To Plot or Not

The question of a plot outline is a hot button issue. There are two camps; one group will decry plot outlines as a device used by talentless hacks. They claim that outlines kill the spontaneity of good storytelling. The other group sees a plot outline as an indispensable tool for crafting a solid narrative. I fall into the group second group. For me, knowing where my story it going and how I’m going to get there makes the difference between an engaging thriller and jumbled mess.

Here are three great reasons to use a plot outline.

First, plot outlines allow you to catch any major problems in your story before you actually sit down to write the first draft. If you have been writing long enough, you’ve probably had the misfortune to write out a story and hand it to a trusted friend only to have them point out a major logic flaw that you missed in the fever heat of the initial composition. If you haven’t had this happen yet, sooner or later, you will. It’s a crushing feeling, but it doesn’t have to mean defeat. If you write a plot outline, your first readers will catch any major story gaffs in the outlining phase. It is a lot easier to fix those mistakes in the outline than rewriting 450 pages.

Second, a plot outline allows you to explore multiple story paths within the framework of your novel. Every novel has natural turning points where the story could veer off into multiple different directions. As you write, you’ll reach a fork in the road and be forced to choose which path your story will take. If you use a story outline, you are free to explore both paths and see which works best. Write out two different outlines and see which one is  more believable and which one the reader will have more fun with. If you forge ahead with a first draft, you’ll be forced to chose blindly and hope that your story reaches the right outcome. If not, you have to go all the way back and write another draft from the turning point. If that was on page 65, then you have a lot of work to do.

Third, outlines let you play with the timeline of your story. Once you have written out your outline, you can move the events around to see how the story works best. If you want to see how your story would flow if you had revealed the killer sooner, it is a simple matter of moving the scene up or down in your outline. Then read through your outline again to see how that changed the feel of your story. I use Microsoft OneNote. Some writers like to write out their outline on scraps of paper so they can lay it out on the floor and explore the time line. That is a little trick I picked up from First Draft in 30 Days by Karen Wiesner. It really helps you to arrange the events of your story for maximum impact. Try it.


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