I’ve been continuing to work on my outline of my new book each morning for half an hour and am slowly working through each aspect of my story. I have the story idea in my head clearly, but when it gets to the nuts and bolts out outlining there is some work involved to flesh out the characters, the voice and tone, all of the craft elements, and polishing the overall concept. It’s more difficult than you might think. I know how the story begins. I know the climax. I know the ending. I know what it is I want to say (premise). But what happens in between these chapters and how do these other chapters move the story forward in a way that is logical, full of conflict, and reveals important information to the reader? Hence the outline.
This process of outlining BEFORE I write a single word makes sure I have a viable story concept, that the story will meet genre requirements, ensure that my characters are not flat, and ensure that there is tension on every page without wasting valuable time writing without a plan and by the seat of my pants for days, weeks, or months on chapters and scenes that won’t work in the end and would just get edited out of the story.
Ideally, the plot and structure of the novel will be clearly in place before the creation process begins. Makes sense right? But I still have to know the basic details of every scene beforehand.
I’ve structured my document so I know where the major plot points are but I am still working through what happens in each chapter and how those events move the story forward. If not thought out in advance it is easy for me to lose tension on the pages (no tension equates to boring). If not thought out beforehand I might also make things too easy for my characters. Nothing should be too easy for my characters. Ever. Easy is boring.
To circumnavigate the issue of not enough tension I started adding a brainstorming process to each section/chapter/scene
I type out:
WHAT CAN GO WRONG?
What I mean by that is what can happen in the chapter that the character doesn’t expect, is contrary to their plans, or can become a surprise direction they (and hopefully the reader) didn’t expect. Then I brainstorm with bullet points on all the possible things that can go wrong whether they work for the story concept or not. The goal is just to get as many contrary ideas on the page as possible. Wackadoodle (a technical term) is okay. Logical is okay. I just brainstorm.
Below is an example of the process for a funeral scene for the main character’s family member.
WHAT CAN GO WRONG? (Funeral Scene)
- Someone at the funeral commits public suicide out of guilt or grief
- It is discovered that it’s the wrong body in the casket
- The character breaks out in laughter while giving the eulogy
- No one comes
- The pastor gives the wrong eulogy (for the wrong person)
- The video presentation is for somebody else
- Someone drops the ashes and they scatter everywhere
- The pallbearers drop the coffin
- The characters follow the wrong hearse to the funeral site
- The deceased’s cell phone goes off (in the casket)
- Two secret girlfriends of the deceased discover each other and fight over the body
- The church catches on fire
- The body animates as a zombie and jumps out of the coffin
Obviously whether the body is cremated or embalmed will direct some of these actions (which forces me to decide if the body will be creamed or embalmed for the funeral…which triggers the idea that the characters could fight over whether the body should be cremated or embalmed before the funeral…So now I have a note in the outline to sketch the scene about the fight over cremation and embalming, and more work for tomorrow morning.
Of course, not all of these ideas are appropriate for the story, nor will they work for the direction things need to go. Since I am not writing a zombie book, it’s not likely that the body would animate as a zombie. But, my character could visualize this happening. My character could also worry that the church catching on fire, and her dead family member runs out of the burning church at their own funeral, for example. Hmmm. Maybe. It would create tension.
The point of this exercise is that the brainstorming process helps me figure out interesting ideas and directions for my story while I am still in the outlining stage. Most likely I wouldn’t even think of these things if I just wrote without an outline. But then I would have to rewrite and revise and workshop ideas when I got stuck because I didn’t know where the story should go (writer’s block).
If you haven’t outlined before, I recommend you try it. Take your time and really think about the overall arc of the story, the plot points, the voice and tone, mood, all of those things. Think about your premise. Think about the potential conflict and trauma you can put your character through. Don’t make it too easy (for them or you). Think about all the possible things that can go wrong. It’ll be worth your time.