As I’ve said before, I am not a plotter. I generally don’t outline my stories before I draft, and I usually write by the seat of my pants until I have a book’s worth of words in a vaguely coherent order, and until I have a vague idea of who my characters are and the most important stuff that has to happen. In fact, the one time I did start with outlining, with a complete, beat-by-beat, chapter by chapter outline, that manuscript (PARCHED) ended up needing more structural revision than any other project. Go figure.
That said, I DO outline before I begin revising. You can call it a reverse outline, a synopsis, or whatever you want, but I find it crucial to pin down the main events in my story as soon as I have a completed draft, because it helps me see the glaring plot holes and often highlights other major issues I need to address.
So, after I have an ugly heap of words totaling between 70-90k, with some semblance of a plot buried beneath the word salad, I find some way to get the key events written down. Sometimes, this is a spare list of events jotted down in a notebook. Other times, I compose a one-line summary of each scene in scrivener and compile it into an outline. And when I’m feeling energetic, I get out my giant white board and become the guy from the red string gif. One way or another, I get the bare bones of my story written down, then I ask myself a few key questions:
Is this a series of interconnected events driven by my main character’s actions and choices, or…. a list of sequential scenes connected mainly by the passage of time? Hint, if most lines starts with “and then,” you may have this issue. Quick! Go watch Matt Parker and Trey Stone’s “Therefore But” lecture on YouTube, stat!
You see, ideally, each of my main plot points should lead to the next, but in reality, my first drafts tend to have a lot of “and then” transitions. All too often, my main characters spend a lot of time reacting to events that happen, rather than doing things that change the trajectory of their story.
To give a terrible example I just composed on the fly, this is Not Great:
John woke up and made breakfast, then he drove to work. At work, he talked to an annoying coworker. After work, John went to a party, where he saw his ex-girlfriend. John didn’t enjoy the party, so he left. On the way home, he got a ticket.
Versus, a slightly less terrible version:
During breakfast, John spilled his cereal and had to change his pants, which made him late for work. Because he was late, everyone else was paired up for the scheduled corporate team-building activity, and he got stuck with his most annoying coworker. Irritated by his crappy day, John went to a party after work to try and relax, but his ex-girlfriend was there, so John zoomed away from the party ten miles over the speed limit and promptly got pulled over.
Those are both boring, but in the second version, I tried to connect the events in a way that made it clear how each led to the next. It’s not a bunch of unrelated events in a boring day, it’s a series of cause and effect moments… in a boring day. Get it?
Same goes for an entire manuscript. Every writer I know has written at least one manuscript where a character “goes through” a bunch of stuff, mostly reacting to events rather than CAUSING them. But to draw readers in and make a character interesting enough to follow for 300-400 pages, you want to craft a story about how the character’s choices and actions impact the world around them.
A synopsis is a GREAT way to check whether things are happening TO your character (not ideal) or happening BECAUSE OF your character (better!)
With my current manuscript, I ran into this issue right away. At the start, my main character is a reluctant, failing hero, locked away from the outside world and miserable about it. Originally, a secondary character just kind of showed up by random circumstance, which meant my main character was basically waiting around for the first 10% of the story until stuff happened to her. Not great. So, my first revision pass focused on brainstorming “terrible decisions she could make that would push her toward the next plot point.”
Instead of that other key character randomly showing up or her stumbling over him by accident, she seeks out this character after an event disrupts her life. Her choices brings these characters together, then her personality and her following decision to speak her mind leads to arguments and eventually other things between them. SHE makes things happen. And that makes her worth rooting for. I hope.
Stay tuned for Part 2, a deeper dive into Character Agency, coming…. whenever I finish editing it.