Steal A Trick From Hollywood To Plan Your Next Novel

by Brian on February 17, 2012

in Craft

The early planning stages of any long writing project are usually when you feel the most wobbly about the whole thing. Novels, of course, but even novellas and novelettes can feel like going off-path into the deep unknown. Sure, you can wing it, or feel your way blind the whole time, but most people seem to prefer having the security of some kind of guide.

This is why the process of outlining exists. To give you a map to follow, a blueprint to show you how to build the thing.

Except I hate outlines. A tool of the devil. I concede their usefulness as a sales aid, but still: If the most buttoned-down middle managers of the world’s dullest corporation got together in a beige boardroom around an unvarnished table to come up with the least inspiring tool to sell to writers, it would be the outline.

The Problem With Outlines

Two big ones, as I see it:

(1) They’re so dismally reductionist. I can speak only for myself, but I’ve never worked up an outline that didn’t make everything sound completely stupid and trivial. I’m left feeling like, Ugh … who would ever want to read THIS? Which has an incredibly dispiriting effect right out of the gate.

(2) Outlining doesn’t work the way your brain does. Outlining is a linear process. Yes, so is prose, ultimately, with one word, one sentence, one paragraph after another. But that’s imposing order on the chaos of raw ideas, and a project’s idea phase is anything but linear. The creative brain rebels against behaving in a linear fashion. It’ll fall in line you force it, but it would much rather run and jump and play. Those puppy and kitten videos that get a jillion hits on YouTube? That’s your brain on creativity.

If an outline is a map, the order seems backwards. How can you effectively map a territory before you’ve even been there? At least that’s the thinking behind the school of thought that a better time to work up an outline is after you’ve done the first draft, and know what you have to work with.

Until then, are you entirely on your own? Not if you don’t want to be. Not if you go Hollywood, with a modified version of a technique used for decades in shooting movies:


Of Course, This May Cost You $3.49 For 500 At Staples

I’m sure at some point you’ve seen behind-the-scenes footage of filmmakers consulting storyboards. They’re like comic book panels that show how scenes and sequences unfold visually. They don’t have to be pretty, or great art. All they need to do is succinctly get an idea across.

The writer’s equivalent? No, I’m not suggesting you draw your novel. A few words or lines on a notecard should do it.

That’s right. Notecards. Totally low tech, totally hands-on. You’re gonna get dirty on this.

The method is simple. Whenever you know an element of your storyline, you jot it on a notecard. A scene, a plot point, a revelation, a character entrance … whatever it is, it gets its own notecard.

In my experience, this makes a much better fit with the random access way most writers come to know and discover their own work. At first, we only know fragments. We envision scenes without necessarily knowing how they’re linked, or what order they occur in. We see characters doing things, without knowing when or where. We may know the end, but not what will be going on halfway there. Research may suggest specific events without providing a context for them.

That’s okay. The notecards don’t care. You’ll work it out in time. The notecards just give you targets to steer toward. Beyond that, how you use them is up to you:

  • Spread them out on the floor or table, or pin them to a corkboard, to give you a growing overview of your timeline.
  • Reorder them as needed to take things that aren’t fixed in time and try them in different sequences to see what feels right.
  • Color-code them to denote character points-of-view, subplots, etc.
  • Use the backs of the cards to capture finer details: snatches of dialogue, descriptive lines, reminders to yourself, and anything else you want to remember.
  • Divide them into two groups: definite inclusions and maybe inclusions.

Whatever fits your way of working. Whatever helps, and keeps things growing, unfolding, moving forward.

Finally, credit where credit is due. I didn’t make this method up, but instead got it from friend and colleague John Skipp. It really did revolutionize the way I approached planning the novel I’m currently working on, and earned a permanent place in the toolbox.

[Photo by Sebastian Bassi]

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

zornhau February 18, 2012 at 3:36 am

I *like* outlining! But you have to do it as if narrating your story in the pub – the outline has to be a story in its own right.

Helen W. Mallon February 18, 2012 at 8:36 am

Very cool. After 10 years of working on my novel, last week came up with the idea of a scroll of paper w/ 3 horizontal plot lines & postit notes. That’s a little more high-tech than note cards. Wonderful analysis of outlining. Thank you.

Helen W. Mallon February 18, 2012 at 8:40 am

Puppy brain. I love that. And yeah, I always resisted outlining because of I assumed that it was invented by dismal people…wonder how much time I might have saved…?

