Writing a Functional Outline

postit-notes-1Writing is hard. We've heard it before. Whether you're a pantser or a plotter, the act of sitting down and writing a novel is difficult. It never ceases to amaze me how many people try to convince others writing a novel is easy.

I've published four novels. It doesn't get easier with the next book. If anything, it becomes harder. Why? I want to write even better books. This is challenging. It's tiring. It's difficult. I want to tell stories readers love. That's conceited, but there you have it. I want to reach that next level, and each time I improve, it's never enough for me.

I want to do even better. The Eye of God was a beginner's foray into publishing. It's a flawed book–it's really a flawed book. The first version had too many errors. I went back, hired yet another editor, and fixed as many of them as I could. But the book is flawed–because my writing skills hadn't improved as much as I wanted before I published.

I had to start somewhere. It's still my baby, but… it's flawed. Storm Without End came next. There were, thankfully, fewer errors in this novel. But I wasn't where I wanted to be. (I”m still not.)

Inquisitor was better than SWE. Winter Wolf is better than Inquisitor.

There are some notable differences between all four of my novels.

The Eye of God had little to no planning. Pantsed it all, including the rewrites.

Storm Without End had little planning–I knew a few important concepts of the novel through trial, error, and many rewrites, until I essentially outlined the series through more than five rewrites of the first book and the main character's backstory. (This is inefficient as a method of writing.)

Inquisitor had basic preplanning done. Mostly, I plotted the deaths because they amused me.

Winter Wolf was fully outlined prior to drafting the rewritten version. I had written the original draft of Winter Wolf prior to ever trying an outline.

Oh, the difference an outline made.

I can already hear the pansters huffing, puffing, and snorting over this. Bear with me, pantsers. You likely do these things in your head as you write. You just don't write them down.

(And if you aren't, well, I invite you to consider trying it sometime and seeing how your writing changes.)

But outlines are finicky things. I'm currently helping one of my clients with her writing process; she's inexperienced but a very hard worker. She's cramming more into a few months than some writers ever do in a year. Because she's working so hard, so am I–it's very easy for me to respond to someone putting in a great deal of effort on their work. She's treating herself very seriously, and in turn, I treat her very seriously.

(One of my other clients also falls into this exact same boat–and she is getting the same treatment, although I think she is cursing me. Actually, I think they're both cursing me. That's okay.)

The issue of outlining has come up with both of these wonderful writing ladies. They have both smacked into hurdles with their outlining.

At the end, the problems they both faced were the same… and it is the secret to writing a functional outline.

Most people outline for plot events not for characters. A novel is the story of people, of characters, and their lives. So, when you write an outline based on events and not on characters, the outline is likely going to result in being a glorious waste of time full of good ideas you can't use because your characters would never do that.

Pantsers site their characters as the reason they don't outline. They don't know how their characters will react. And that is the absolute best reason I've ever heard against outlining.

Characters drive plot and story, not events. Many plotters forget this when they go to outlining, resulting in a book with wooden, boring characters. The characters have been molded to fit the circumstances of the book–they were not the circumstances of the book. The characters are always what make or break a book. This is what a character-driven book is about.

Let me tell you what a character-driven book is. Many people roll their eyes and go “Marketing lingo!!!” when they hear the term. Well, I got a news flash for you: It matters. It isn't lingo. It is the heart and soul of a good novel.

A character-driven story is any story where the events, the emotions, the circumstances, the consequences, and very essence of a novel are driven by the decisions and personalities of all of the characters in the story. When one character says something, it matters. It changes how the story works out. It means when a character makes a decision, it matters. It changes the entire dynamic of the story.

A plot-driven story are those stories where things happen to the characters. The characters never take the front seat. They aren't real.

Plot-driven stories are often a consequence of outlining by those who don't know how to factor their characters into their outlines.

I outline now. Sometimes I outline in my head without bothering to write down the outline to paper, but I outline all the same. I consider my characters, who they are, what their goals are, what their motivations are, and how far they will go to accomplish something–then I take that knowledge and apply it to their actions. When I outline, I stop asking “What happens?” and start asking “Why did this happen?”

If the answer is character did this, then I feel I'm on the right track.

I can't tell you how to write a functional outline. It's a personal journey. All I can do is share with you how I write a functional outline.

It all begins with the main character.

Gratuitous Winter Wolf Cover

Gratuitous Winter Wolf Cover

When I outlined Winter Wolf, I sat down and wrote an entire page of information on the main character, Nicole. I wrote about what she faced in her life. I wrote very little about her past–only the important tid bits that got her from Point A to Here I am Now. Armed with that, I picked something a different character needed from Nicole. I gave this person motivations, a story, and why this favor would be important to Nicole.

Starting a novel is difficult for me–almost as hard as finishing the damned thing. So, I dove in right away. I gave my character a reason she would face something she feared. (Someone she appreciates asked her to.)

Thus the first bit of her characterization was created. Nicole is a person who does things for others–and for herself as a secondary. She's more likely to face problems she really doesn't want to face for the sake of someone else.

I made a note of this.

My outline began and ended with characterization notes. My outline mostly consisted of characterization notes. Why did a character do this? What will drive a character through a conversation? Who is the most dominant character? How will they sway the conversations?

Why would these characters do things?

Nicole's characterization was always focused on what she would do for others–no matter what the cost was to her. That's Nicole.

And because of it, she ended up in a lot of crappy situations. She's often blind to what is best for her because she's so busy seeing what is best for others. When I wrote the outline, I had to remind myself of this.

I had to do this with all of the major characters–on and off screen. I had to track what the ‘unseen characters' were doing so I knew how their decisions would impact the novel.

My outline wasn't about events. It never was. It included the events… but the outline was the story of the characters. It's a game of chess; each character is a piece. It's up to them whether they're a pawn or a Queen, a knight or the King. While events were important, no event happened without a character being responsible for it in some fashion.

That's the most important thing I've learned about writing a functional outline: by writing for the characters, I learn who they are. By learning who they are, I'm able to write an outline they can flourish in. I gave myself a map–an accurate one–about how these characters think.

As such, my outline remained viable through the entire book.

But I will make a confession: I only used approximately half of what I had actually outlined. At 125,000 words, Winter Wolf is my longest novel. I had plenty of material to have written a 250,000 word novel. In a way, I regret I didn't have the time to write out every little detour I took. It would have been a fun ride. I was halfway through the rewrite when I realized, while I had great fun working out these side trips, they weren't really necessary for the book. So I cut them out.

But because I spent so much time working on the characterization in my outline, the cuts didn't hurt me. Nicole was still Nicole, and every event, every conversation, and every bit of story was founded on who she was at her heart and soul.

And because I wrote considering her at all levels, I was able to consider how she would change over the course of the novel, becoming the type of person she needed to be to accomplish her goals.

It took me almost two weeks of effort to fully outline Winter Wolf. This was done for about six hours a day. Outlining isn't quick when you're considering so many elements and characters… but it made all of the difference in the world for me.

I used to be a pantser. Now I'm a plotter, because I first learned how to write characters–and then I learned to outline them.

But at the end of the day? Characters matter. That's the entire point of an outline; to create characters who can live within the pages of your book.

A good plot helps… but good characters make a book great.

Leave a Comment:

Subscribe to RJ's Mailing List for news & updates..

x