The Journey to NaNoWriMo 2013: Building a Variable Plot Outline

As a part of my Journey to NaNoWriMo series, I've discussed a lot of theory. Theory is a lot difference than practical exercises and methods to do things. The method I'm about to guide you through may (or may not) work for you. I'll try to toss in some theory as we go, but this is just one way of handling a plot line for NaNoWriMo.

Before I begin, if you're new to this series, you can check out the previous posts: The Basics of NaNoWriMo, The Basics of Plotting, Creating Characters, and Conflict in Plots

The type of outline I'm about to recommend for NaNoWriMo is probably a lot different than what you're used to working with. It is a variable plot outline. Yes, that is pretty much what it sounds like. It is an outline that is fluid, branching out as your characters, both antagonistic and protagonistic, make decisions.

As a pantser, I usually find myself avoiding outlines because they do not give me sufficient choices for my characters. This is what a variable plot outline prevents.

Unfortunately, variable plot outlines are a lot more complex to create than standard plot outlines. In a way, you're creating ten, twenty, thirty, maybe even more different outlines as you pursue the different things your characters could do. The beauty of these outlines is that you have a chance to explore all of the options your story concept has to offer, all without having to actually draft the novel.

It's very useful if you aren't certain what you want to write, or which path is best for your characters. It gives you a chance to think about the consequences of your character's actions.

There are several ways you can build a variable plot outline, but I really recommend you start with a stack of loose leaf notebook paper or some note cards. (You can also do this in a variety of word processing programs, including word, although it is a bit more complex.)

Start by identifying the Catalyst Event of your novel. The Catalyst Event is the event that starts your novel. It is the trigger. It is the moment in your novel's life where your characters will be swept up in the story.

A Catalyst Event need not appear in the novel, but you, the author, need to be intimately aware of what your Catalyst Event is. After all, your novel is a consequence of this event, and consequences and decisions are the heart and soul of most books.

A Catalyst Event can be anything — it could be the moment where a bully pushes a kid too far and they snap, setting up the bullied kid to do something in the novel. It could be something like Voldemort killing a bunch of people, including Harry Potter's parents. It could be the creation of the One Ring. It could be the murder of someone, as is the case in murder novels. It could be an evil overlord's scheme to take over the world.

No matter what it is, write it down at the top of your plot outline as a reminder. Your Catalyst Event ties directly to your main plot arcs in one fashion or another. I find doing this can help keep the story on track.

You can also call your Catalyst Event a Linchpin.

Your next step is to decide where your story actually begins. There are a few characteristics of a good opening scene, in my opinion.

  • 1: It presents a conflict.
  • 2: It introduces us to the main character(s).
  • 3: It gives us a reason to care about the main character(s).

This list varies by genre, but I think these are the basics for almost any genre. In fantasy, you want to establish the world a little — just a little. In a mystery, you want to establish something, well, mysterious. Build your list of appropriate requirements based on your genre.

Write these things down.

Next, you need to build a list of conflicts for your scene. Conflicts can come in all shapes and sizes. You don't need to list them all, but I really recommend you list the important ones. For every conflict you list, your character should have to make some sort of decision about it. The decision can even be ignore the problem.

Now, number each conflict.

Here is an example:

Catalyst Event: Bob murders Sue.

Scene 1

Andy finds Sue's body hanging from a tree, upside down, handcuffed to a stuffed animal. Andy is Sue's ex.

Conflict & Fact List:

  • 1.1 Andy a prime suspect due to his relationship with Sue.
  • 1.2 Andy is caught with the body.
  • 1.3 Andy and Sue had a fight the day before her murder, and it was witnessed.
  • 1.4 Stuffed animal was a gift from Andy.

Decision List:

  • 1.1a Allow authorities to discover the truth
  • 1.1b Try to discover the truth himself
  • 1.2a Run away
  • 1.2b Allow self to be arrested
  • 1.3 No decision required
  • 1.4a Try to hide the animal / destroy evidence before anyone arrives
  • 1.4b Leave the crime scene intact

Hey, I never said this would be a good outline. Gimme a break, I'm making it up as I go, here… Moving on!

Now that we have a very basic scene one of a variable outline, let's talk about what this stuff means. You'll notice I've numbered the Conflict & Fact List. This is for cross referencing. Now, when you move on in your variable outline, you have something to reference when your character makes different decisions.

In the decision list, I did a quick brainstorm of a few things the character could decide.

This is where things get tricky and complicated. Now that you have a conflict and decisions to be made, you need to see how the decisions impact your character. It might end up looking a little something like this when you're done:

Scene 1 – Consequences

C1: 1.1a, 1.2b, 1.4b/1.4a: Andy is arrested for Sue's murder and sent to prison awaiting trial.

C2: 1.1b, 1.2a, 1.4b/1.4a: Andy escapes arrest and is declared a suspect and/or fugitive

To simplify this, I condensed this down to two viable consequences: Avoiding arrest and being arrested. However, there are a lot of combinations you can come up with for this scenario.

For each C# you come up with, you will want to plot out the next scene tying into the consequence. The new scene would become something like Scene 2.1.C1, for example. (This meaning it is Scene 2 following Scene 1's Consequence 1. For each decision, you will create a new scene, and decide what the main character(s) will do from there.

Instead of building a linear plot, you're building a tree, and your Catalyst Event & Scene 1 make up the trunk. The decisions you characters could make are the branches.

This is the most important part of creating a variable plot outline:

You must make a logical filing system.

Because you're dealing with a lot of potential plot arcs, you need to be able to reference the scenes and consequences / decisions easily. Note cards make this easy since you can number the note cards and organize them accordingly, although you can do this by creating a table of contents in word, or using other programs, including evernote.

The main point of doing a decision and consequence list is to get a feel for what your characters will actually do. You'll need to keep track of what your off-screen characters are doing as well.

Complicated? Definitely. Worthwhile?

Quite possibly. If you're a pantser because you like giving your characters the freedom to do what they want, this is a good solution. This pursues all of the different choices a pantser enjoys. It gives plotters the ability to, well, have the characters choose their own adventure.

In advance.

There are a hundred and one different ways you can build a variable plot line. Find the one that works for you. If you're afraid of straying from your outline during November, this style of outline may just help you prepare without that worry hampering your ability to crank out words.

Good luck, writer!



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