Oh, well. Woof! Yap! Arf!

Brian February 19, 2012 at 8:51 am

@Zornhau: To thine own self be true, then! I suspect you may be one of the rare ones.

The pub-perspective trick just doesn’t work for me. The results still make me cringe. Way way back in the long-ago, I heard the line that there are two kinds of writers: those who write good outlines, and those who write good novels. Now, I don’t actually believe that. There’s no reason the two have to be mutually exclusive, and in fact I know they’re not. I have a couple of friends, married, who write as a team, and they do extremely detailed, extensive outlines, and I love their books. I just happen to be one of the ones for whom the saying really is true.

@Helen: I’ve tried something similar to your scroll, although it was less about planning and more about get a visual on parallel timelines and overlapping subplots.

Puppy brain, that’s a good label. I see you’re a meditator, so you’ll no doubt know all about monkey mind. Similar motion, but still a totally different animal. ;-)

Tahlia Newland February 20, 2012 at 5:45 pm

I’m totally into notecards. I have a timeline drawn out on a huge piece of paper and I use sticky notes to arrange my ideas, so that major tension points all happen at the right time for a good plot line.

I found your points on the limitations of plotting interesting. They’re all good things to remember. I’ll always plan ahead though, it saves so much time in the revision process.

Brian February 21, 2012 at 4:25 pm

Sounds like you and Helen think along the same lines.

I didn’t mean for this to come off as rant on the limitations of plotting, though. Sorry if it did. I’m certainly not against it — you can never know too much upfront about where you’ll be going. It’s more about the form that early planning takes. While outlining clearly works well for Zornhau and others, I’ve always gotten the sense that a lot of us just don’t click with that method. So here’s an alternative that fits me much better, and may click for others with similar wiring. :-)

Helen W. Mallon February 29, 2012 at 4:37 pm

I have been carrying my scroll around for 2 weeks, and I have yet to start the outline.


Brian March 1, 2012 at 3:20 pm

I saw that you were doing a meditation retreat. That’s sort of time-out-of-time, isn’t it? Maybe you should subtract that.

Always looking for loopholes…

Marc Iverson December 9, 2012 at 3:12 am

Outlining isn’t instinctual, so for that reason alone it seems extraordinary, difficult, or even perverse. One tends to want to write once the pen begins to itch in the hand. Sitting back and thinking, perhaps for a long while, before setting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) to either write or outline is another way of doing things that is as good as another way of being. It is a sample of “the other” and therefore eerie in a way that is hard-pressed not to be off-putting on its face regardless of merit. It is as strange and seemingly wrong as a being eaten by a cold-blooded, idiot reptile is to a mammal.

It puts me in mind of two great lines I’ve read and can only paraphrase. In one, a man was being interviewed, and the interviewer noted he had something like “the charming habit of appearing to actually think before he spoke.” The other came in the form of a question from one person to another she was apparently fed up with, but its dig between the ribs makes a point most of us would do well to consider occasionally: “Do you ever allow yourself the luxury of an unexpressed thought?”

There is the immediate, and the considered. But the considered is no less a part of ourselves than the immediate. It may even be more true for having jettisoned or outgrown instinctive first impulses and responses to bring forth something worth reading. The considered man who remains a braying jackass is, one would hope, an anomaly. The impulse that leaves only a mess behind is par for the course.

If anything, impulse is something most people have plenty of experience with, and it is acting and thinking and writing with consideration that is wanting practice and proficiency. Impulse is the arena with which we tend to be most familiar, but it is not the one in which we tend to produce work that corresponds to our deeper, more considered selves. It’s great for howling at the moon. It’s great for recognizing the wolf in the mirror and according that part of us its due. But man is more than wolf and fiction is more than impulse. The immediate is not by definition the summit, and that needs to be accorded its due, too.

It is no less creative to think a long time before writing than it is to write freely and discover the story as one writes. It is merely creating behind the stage rather than on it.

The filmic metaphor you bring up applies well. Wonderful films are made regardless of the fact that storyboarding is so common as to be the norm. One of the best directors who ever lived, Alfred Hitchcock, storyboarded to the last detail and rarely bothered to get out of his limo to direct his films.

Think also of the flip-side: The process of working out as much as possible in advance can, rather than inhibit creativity, often serve to inspire it. Many literary authors do some of their best work when working within the restrictions — as much as they are able — of genre.

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