Outlining: Easy As A, B, C

Alright now, before we go much further we have to introduce a common held belief in the NaNoWriMo culture: the idea that there are two kinds of writers, those that plot out their stories in detail beforehand, and those that write by the seat of their pants. They’re affectionately referred to as “plotters” and “pantsers.” Neither is right or wrong; it just comes down to how your brain works.

With that said, I believe that we’re all a bit of both. The most meticulously planned out story can still take a wild turn, and even the most spontaneous story can often benefit from at least a bit of direction, even if it’s only so much as a vague idea or a few prompts. I’ve tried both, and while I find that more complicated outlining techniques are great for second and third and fourth drafts, I need something simpler for rough drafts.

This technique is not unique or original. I picked it up from watching Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The idea is to have three plot lines (A, B, and C, get it?), which you can jump back and forth between. Imagine an episode of TNG: the ship has been sent on a diplomatic mission, and Captain Picard is in charge of handling contact with an alien planet. That’s your A plot line. In the meantime, Wesley Crusher has discovered something strange in his studies, and Riker is humoring him and helping him figure it out (B plot line). And periodically, we see Data and Geordi preparing for their weekly poker game (C plot line). Throughout the 45 minute episode, we’ll jump back and forth between these. Ultimately, Wesley’s project may prove to be related to Captain Picard’s mission. Or maybe Geordi and Data will unearth an important malfunction while they’re trying to create the perfect poker program on the holodeck, and we’ll discover that Wesley was right all along, while Picard continues on undisturbed. Occasionally all three plot lines will overlap.

You will see this format a lot through television; sometimes very overtly, like in the example above, and sometimes more subtly. But the point is, these three plot lines allow you the freedom to jump around in the story. It gives you something to turn to when you’re stuck, or when you need a change of pace to undercut tension, or a break for comic relief. It keeps your story new and interesting, for your future readers but also for yourself.

With Nano, your biggest danger is feeling trapped in a scene you don’t want to be writing. If that happens, I recommend you skip it, and the easiest way to do that is to swing over to one of your other plot lines. Your goal here is to keep momentum going. You can come back to boring scenes in the editing phase (and chances are, you may not need them after all).

You don’t have to use three plot lines, but too many and you’ll lose track of what you’re doing, and too few will leave you with not enough variety to keep your brain going.

Now, how to keep track of those plot lines? I do it with three columns, shown below. Let’s use that theoretical Stark Trek episode, shall we?

Three columns:  A Picard preps for the first meeting. Picard is shown around the alien planet. Picards meets the two conflicting cultures he must mediate. Things go awry during the negotiations. Picard consults with Troi back at the ship. Through an interaction with Westley, they learn that the teenagers of the two cultures have been intermingling through an MMORPG They confront the adults with the help of the teens, and show that cultures can work together to overcome their differences. B Westley is studyng an MMO. He joins a new guild, and discovers that they’re not from the ship. He determines that his new online BFFs are from the planet below. But shocker: they’re made up of people from both cultures. He confides in Riker about what he’s learned, and they go to Troi and the Captain As they leave the area, Westley signs on for a session with his guild, still connected through the same server due to help from Geordi and Data. C Data and Geordi get ready for their next poker game, but they want to shake things up. Data has a new holodeck program for their game, but Geordi thinks it’s a little too clinical. He tells Data to consult old Noir novels. Data goes a little hard on the Noir theme, and Geordi has to reel him in, explaining that he needs to take his friends’  personalities into account. They all gather around the game at last, happy and content in the bar Data designed for them.

I’ve laid out the main plot points above. You can see that the three plot lines don’t all line up perfectly, and there are a lot of holes to fill in. But this way when I sit down to write, I just have to pick a plot line to focus on. If I finish a scene and need a change, I can jump to another one. It’s all right there; I just have to connect points, build up to others, and let inspiration strike. Most importantly, I always have something to turn to if I get stuck.

I find this method really easy to generate quickly, and just as easy to adjust or ignore when I’m in the thick of writing. Hopefully, it’ll help you start building that road map to your own novel!

Next time, we’re going to dig into characters!

About Lucy

If you want to get fancy, Lucy lives in Portland, OR, and has a MA in Writing/Book Publishing, with a focus on Young Adult Literature, and a heaping disregard for literary snobbishness (she was an English Major–she’s seen and spouted her fair share). She works as a social media marketer, and has dabbled in developmental editing as a freelancer.
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