Archive for the ‘to outline or not’ Category

In my Fiction Writing 101 series, I often refer to James Scott Bell and his writing books and tools, especially Plot & Structure. My copy is well-marked and highlighted. That’s where I first heard the differentiation between an OP and a NOP.Plot & Structure

OPs are Outline People, NOPs are Non-Outline People. The abbreviations are easy to remember but the meanings tend to merge into one another.

Are you an OP or a NOP? Or is this purely a matter of semantics? Do the NOPs just have an uncanny ability to keep their outlines in their heads while the rest of us have to record ours in black and white? I heard a fellow author on a radio interview recently say she writes the entire book in her head, then does a complete draft before committing it to paper. Whether we do so in our heads or on paper, outlining is essential to continuity, consistency, and the evolution of characters and action.

There are many helpful outlining methods available for use, or we can adapt them and create our own. Bell’s basic formula involves a step-by-step analysis of what you want in your story:

— main character

— what he or she wants

— main story conflict

— strong ending

Bell calls this his LOCK system, and I’ll let you follow up with his book.

I have also used a story analysis system called How to Find Your Story by Jeff Gerke, which has subsequently been revised into a book titled Plot versus Character. If the new volume is anything like the download I picked up some years ago, it will be full of charts and questions to help the writer establish the basic elements of the story and how they fit together.

file000474391001Another approach is the Snowflake Method, created by Randy Ingermanson. This is also available online (free) and is a valuable tool for plot creation and development. It involves recording the basic elements, then gradually filling them out.

di7eGA5i9A plot method I particularly like is The Plot Skeleton by Angela Hunt. My favorite part of this plan is how the “good” and “bad” plot incidents balance each other like the ribs of the skeleton. In a workshop with Angela, we used The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz as templates for the plot skeleton of a story. Both work very well.

I recently asked Marsha Hubler, author of tween horse books and Amish stories (as well as writing in other genres), how she goes about writing her series. She said, “Detailed planning of character development, plot structures, and story arcs for each book in the series is a must.”

So however you choose to create your stories, whether as an OP or a NOP, find a method that works and follow it to make this the best story ever.



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What is plot—besides a piece of ground used to bury dead people (that’s from James Scott Bell in Plot & Structure)? In my mind, plot is the story itself, with a beginning, middle and end. Of course there are literary works that don’t follow any of the rules, not even as guidelines, but I’m thinking of genre writing. Plot is the skeleton of the story, the bones on which the rest is built and fleshed out.

            THE HOOK

fish & hook

Stories must begin with an appealing element of some kind, an aspect of the piece that draws us in and makes us want more. In fiction writing, this is called the hook. Switch over to a fishing analogy: the fish sees the worm or lure and can’t resist a taste, but alas, once he grabs it, he’s hooked and committed. That’s the kind of draw we need in our stories, one that grabs the readers by the senses and holds them while we reel them in through the depths of the rest of the story. And the read should be worthwhile.

Here is an example of a hook that drew me in:

– P.D. James’ The Private Patient: “On November the 21st, the day of her forty-seventh birthday, and three weeks and two days before she was murdered, Rhoda Gradwyn went…” Well, that immediately raises a plethora of questions for which I want answers.

* A tip: you don’t have to have your hook intact right away, just have an idea of it. You can tweak it many times in the process of writing and editing.


hands in conflict

Another element of plot is conflict. All the examples given above hint at clashes and tension, and that’s what makes a story. Each scene, each section of dialogue, must involve tension and lead us deeper into the tale.


WORKING TITLE                                                             

I          Prologue

II        Part One

            A. Opening Disaster

                        1.  Introduce main character


If you are an outline person, you will work through your main plot elements in point form first, filling them out as you develop the storyline. If you are not an outline person, you will organize in your head as you write. It’s a matter of what works best for you. There are many formulas and templates to help us create a workable plot, and we’ll discuss those next time.

SCENES & SEQUELSScene & Structure

plotWhen plotting a story, it helps to write in scenes instead of chapters, in my opinion. The book Scene & Structure by Jack M. Bickham is a great way to learn about the differences between action scenes and internal episodes and how they compliment each other. Another excellent resource for plotting is Plot by Ansen Dibell. These are both Writer’s Digest Books and are available online in print and digital formats.

In Plot, Dibell writes: “Plot is the things characters do, feel, think, or say, that make a difference to what comes afterward” p. 6. So it follows that as we plot our novels, we need to consider who the characters are, what they do, how they live and think and feel, how they communicate, and how this all works together to lead us to the desired ending.

* Note: sometimes the story takes a direction the author did not foresee, and the resulting ending differs from the original thought. Plotting must be a flexible endeavor.

You can follow your instincts in plotting a novel—it’s best to study up on it first, though—or you can use some of the resources and ideas suggested above, but get plotting. We’re waiting for your novel.

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E.L. Doctorow said that writing is “like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Another writer cautions that:  “Writing without an outline is like driving a car without lights.” Ah, that must be my problem. I need to create more detailed outlines, know my characters inside out, plot each step and word and nuance to get the best story.

Then I read another writer’s help book, and the words hit me right between the ideas:  “I never use an outline. It’s far too limiting. You have to let it flow, allow the characters to discover who they are.” How will I ever master this craft if the professionals can’t agree?

The lyrics of Ricky Nelson’s 1985 hit song flash through my mind:  “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself,” or as my Christian upbringing has edited it:  “Don’t try to please others; you will never succeed. Please God and all these things will take care of themselves.”

I will never write the way you do. I am particular about the way the words look on the paper, whether I am typing or writing by hand. Can’t help it. I’m the one who always mourned the ugly mistake on the first page of my new scribbler in elementary school. I never go to the store without a list (yes, this is partly due to my age; I can’t remember more than two things at once anymore). I don’t shift the car into drive until I have mentally mapped my route to the next store or place of business. I need some sort of outline. I am not a great problem solver and would be in an impossible quandary if I didn’t know the basic ending of my story before beginning.

One particular writer I know is so full of ideas she can hardly get them on paper fast enough. Doesn’t matter what it looks like, it will all come out in the end. And, for her, it does.

In light of these apparent contradictions, I arrive at two conclusions:  Firstly, we are not all created the same. Equal yes, but different. I will always plan, especially for longer works. If I don’t, it will be so much drivel. And secondly, we need to know ourselves and the gifts God has given us. We often waste time chastising ourselves because we don’t write like this person or that person. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking and we have not written anything at all.

Near my computer I have taped some of the words of Carolyn Arends’ famous song, and I read them often:  “She works on her novel most every day / If you laugh, she will say…Seize the day! / Seize whatever you can / ‘Cause life slips away just like hourglass sand / Seize the day! Pray for grace from God’s hand / and nothin’ will stand in your way—Seize the day!”

So if you need the headlights, switch them on. If you love the adventure of proceeding by your driving lights alone, go for it. Just do it.

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