Draft First, Outline Later

There’s a mountain of advice available on how to outline a novel, but I’ve found very little helpful with my writing. I tried bulleted lists, webs, storyboards, post-its on my wall. Neither the dramatic arc nor the three-act structure helped me plan a story.

My main struggle with following an outline is that if things don’t feel natural when I’m writing, I get an itchy feeling under my fingernails. I can’t force myself to write through something I know isn’t going to work. After some heavy procrastination and denial, I go back to find where things stopped working.

Once I’ve found the problem and fixed it, everything after that point in my outline is no longer relevant. However, I recently found a way to make an outline that actually works for me. But I didn’t figure it out by outlining as the first step.

Outline After Writing the Draft

It seems like a backwards way of doing things, doesn’t it? Not really.

Your first draft (and second and third and fourth, if you’re like me…) is for discovering your characters and letting them define the story. Once you go back to revise, making an outline can help you find where you might need to tighten your focus (ahem, cut things that don’t help) and where you might need to add a little more.

With The Thieves of Traska undergoing heavy rewrites — and my frustration after having spent so many years on it growing — I decided to try another outline. I had a good idea how I wanted the story to go this time around and needed to write it down before life got in the way and I forgot.

Normally when I try an outline, I only use bullet points for major events and get through as quickly as possible. The downside to this method is that I can’t always tell how the characters were supposed to go from one point to the next. I just knew that two characters would have a falling out before the main heist and someone would be revealed as a traitor. I put the burden of figuring out those details on Future Amanda.

A Better Outline with The Hero’s Journey

To get a better handle on the structure of my story, I tried to map out what I already had with the 12-stage structure of The Hero’s Journey. Thieves had maybe only 5 of the 12 elements, and they were all out of order. Yikes! No wonder it was impossible to gauge where you were in the story.

So I opened up a new document and tried to build an outline that would guide my next revision.

12 Stages are Better than 5

Like many, I have had to use the 5-point dramatic arc to map out a book’s plot for class assignments. Also known as the dramatic structure and Freytag’s Pyramid, the visual diagram is well-known.

The 5-point dramatic arc: exposition (or introduction/prologue), rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution (or denouement).
The 5-point dramatic arc: exposition (or introduction/prologue), rising action, climax (or conflict/confrontation), falling action, and resolution (or denouement).

Many writers will tell you how great this structure is for plotting your novel. I am not one of them.

For me, this structure is too limiting and generalized to be of any real help. It feels like the first chapter is your exposition, almost everything that comes after is “rising action,” then one incident is your climax, followed by the “falling action” (a term I admit never made much sense to me) and your eventual resolution.

When using this diagram, all I could focus on were the major events. The all-important inciting incident (running away from home) to propel my characters from the exposition to the rising action. An exciting heist as the climax. A job well done and a paycheck as the resolution.

Yawn. That’s not exciting to read or write. And as a guide, it offers no logical progression from each important event of “rising action” to the inevitable climax.

Compare to my custom diagram of the way I visualize The Hero’s Journey:

The 12 stages of The Hero's Journey: ordinary world; call to adventure; refusal; meeting the mentor; crossing the threshold; tests, allies, enemies; ordeal; reward; the road back; resurrection; return with the elixir.
The 12 stages of The Hero’s Journey: ordinary world; call to adventure; refusal; meeting the mentor; crossing the threshold; tests, allies, enemies; ordeal; reward; the road back; resurrection; return with the elixir. I added “the final reward” as a 13th stage because, as a writer, we need to include a little resolution after the final events.

Just look at all those fun angles! Look at all those specific events that make up the rising action, leading you straight toward the final climactic encounter (Resurrection)!

As a writer, this is so much more helpful to me. When my characters turn on each other, I have a much better idea of where that needs to happen in the story.

Beyond Bullet Points for a Better Outline

Instead of using bullet points to vaguely guide me in a direction I hoped the story would go, I wrote paragraphs. I stopped thinking about this document as an outline. For each stage, I wrote a full summary of everything I wanted to happen. Every location change, every conversation, every revelation, every major plot point.

In total, it took me three hours to get through it all.

But the end result was worth it. It was like reading a book report on my own story. Every victory and setback was there, and it all made sense. Now I had a plan for how to lead up to those characters having a falling without their fight seemingly coming out of nowhere.

What About You?

Of course, there’s no law that says you have to do an outline at any stage. If it helps you, great. If you do just fine without outlining, excellent. Your writing process is what works best for you.

What kind of outlining strategies have you found success with? Let me know in the comments!

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