Your brain is going to be bouncing all over the place: Step A makes you realize something about Step Z, which makes you realize something about Steps D, M, and U. Only then can you return to thinking about Step B.
The novel itself, however, is linear. When you start writing Scene A in the first draft, you kinda need to follow it up with Scene B. Scene Z’s just gotta wait until you get there.
This is yet another reason I find the outlining process so creatively liberating. To write a controlled and optimized version of your narrative, you must be able to first step back and look at the big picture. You must see everything there is to see about your story and realize how each piece affects all the other pieces.
Your outline is the perfect place to accomplish this.
How to Outline Successfully: Learn to Execute the All-Important “Bob and Weave”
As we’ve talked about in previous articles in this series, stories begin as a random conglomeration of ideas.
- From there, you must brainstorm your way to finding the story’s skeleton—the basic shape of its plot.
- That, in turn, allows you to begin understanding the story’s heart—its theme and the character arcs that drive it.
- That’s when your “bob and weave” act begins in earnest: when you start identifying and filling your story’s plot holes.
- Then, finally, you dig down to discover the context of your characters’ backstory.
And now… you’re done with your General Sketches!
However, the one thing we’ve yet to cover is perhaps the most important of all outlining skills: the bob-and-weave. This isn’t a properly defined “step” within the outline. Rather, it’s a technique you’ll need to use throughout every single one of the previous stages.
(And, yes, I realize we’re now a full week into National Novel Writing Month, and if you’re competing, you should hopefully be done figuring out how to outline your novel and have written a good 11,000 words toward your goal. But what can I say? This is what I get for not starting this series in September!)
Once you realize outlining is not linear, it frees you from the constraints of thinking of each of the above “steps” as if they lived in isolation. Although writers may often segregate various aspects of story (such as plot, theme, and character arc) in order to better get our heads around them, we must always remember none of them functions alone. Plot depends on character, just as character depends on theme.
This, of course, means it’s impossible to figure out how to outline any one aspect in isolation. Instead, you have to “bob and weave” from one to the next. As you’re figuring out your story’s plot, many of the questions you’ll be raising will inevitably depend on answers of character and theme—and the same is true in reverse.
A plot question may lead you down a lengthy rabbit trail about your character’s motivations, which will inevitably be informed by his character arc, which will prompt further questions about where he finds himself at the end of the plot.
Be patient with the process. Take each question as it comes naturally. Don’t try to fit the aspects of your story into rigid compartments within your outlining process. But whenever you follow a rabbit trail into one aspect of your story, always bring it full circle to return and answer your original question.
How to Outline These 3 Vital Parts of Your Story
Although the bob-and-weave is a technique you’ll use, in small ways and large, throughout nearly every aspect of your outline, there are three particular areas in which you’ll want to consciously put it to use.
1. Weaving Your Plot, Characters, and Theme
Plot, characters, and theme are the foundational cornerstones of your story. All three are important, and all three must be woven into the other two if they’re to create a cohesive and powerful story.
It is, however, difficult to work on all three at the same time. Only once you’ve worked a little on plot will you understand enough to work a little on character—which, in turn, allows you enough
You can use the Outlining Your Novel Workbook software to work through important character arc and theme questions.
- When you work on your character’s external goal (a plot question), you must also consider how it is influenced by the Thing He Wants (a character arc question), which is, in turn, influenced by the Lie the Character Believes, which stands in opposition to a Truth (a thematic question).
- When you work on your story’s external conflict between protagonist and antagonist (a plot question), you must also consider how this conflict is driven by and/or representing the character’s concurrent inner conflict (a character and theme question).
- When you work on how your character will demonstrate his changing attitudes over the course of the story (a character arc question), you must also consider how this will, in turn, change his outer goals and his responses to the external antagonistic force (a plot question).
And on and on… Every time you find yourself asking a plot question, you must follow that up with related character and theme questions (and vice versa). If you aren’t working on all three of these crucial story elements in concert, one or more of them will fall out of sync. The result is inevitably a story that lacks thematic cohesion.
2. Weaving Your Protagonist’s Goals and Your Antagonist’s Goals
Even in situations in which the protagonist and the antagonist are physically separated for much of the story, they cannot be considered in isolation. Together, their mutually exclusive goals create the conflict, which, in turn, creates the plot.
Think of your protagonist and antagonist as lumberjacks on either side of a two-man crosscut saw. They must be pulling on the same saw—back and forth, back and forth. If either one ceases to pull on that saw in his turn, the saw ceases to move, and the tree ain’t gonna fall.
- When you work on your protagonist’s overall plot goal, you must then consider how this will be blocked by your antagonist’s overall plot goal.
- When you work on your protagonist’s scene goal, you must consider how it will block the antagonist’s goals—and, in turn, inspire a defensive or offensive response in the form of a new scene goal for the antagonist.
- When your protagonist is off by himself, making plans, you must also be aware of the plans your antagonist is, in turn, making off by himself.
It’s far too easy to come up with a cool battle, in which your hero is doing awesome things—and then fail to tie it soundly into the plot by connecting it with the cause and effect of the antagonist’s previous and subsequent goals and actions. A good generalization of plot is that it is the “give and take between the protagonist and the antagonist.” This means you must plan their moves in harmony every step of the way through your outline.
3. Weaving Your POVs/Timelines/Plot Points
Once you have successfully woven together all your story’s foundational elements, you will also want to consider narrative choices that ride a little closer to the surface. These are slightly more “cosmetic” choices. They do not affect the core of your story; they are, however, the vehicle that carries your story, and, as such, are just as integral to its successful presentation.
These elements include such choices as:
- Which POV (Point of View) will you use to tell each scene?
- If your story includes multiple plotlines or timelines, how will you order their scenes within the story?
- If your story includes multiple plotlines or character arcs, how will you harmonize their respective plot points?
Not all of these questions must be answered in the outline. But when you begin your scene outline (which we will discuss in the final installment in this series, in a few weeks), all of these choices will influence the order of your scenes, the focus of your scenes, and ultimately the entire flow and force of your narrative.
Making these choices requires a big-picture view of your story.
- When you choose to use a supporting character’s POV in one scene, what will this add or take away from your main character’s POV in subsequent scenes?
- When you are using multiple plot- or timelines, how can you order their scenes to maintain the best flow of tension and interest? How can you order the scenes to best contrast or mirror the events and themes in the alternate plotline?
- When you are creating character arcs for multiple characters, how can you harmonize their important moments of evolution around the main structural plot points? How will these choices affect which POVs you must choose?
Shaping a story is always an exercise in making optimal decisions. There are rarely perfect decisions. But when you consider all of your story’s pieces as players on a chessboard, you are better able to understand which pieces must be moved, protected, or sacrificed to create the most pleasing overall effect.
A firm understanding of story theory—of plot, character, and theme—will provide you the awareness to perform the bob and weave of outlining and to move your story pieces with confidence and precision. That is the true goal in figuring out how to outline a novel—not simply to pile one scene on another until you reach the end, but to craft a storyform that is as solid and powerful as possible.
Stay Tuned: Next week, we’re going to talk about how to properly structure your story while outlining.
Previously in This Series:
- Should You Outline Your Novel?
- Start Your Outline With These 4 Questions
- 3 Steps to Find the Heart of Your Story
- How to Find and Fill All Your Plot Holes
- 4 Ways to Write Backstory That Matters
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! In figuring out how to outline your novel, what is your biggest challenge in seeing your story’s big picture? Tell me in the comments!
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