Outlines and Telling the Wrong Part of the Story
Many writers are so busy editing their manuscripts on the sentence by sentence level that they
forget that most novels are going to be accepted by an agent, sold to an editor, and loved by a
reader based not on the beautiful language of the story, but on bigger picture elements than you
can often not get at by looking at the sentences. You may be telling the right story, but not the
right parts of it. You may have a great world. You may have great characters with great story
arcs. You may have a fantastic ending that will make your readers weep. But if you don't tell the
story in a way that makes the reader want to turn pages, if you don't make sure you are focusing
in on the part of the story that makes the reader breathless, you will often not need to bother with
the smaller stuff.
When I went to my first writer's group, we would always bring ten pages to read, usually from
the first chapter of a novel, but sometimes from later chapters if we had brought previous
chapters to the group. I remember people telling me where they thought my novel should start
and why a particular scene wasn't working. My dialog was wrong. A particular character
wouldn't react like that. I didn't have enough physical detail to set the scene. I didn't make the
conflict strong enough. I did the flashback scene poorly, so that it was difficult to follow. Sound
familiar? This is exactly the kind of feedback you should expect if you are doing a critique group
that focuses on small bits and pieces. And in fact, I was in a group with people who were
excellent on a sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph level in writing. What this group
did badly was any sort of overall plot critique, structural analysis, or character arc.
In my current critique group, I am far more interested in the bigger picture. I encourage people to
talk about the novel as a whole before we get down to a critique of the particulars. Even better is
writing an outline or synopsis. You don't have to read the whole novel to see problems in a
synopsis. Yes, it isn't as fun to write a synopsis as it is to write a scene. It is extremely useful,
however. I have found that writing a synopsis forces me to look at my novel completely
differently and I see problems in the pacing, the payoff at the end, and the structure that I cannot
see when I look at the novel chapter by chapter. Writing a synopsis takes away most of the
advantage I have from years of honing my sentence by sentence level writing skills, as well. This
is what I need to have happen when I want a proper critique. I can't have my readers simply
admiring how pretty my words are. I need them to be able to see the problems behind the words.
I recommend writing a synopsis for every writer who is at work on a novel. You can also talk
about your novel to anyone who is willing to listen and who has said something incisive about a
TV show or movie you have seen. Talking about your novel does some of the same things that
writing a synopsis does. It forces your mind to think in a different way about the story. Instead of
thinking about the words on the page, about how to set up a scene or how to show your world
off, you have to look at plot points and character development. Does it make sense that the
character feels like this? Does the character react in the right way to important events? Am I
telling the right part of the story or is the more interesting part of the story happening off the
page in a completely different part of the novel than the one I thought I should tell?
Now you may be saying that you don't write books by outline, that you are a more organic
writer, or even a "pantser." That's fine. I'm a pantser, too. I have tried to write several books
based on an outline at first, to miserable failure. I find that before I start writing a character in
scenes, I have no idea who that character is really going to turn out to be. I like to experience a
character in much the same way a reader will. But this is just my first draft. Once I've finished a
draft, it's time to write an outline up and look at it, tell others about it, and then fix it. And most
important of all, I have to be willing to listen to criticism as if I have only written an outline and
not an entire novel. I have to be willing to make the big changes, not because my writing is bad
or because my story is useless, but because I am telling the wrong part of the story.
Occasionally I will read novels where the most climactic moment is told after the fact, by a
character who wasn't even there. Or parts of the most interesting conflict between two characters
happens before the scene even begins. This may be because you as a writer are afraid of big
stakes, or perhaps because you are worried you don't have the experience necessary to show a
really great scene in all the detail it deserves. Don't let yourself get away with this excuse. It
would be like deciding you wanted to do a marathon, but skipping the last 6 miles because they
are really hard. Yes, they are really hard. Yes, they will hurt. But it's not a marathon unless you
do the last six miles.
If you are going to start a novel, make sure you have the energy necessary to keep going when it
gets tough, and real revision is tough. It's going to require changes on the outline level, cutting
out whole chapters, plot threads, and possibly even the last half of the novel if you've gone off in
the wrong direction. Real writers do sometimes admit that they cut hundreds of pages when it is
necessary to tell the right part of the story. It isn't because their writing is bad. It's because
they're telling a less interesting part of the story than they could tell. So they might wince, but
they cut. And yes, we all wish that we could have seen beforehand that we were heading off in
the wrong direction. But trying to keep from making a mistake makes you so cautious as a writer
that you end up hamstringing your best stories. So let yourself make the big mistakes, so you can
tell the big stories in the best possible way.
