when I’m outlining. The details will come when I write the scene.

When I’m starting an outline, I start with the basics.

First, I start by defining what my message is. For me, message is everything in storytelling. There has to be a purpose behind it, or it’s just a waste of time. Even if that purpose is to be funny or entertaining, that needs to be clear in your own mind as the writer up front, or you’re going to lose focus when you’re writing.

Then, I work on what kind of book it needs to be. Is it a literary novel? Is it a genre novel? Is the main character male or female? Does he/she change at the end or choose to stay the same? How will that affect the story? The answers to all these questions must advance your message.

Once you figure all that out, the next question to ask yourself concerns the end. Yes, I’m a proponent of knowing how your novel ends before you start it. Is it a happy ending or a sad ending or an open ending? Knowing that ahead of time will alter how you write the whole thing.

Then, once you know how the story ends, you can figure out how it begins. The next step is to identify the inciting incident. That’s a writing term for the event in the novel that kick starts the story. It’s what happens to set your main character on his/her journey. Whatever that inciting incident is, you need to start the novel as close to it as possible, otherwise you run the risk of filling up the beginning of your novel with back story and losing your readers’ interest.

The inciting incident can be a car wreck. It can be a death. It can be a birth. It can be losing a job, getting a job, receiving a vase of flowers from a mysterious secret admirer. It’s anything. But whatever it is, it must affect your main character in a way that changes him/her, either in physical location or mental perspective.

After you figure out the ending and the inciting incident, that’s when you fill in the middle. This is often the most challenging part, but you’ll get better with practice. This is where you need to have subplots and side characters. This is where your main character experiences his/her journey. This is where the growth happens. This is where your readers get to know your characters as well as you do, where they get to experience life alongside the people who live in your head.

Do yourself a favor when you’re outlining. Don’t just write Act Two in your outline. Don’t just write: “the Main Character learns some stuff from a wise teacher.” That won’t help you. Write down what your Main Character learns from the wise teacher.

Luke Skywalker and Yoda on the planet Dagobah (no, I didn't take this photo ... in case you were wondering)
Luke Skywalker and Yoda on the planet Dagobah (no, I didn’t take this photo … in case you were wondering)

Let’s use The Empire Strikes Back as an example, because I’m a nerd. A good deal of the middle segment of that movie is Luke Skywalker being trained by Yoda. And, yes, you could sum up that whole section by saying that Luke learns how to be a Jedi Knight from Yoda. But think about writing it. Think about what Luke learns in that middle section that becomes necessary for him to know at the end of the movie. Do you see how not identifying what he learns can be detrimental to the end if you’re the one writing it?

Examples? For The Empire Strikes Back, you could outline it this way:

  1. Luke looks for Yoda
  2. Luke finds Yoda
  3. Yoda teaches him

But that won’t help you when you get to that part of writing the story. Of course Luke goes looking for Yoda. Of course he’ll find him, and of course Yoda is going to teach him. But what happens? How does that come about? What extraordinary circumstances have to happen to make it possible?

If I were outlining that part of The Empire Strikes Back, with an eye to write it, this is what I would put down:

  1. Luke crashes on Dagobah
  2. Luke encounters a strange little creature who he finds annoying at first, until he realizes that it’s Yoda, the Jedi Master he’s seeking
  3. Yoda grudgingly agrees to teach Luke the ways of the Force
  4. Yoda tries to teach Luke, but Luke struggles to understand Yoda’s cryptic lessons
  5. Yoda must prove to Luke that the Force is strong enough to overcome anything
  6. In a test, Luke is given the chance to face the Dark Side of the Force, and he fails
Yoda pwns Luke
Yoda pwns Luke

See the difference? Now, I’m not going to take the time to write in the fact that the way Yoda proves the power of the Force is to lift Luke’s X-wing fighter out of the swamp after Luke failed to do so. I’m not going to write in that Luke’s test against the Dark Side is a light saber duel with Darth Vader, who he beheads before he understands that it’s a representation of himself. I’ll figure those things out as I’m writing it. I’ll put in those details based on the setting, based on the characters, based on the other tools at my disposal, but I need to know what’s going to happen next if I’m going to be able to communicate adequately.

What do you do once you’re done outlining?

Start writing. Or let it sit for a while and then start writing. But get to work on it soon while it’s still fresh in your mind.

Stick to your outline as much as possible, but don’t be afraid to change things. Don’t be afraid to move things around. Just make sure you understand the consequences of moving it, especially if you have a very complicated epic.

The best thing to do is just to get it down. Write. Write until you’re done. Hopefully you’ve done your research during the outlining phase so you don’t need to stop and look stuff up, but if you do need to stop and Google something, make sure you do it quickly. If you’ve got momentum going, don’t stop or you’ll never get moving again.

Then—rewrite. Don’t shake your head and say it doesn’t need it. No, writing is rewriting. You can always be clearer. You can always be more vivid. You can always do better with your characters or your setting or your dialogue. Tell any established author that you’re satisfied with your first draft, and they will laugh at you. They certainly won’t take you seriously.

And once you’re done with that book, start again. Because you’re bound to have come up with at least six more novel ideas throughout the course of this process.

It’s not a complicated process, but it’s not easy either. But it’s worth it. If you don’t need to outline, good for you, but I really do recommend it. It helps you get focused. It helps you stay on target. And I know my life can always use more focus, so it’s a good chance yours can too.

A.C. Williams

Amy Williams left a lucrative career in marketing to write novels about space cowboys, clumsy church secretaries, American samurai, and alternate dimensions. Along the way, she also discovered a passion for teaching other creative professionals how to use technology to make life easier. Through video instruction or one-on-one coaching, she teaches software, blogging, basic graphic design, and many other useful skills that help creative entrepreneurs get stuff done minus the frustration.

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  1. Wonderful post!
    Outlining is so essential. I never used to do it, and it always got me into trouble – I would finish writing a story, go back to look at it, and find all the rambling and the inconsistencies staring me in the face.
    Now I can’t live without it!

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