Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor

Refining an Outline: The Pointy Stick Method

By Nicole Henderson
2007, Nicole Henderson

Sometimes, I write an outline for a new project, look at what I've written, and am perfectly happy. 

Then I actually read the words, and the work begins.  It's like sitting down in front of a campfire.  For a moment, I am content.  In the next breath, I start poking away with a pointy stick, trying to make the fire burn hotter and brighter.  It's time to get out my stick, and make my outline glow.

To avoid simply staring helplessly at an overwhelming list of scenes, I use a simple method -- my pointy stick -- to get my mind working in the direction I want to go.  I outline in a spreadsheet, because that's what works for me, but this would also work with note cards or a simple list. 

I start by identifying my POV characters on each scene.  I usually note the POV character when I initially write the scene entry, but this is the time when I take a quick look at each scene, and decide if my first instinct was the correct one.

Next, I make a list of my subplots (or story threads, or plot layers, whichever term you prefer, or best applies to your outline).  I assign each a keyword, and go through the scenes again, marking which subplots (including the main plot thread) surface in each.

Now each scene has a scene description, a POV, and a listing of plot threads.  In a spreadsheet, I use a column for each type on information; on a note card, I might put the POV in the top right corner and the plot threads in the top left.

Now it's time for the elbow-grease.

I go down my list of scenes and make sure POV is distributed the way I want it.  (The antagonist, a relatively minor character, shouldn't have four POV scenes in a row, for instance, and the primary narrator should have enough coverage to be identifiable.)  I reshuffle scenes or add blank lines/cards with a suggested POV wherever I think they're needed.

I repeat the process with plot threads, checking to make sure the main plot doesn't get swamped in the middle, that I didn't let a subplot trail off into nothing, that my plot threads surface often enough that a reader can keep track of them, and that I don't group too many scenes from the same subplot in one spot.  Again, I reshuffle and add blank lines/cards, noting what plot layer they should be associated with.

Then I fill in the blanks, and leave the outline alone for a while.  I sleep on it.  Bake cookies.  Go to my day job.  Visit my parents.

When I have some distance, I re-read the outline, checking out the plot threads and POV to make sure they still look good.  I add more scenes if I feel a plot thread needs more coverage.  I look for places where a single good decision would have averted conflict, and make sure there are good reasons the characters don't make those decisions. (I want to avoid dialog like this in the first draft: 'I'm not going in there -- I'm terrified of carp!'  'What? The koi pond three scenes ago didn't bother you.'  'It's a new phobia.  Required by the plot.')  I look for any other plot holes I can spot, for missing transitions and for anything else that feels wrong.  I annotate, add scenes, and scribble ideas on post-it notes.

If the outline as a whole feels too short, then I look for a potential new subplot (either something that's already in the background, or something I could add in), and decide how to fit it in with new and existing scenes.  If there's not enough action, I add a new obstacle, conflict, or complication.  Then I fill in the blank scenes, and start the process again.

It can take a few iterations to get an outline I can live with, but I finish off with a last look at POV and plot threads, to make sure they're still balanced.  Then I tuck my pointy stick away, ready to settle in to the business of putting words down on paper.

When I'm done, my outline isn't perfect.  But it does burn hotter and brighter, giving me a much better view of the story I'm about to write.