Rewriting Your Novel: Outlining and the Unexpected

dead end road sign

Sometimes, when I’m rewriting my novel, I run across a scene that won’t budge. I’ve got all my beat sheet notes laid out, I’ve got my fix-it matrix handy, my imagination and mood might even be in high gear, but everything I do turns into a dead end. At this point, I look at the clock. If my time is up, I breathe a sigh of relief, back everything up and cross my fingers for the next day. If I’ve still got time to work, I often suck it up and start outlining.

Yes, outlining, as in “1. 2. 3.” or, sometimes, even “1.A.i, 2.A.i.a…” The more stymied I am by a scene, the more detailed I tend to get.

Tinkertoy car

Outlining is great because it turns the scene from a mass of interweaving fibers you’ve got to pick through and arrange to a pile of tinkertoys, easy to pick up, simple to rearrange and assemble. When I outline, I can see the big chunks of action without worrying about dialogue, setting, description, character development, or any of that. That clarity allows me to arrange things much more rapidly than would working my way through the scene with just the beat sheet and fix-it sheet would.

So, once I have the thing all outlined to the nth degree, I start writing, stick to the plan and everything turns out perfectly, right?

Well, no. At least, not always.

Antique locomotive off the rails in the dirt

Somewhere along the way, events in the scene go astray of the outline. A character goes into a tunnel when you thought she was just going to cross the street. The bad guy appears earlier than you thought he would, riding a giant seagull instead of arriving in a cab. In the scene I was rewriting this morning, the lead and the love interest were supposed to fight their way out of a situation in a pretty straightforward fashion, but then they see a guy suspended from the ceiling by a hook and decide to get him down. (The novel’s set in Hell, so hook-guy isn’t dead.) Hook guy took things in a new direction, generating dialogue and action I never would have thought of while outlining.

I think this kind of writing miracle happens because the human brain can only do one thing at once. When I’m outlining, my mind is on doing just that, but once I start writing, if it’s going well, my imagination crowds out my carefully laid plans. The outline gets forgotten and stuff happens of its own accord.

woman in flexible yoga pose

So, if I’m going to deviate from it, is the outline pointless? I think not. With a difficult rewrite, the outline is a tremendous help in just getting started, because it’s much easier to start a journey if you have a map –it gives you confidence you can get where you’re going. Once I’m started, if the rewrite deviates from the outline in a good way, I simply revise it as necessary. If the writing goes haywire, I use the outline to ground myself and start on a revision.

The outline is a simple, flexible tool for your rewriting effort. It can un-stick you when you’re stuck, guide you when you’re lost, and record your success when you find the right path for a stubborn scene.

Cute wombat

Do you have any particularly effective outlining techniques? Do you think outlining is a waste of time? Let the world know in a comment. Thanks, and I’ll see you next time!

*”It” is a wombat treat. What kind of person do you think I am?

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2 Replies to “Rewriting Your Novel: Outlining and the Unexpected”

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