The Craft of Writing–Outlining

This past week has been busy as I returned to the habit of writing daily. I’ve made some progress on my novel, and I wrote and submitted a humor essay.

I began the novel three years ago—in May 2007—without a plan. I should have known better. As I floundered my way through the story, I revised to add scenes at the beginning to foreshadow something that I wrote into the midsection. The story lost continuity; I lost interest. I stopped writing. 

When I stopped writing, the novel was nearing the end, so now I have to tie up all loose ends to finish the first draft—my goal for this week. Then the real job begins: editing and revising. Because I had no concrete plan while writing, the revising job will be more difficult than if I had planned my story before writing. 

At a writer’s seminar last fall, I met Michele Hair, who conducts screenwriting workshops. She invited me to attend. I told her I wasn’t interested in screenwriting. She insisted her workshop would improve my novel-writing skills. We exchanged business cards and when Michele contacted me about her next workshop, I enrolled. She was right. I learned to outline a story using the techniques of screenwriting. 

During the workshop, I outlined a new story instead of using the one I had been working on, which seemed like cheating since I already knew the story—or at least most of the story. So I began from scratch. I created a template using a Word table. I divided my page into columns and broke down the three acts into smaller increments. Once I knew what had to happen to get me to a certain point, outlining was easy. 

This past week, I pulled out my unfinished manuscript and using the screenwriting techniques I learned in the workshop, I created an outline. Now I know where I need to insert the foreshadowing events. I know the logical order to reveal the clues to the mystery. I know how the story will end. 

Before you start with the I-like-to-write-on-the-fly routine of whining about plotting details of your novel, just as I did for fourteen years, give the outline a chance. I’m an English teacher and still balked at using the dreaded outline. However, when I used it, as I have taught thousands of students to do over the years, it worked. 

My ego got in the way. I believed my story would be good without using all the planning practices I taught every day. I’m a professional, for goodness sake; I don’t need plans. Guess what? I was wrong. Now I see how much better a story can be with good planning—accomplish the objective by setting concrete goals; small steps to lead me to the prize.

I’m not saying that I will never deviate from the outline. The best thing about an outline is that you can look at the entire storyline, so if you change something in Act II, you can see at a glance where you need to revise Act I. 

I’ve learned much from the screenwriting experience. It reminded me to keep an open mind when it comes to writing. It reinforced the need to continually study the craft of writing to improve my skills. Screenwriting forced me—kicking and screaming all the way—to plan and organize my story. 

Now, I have to keep my butt in the chair and fill in the outline as I write. Of course, then I face a new set of problems: selling the story. But as my favorite TV character, Michael Weston, of Burn Notice says, “One problem at a time, Fi. One problem at a time.” 

That’s all for Write Now! 

Note: Michele Hair will hold free screenwriting workshops in August and September at Barnes & Nobel—Market Commons and at Chapin Memorial Library in Myrtle Beach. More later on exact dates and times.

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About Susan Harvey

I'm a humor writer and a newly retired college English instructor. I enjoy reading and writing yet don't take time to do what I really love--writing. I began writing a mystery-romance novel three years ago. Now that I'm retired, I will make time to write with the goal of finishing my novel.
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2 Responses to The Craft of Writing–Outlining

  1. Cindy Dennis says:

    Sounds very interesting and I’m ready to buy it!

  2. Stephanie Anderson says:

    I agree with you about your desire for the story to pour out of you without any planning, but most of the greatest masterpieces (whether written or built) came about from a master plan. I think it’s great that your creativity can thrive even more when you have the concrete ideas right there in front of you! I think I will try that with my own writing in the future. I look forward to reading more of your work!

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