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An Outline’s Not a Contract, Part Three

This post is part of the Outline With Me series. For more like this, check out the outlining your novel page.

Below you’ll find the third and final part in this mini-series. Want to start with parts one and two? You can find them at The Paper Trail and Beat Sheets, respectively.


As we’ve seen so far in this mini-series, there are a number of ways to outline and maintain the shape of our manuscripts as we write. As such, this series may be far from comprehensive, but perhaps exploring The Paper Trail, Beat Sheets, and, as we’ll soon know them, Beat Sheets Lite, you’ll be in a position to find a balance that offers you the most comfortable overview of your plot without making you feel committed to sticking to every last word of it.

That being said…

How About Beat Sheets Lite™?

For later drafts of EMPATHY and for my first drafts of XXX Accounting, I made use of what I’ll call Beat Sheets Lite™ (not actually trademarked, but, you know, it makes it look more official).

Beat Sheets Lite allowed me to keep my destinations in mind as I wrote, with those destinations being each one of the seven points of our seven-point plot structure as explored in these posts (or, for XXX Accounting, the twelve steps of The Hero’s Journey as will be covered in a forthcoming post). In this way, rather than balance dozens upon dozens of beats for each perspective character–which then had to be arranged in a logical chronology—I ended up with something like the below:

Chandra – Inciting Incident

Meredith – Inciting Incident

Ariel – Inciting Incident

Meredith – First Plot Point

Wyatt – Inciting Incident

Chandra – First Plot Point

[…]

Yes, I absolutely could be more descriptive about the given events, but, hey, no spoilers.

Pros

The nice thing about this system is that it allowed me to get a more zoomed out view of the plot as a whole. A quick glance shows that Wyatt’s inciting incident (his first perspective chapter), doesn’t arrive until after Meredith has had her First Plot Point. In a manuscript highly dependent on having its characters’ storylines converge at the second plot point, getting a feel for pacing from 10,000 feet—rather than being on the ground with a regular beat sheet—proved crucial in ensuring every chapter treated events in a logical, stakes-upping order.

Cons

Of course, the challenge with using this system (and only this system, as I’d abandoned beat sheets by the time I made the switch to the above), was that it became more difficult to keep track of some of the finer details, including things like which character learns what and when. In a novel where access to (accurate) information can become a matter of life and death, having those beats logged more precisely would have been of great assistance in avoiding the backtracking that came with the edits of later drafts.

Summary

Looking back on this mini-series as a whole, I think there are three lessons we can take:

  1. As writers, we can’t be afraid to deviate from our outlines when it will be in the best interest of the story. Breaking free of beat sheets for a while allowed me to do that.
  2. Maintaining up-to-date outlines can save a lot of work on the back-end, even if it seems like a pain at the time.
  3. None of these outlining methods should be viewed—or used, really—in a vacuum. In retrospect, using both beat sheets and Beat Sheets Lite™ would have been a more prudent choice when writing EMPATHY.

In the end, it’s important to remind ourselves that outlines are not contracts, and also that there are often not one, but many of them put to use when managing our manuscript’s sometimes unruly hedges. They may seem to require a great deal of work to maintain, but I know I always loved being able to look at those tidily trimmed hedges as they guided me through the maze-like experience of writing my first manuscripts.


For more posts like these, check out the Outline With Me series. If you want to get in on the conversation on outlining or writing in general, you can always find me on Twitter, or get in touch through the contact page.

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