I also recommend that if you want to write a book that readers will not be able to put down,
focus on one really good story (more on this next month). I am not saying that you can't have
sub plots or minor characters. You can. But I urge you to make sure that your page count does
not obscure which characters are the main ones or what their main goal is. If you have lots of
different characters who are in different parts of your world, that is fine. But make sure that they
are all working at different ends of the same thread, that they all end up being part of the same
story. If you cannot figure out which character is the one you want your readers to care the most
about, to root for most desperately, you may have too many characters.
I've read experimental novels that refuse to have stakes. You've read literary novels where
nothing seems to happen for pages on end except for the main character navel-gazing and
wondering what he should do next. Your characters can think before they act, but too much
introspection and you risk the reader losing interest or deciding that sleeping or eating dinner is a
better option, and your novel can be finished later. This isn't the reaction you want from your
reader. If you cannot figure out which of your many climaxes is the main one, you may have too
many climaxes. If you cannot distill your basic plot into a few sentences, it may be too arcane.
A really gripping story is usually compressed in terms of time, as well. The longer it takes for the
story to happen, the more readers are going to get bored and feel that there isn't much at stake.
I'm not saying you have to have an artificial countdown where everyone will get radiation
poisoning at the exact same moment (as in the worst example of science fiction in television and
on the screen), but you want every action to matter. You don't have to make sure that every
action is the right action. Of course, you want your characters to make realistic mistakes. But
you want every mistake to really hurt, for there to be consequences to wasting time with that
mistake, and then that one. Make your reader wince as your characters do.
You can practice writing a condensed version ("pitch") of your story by thinking of your favorite
novels and trying to describe them in a few sentences. A couple of examples that I tell: Mira,
Mirror is the story of the mirror from the Snow White fairy tale. But in my version, she is
actually the enchanted sister of the evil queen, on a quest to become human again. The Princess
and the Hound is the story of Prince George, who has the animal magic and can talk to any
animal in its own language, but can't tell anyone about it or he will be burned at the stake. When
he becomes engaged to the princess of a neighboring kingdom whom he has never met, he meets
her for the first time and discovers that her hound is the only animal he has never met he can't
talk to. My new novel, The Rose Throne is about two princesses from rival kingdoms who are
both destined to be used as pawns by their fathers who are trying to shore up power to their
kingdoms. They are supposed to be set at odds against each other, competing for the same stakes,
for the same men as potential mates. When each finds out a desperate secret about the other, they
must decide how to use this power and what matters most to them.
Ender's Game is a story about a third child in a crowded world, born specifically to save humans
from the Formics. He goes to Battle School when he is six years old and by the time he is ten, he
is the greatest general humankind has ever known. Only he doesn't know that he is the one who
is really controlling the ships to fight against an enemy he has come to sympathize with. A new
novel I just read by Sarah Rees Brennan, Unspoken, is about a girl who has spent all her growing
up years with an imaginary friend named Jared. She jokes with Jared and it causes problems in
her relationships with her family and friends. But worse than that is when she meets the real
Jared and realizes he has never been imaginary, but is a real teenager with real problems that she
now has to help fix, along with dealing with her uncomfortable ability to read the mind of the
person she thinks she might be in love with.
These three sentences of distilled plot are what you are going to use in your query letter to an
agent or editor. Don't tell the whole plot. Save that for the outline you'll send in with the first
few chapters. But three sentences of a great set up is what an agent wants to read. A lot of writers
complain that an agent or editor can't possibly tell how good a book is based on a query letter.
That is only partly true. There are people who write better query letters than novels, but the
reverse is true much less often. If you can't tell what is really riveting about your novel in a
letter, chances are, it isn't riveting enough. I used to think that a query letter was almost useless
in terms of telling a story. Now, after years of experience as both a writer and as a critic, I find a
query letter imminently useful. It gives me a sense of the professionalism of the writer, as well as
a quick glimpse into what they thought was most gripping.
Similarly, an outline attached to the first three chapters ("the proposal") is enormously helpful in
seeing problems in plot. This is not to suggest that if there are any problems in your outline, no
one will ask to see the whole novel. But there are problems and there are problems. If you end a
novel with everyone dying whom the reader cares about and the evil villain triumphing, well,
that is one kind of problem. If you have a loose thread that isn't tied up neatly because you've
had to condense things, that is something else.
So write your novel the way it works for you to do a first draft. Then write an outline and look at
the outline the way a stranger would look at it. Imagine you are trying to pitch it to a Hollywood
agent. Imagine that you're trying to get a bored teenager to turn off a video game and read your
book instead (because if you're writing YA, that is exactly what you are trying to do). You may
have to tweak things here and there. Or throw things out entirely and start over again. But once
you have an outline that you are proud of, go back and fix your novel so that it works with the
outline. Then send out your queries and you'll be ready to send out the proposal when the offers
come streaming in.
Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison