Have you ever had a great idea for a novel, sat down, started to write…and then got lost in the weeds somewhere around page 98? No? Congratulations! You must have the awesome ability to keep your characters on target for the entire process, and end up almost exactly where you intended when you sat down to write.
For the rest of us, it can be awfully easy to allow our characters to take us off in directions we never intended. Now, I’m not saying this is an altogether bad thing. If your characters are able to lead you around a bit, that means they’re really coming to life, which will show on the page for your readers. But there has to be a limit to how much freedom you allow them.
You probably had some idea when you began the story where you wanted to end up. (I know not everyone creates manuscripts in this way, but I would venture that quite a few writers do.) If you allow your characters too much free rein, they’ll take you off the path, and you could find yourself written into a corner. How can you avoid this? By outlining your story before you start.
A few years ago when I attempted National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for the second time, I was fortunate enough to discover a free eBook written by Lazette Gifford titled NaNo for the New and the Insane: A NaNoWriMo Survival Guide. The sections of this book I found particularly helpful were Outlining for Fun and Phase Outlines and NaNo. Lazette explains that by using a phased outline, you can more easily reach a target word-count goal, such as that imposed by NaNoWriMo. You create an outline of “phases”, small snippets of key phrases and action for each scene. Divide your target word count by the number of phases in your outline, and that’s how many words each phase should be when you sit down to write. If this number seems too high, review your phases and split some into additional phases where you think you can provide more detail. Lazette provides a sample segment of outline phases and the accompanying text from one of her manuscripts to illustrate how the process works.
This approach also provides your characters with a road map through the story without limiting their ability to be themselves. The phase outline is a living thing while you’re writing. If some phases become obsolete, delete them and modify the rest of the outline as necessary. If a phase you initially thought would be short turns into an epic moment in the story, break it into more phases as needed. The point is to keep the story moving forward, and moving in the direction that will ultimately lead to climax, resolution, and The End.
Outlining is not for everyone, but if you’ve had trouble in the past trying to wrangle your characters into the plot line you had in mind at the beginning, or if you’ve had difficulty in reaching a word count you wanted, phase outlining can help keep you (and your characters) on target.