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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Writing Productivity Tip: The Mini-Outline

This is a continuation on our series on tips to make the writing process and your writing career more organized, less stressful, and more effective.

The mini-outline is a thing of beauty for those of you that are plotter pantser hybrids like me. My personal mini-outline came about because the thought of writing out the arc of each chapter hurt me. But then again, so did having to rewrite my entire book. I had to find a way to define and structure the heart of my story while keeping it fun enough that I didn’t give my outline the middle finger half way through. Mine goes like this:

Characters  I always start by writing a paragraph about each primary (and sometimes secondary) character’s backstory and quirks such as, “Roberta is obsessed with grape soda and wears two pairs of underwear on road trips.” It’s also a great place for me to put a reference picture. Plus, it’s easy to give to an agent or editor as part of a proposal.

Setting – Just a quick paragraph (or more if it’s SFF) to work out the rules of the environment. The best case scenario is if I can make my setting into a character itself that my MC has to wrassle with at some point.

Themes – This is my absolute favorite. Identifying thematic layers can create more plot complexity. Also, defining the characters and situations that work within each theme generates all sorts of ideas for dialogue and conflict.

Tormenting My Main Character – To begin with, I identify my MC’s primary objective in my plot. My acting teacher always said that overarching objectives should be simple – find love, right a wrong, protect family.   

Then, I have to figure out how to systematically threaten my MC’s objective in every way I can think of. I make a numbered list of the crappiest mental, physical, and situational obstacles I can throw at her to keep her from getting what she wants. Finally, I put them in order of escalating conflict.

It feels kinda evil while I’m doing it, but it saves me from a saggy middle and from going easy on my MC when I shouldn’t. Knowing the subplots and transitions from one obstacle to another is something I like to discover as I go. I’m not a fan of squeezing every bit of mystery out of a story. But, I’m not interested in doing structural surgery on my story cause it lacks momentum, either.

In total my mini-outline is really only a couple of pages. It tackles the fun stuff, so my pantser-self enjoys writing it, yet it has enough substance to keep my plotter-self confidently on track. It’s a huge time saver.

Now, I’d like to believe that I made up this particular mini-outline, but I’m sure others have done it before me. However, I’m perfectly happy to live with the self-delusion that I’m a snowflake.

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daralbright said...

I am a hybrid plotter pantser, so this mini outline sounds like something I could use.

Tina Hammond said...

I am usually a pantser, but my current book is the finale for my 6-book series and I want to be sure my lingering threads are addressed. I did something close to this already, but your suggestions provide a little more depth, so I'll take a second look to see if I can improve on my current outline. Great article-- thanks! -- T

Rochelle Deans said...

I love your method of determining how to torment your main character. I'm terrible at that kind of thing, and your list that gets ordered after you write it could be really useful for me. Great post, Adriana!

Pat Kahn's Childsplay said...

I'm also a hybrid plotter pantser, but want to strengthen my plotter side. Many thanks for the great post.

Sarah Ahiers said...

Even though I'm a hard-core plotter (so hard core) Setting is one of those things i just pants - i have some ideas in my head, but all the small details that really make a place pop don't show up until i'm drafting or in revisions

Dawn Malone said...

I'm constantly playing with my plotting process after trying my first two novels in pantsing mode. I think anyone can benefit even from a little initial legwork, and your post shows a very doable method for those reluctant to try a more involved approach.

Beverly Stowe McClure said...

This is a good idea. It might help me stay on track with what the story is about, and the goal of the main character. Thanks.

Natalie said...

I find that even having a basic outline helps me out tremendously!