Tuesday, March 27, 2018

5 Reasons for a Flexible Story Outline

Seat of the Pants writers (pantsers) tend to shudder at the idea of plotting a novel. Plotter writers (plotters) can’t imagine staring a blank sheet of paper to start a novel, short story, biography, self-help book, or even an article.

It doesn’t have to be an either/or approach. Honestly.

So, why plot?

Don’t! Don’t think of it as plotting. Think of it as strategy. Even pantsers have an inkling of story arc even if they sometimes refuse to admit it. You might have a character’s name in mind, maybe a title, probably even a very basic idea of story, even if you don’t know where you want to go. I have let my characters direct certain scenes, too. That’s why flexibility is key.

Just because you make notes, or even have an idea of how this story will work it, you don’t have to follow it exactly. And maybe that’s why it’s hard to think of spending time on developing ideas you won’t use. Hey—it’s a whole lot easier not using some scenes or dialog bits than unraveling a whole book when you realize one of the threads is implausible or you’re missing elements of a subplot or character traits, or a mixed up timeline screws the denouement, which you don’t see until you think you’ve completed the initial manuscript. Here are five points in favor of planning your book first. This concept applies to non-fiction and short articles or fiction as well.

Pencil, Logos, Icon, Single, Pixel

       1. Efficiency
Secret—there are really only two reasons why planning a story first is helpful. Return on Investment. Artists can never charge billable hours like certain professionals. Yes, hand-sewn quilts or Navajo rug weaving is on par with brain surgery, but try selling your quilt for $100,000, let alone charge money for five years of your life invested in publishing your book. You only make that kind of cash after you’re dead, unless you chance into the golden opportunity of meeting the right person looking for your work at the right moment in time. Most advances even for major authors are much less, and they have to be earned out before you make any more money. That’s selling a lot of books at 8 percent net cost, out of which your agent gets a cut. So, how can you up the return (sale of finished book) on the investment (time writing and marketing)? By writing and publishing smart.

2. Rewriting is not the same as revision
Another riff on writing efficiently: sure, there are times when the story just changes; it just does and you toss what you’ve done. But let’s come up with a good plan to begin with, one that works but allows for some meandering of the character development or storyline. You write it once, then spend time on quality revision and editing, and then drop it in the mail instead of wasting time trying to follow and rewrite threads that went against the weave when you forgot that Christmas is in summer in South America, or that ocean currents don’t flow that direction, or you didn’t figure in leap year and thus your storyline is moot. Rewriting hardly ever involves “just that section,” but ends up cascading into a giant wreck.

3. Easily tweakable
Surprise! When you have something written on the page like an outline or a synopsis to look at, it is much easier to return to the scene of the kidnapped loop you didn’t see coming. It’s totally okay if your people zigged instead of zagged, but now you can see the effects and find the places to adjust to meet the storyline adaption. So, your protag or number one sidekick is pregnant? Wow, missed that one in the synopsis. That means that over the course of the pregnancy certain things happen that will probably affect the story, no matter where this little bump figures into the plot. Go back to your outline and plug it in, then find and adjust the areas that need to be tweaked.

4. Business vs Hobby
You probably don’t want to hear this, but if you’re a professional, maybe even file as a business or plan to, being an author is your JOB. It’s work. Yes, it’s work that involves a lot of daydreaming, but daydreaming with a purpose. You may not be able to go to work from 9:00 to 4:00 every day. Instead you have to give that talk, prepare for a workshop, or field trip research. You end up working at midnight or dawn. It’s still your job, and you do it whether you feel the muse or not. Do it well. Your boss is your audience and your bank account.

5.  Grasp of story elements
If you don’t believe in plot, then this point is not going to mean much to you. But if you’re a professional, you have studied why classics are classics, and the difference between the author who might have published 80 books, 30 of them on the New York Times bestseller list, but 90% of them are out of print—including the one that’s about to be made into a major motion picture. There are no new stories—only fresh new ways of telling them. Get over it.


  1. Oh my, I wish with all my heart I could plot. A hearty 'Amen' to everything you say. Being a panster is very inefficient, very impractical. Spoken by one who knows but is stuck with it :)

  2. It works for you, that's all that matters, and it's obvious in the gifted outcome.