Outlining First Draft Reveals Structural Flaws

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Use Outlines to Revise Fiction

Organization of a nonfiction piece of writing is paramount. Ideas and/or should build upon each other is an inevitable progression that leads to understanding. For fiction, the outline is the plot structure, events unfolding in an inevitable progression that lead to entertainment. When you use a narrative structure for creative nonfiction, with the curious blend of information and entertainment, the structure is doubly important. Just as the purpose of fiction and nonfiction differ, so do our organization methods.

Yet, I still find that outlining is an effective revision strategy for fiction. I don’t use it to plan fiction, but to revise. And maybe the word “outline” is wrong. Because what I do is record what I have already done.

The problem is the disconnect between what we intend–a fantastic story–and what we produce–a disappointing draft. What is in our heads is always better, and therefore, it is what we remember when we look at at draft. But it is not what is on the paper. We need some way of forcing ourselves to look, really look, at what is on the paper. Did you really make yourself crystal clear at all points? No, you did not. The connecting bits are still in your head, I guarantee it.

At this point, two things might help: feedback from astute readers or outlining, or careful observation of words on the page. Doesn’t matter to me which you use first, but you should use both methods. Today, I’m assuming that you’re going to do the outlining.

You’ll find many methods to outline a narrative structure. To use outlining as a revision strategy for a novel, I like to print out a single-spaced copy and just read through. You must base this outline on what you wrote, not on what you thought you wrote. Read your story!

Most writers have their story divided into chapters, but you can work with scenes or any other natural division. Write one sentence about what happened in each chapter. One and only one. Outlines look at the top level of organization, not the fine details. If you find that you can’t describe a chapter in one sentence, then it’s probably not focused enough yet, it’s a muddy telling of the story.

Once you have the sentence outline written, you can look through:
Inevitable progression: Is there an inevitable progression of some sort? Do things become increasingly difficult for your main character?

Main story v. subplot: Does the main story dominate the sentence outline? Do subplots integrate into the story, creating more tension and interest?

This is the place to make sweeping changes, move chapters, omit chapters, add chapters. This top-level look at your story can reveal structural problems for you to resolve in the next revision.

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1 Comment
  • Susi Gregg Fowler
    December 5, 2011

    As is so often true, Darcy, your post offers a new way to look at things, another way into the mystery of what we’re writing. So helpful. I refer people to your site frequently.

    And I just nominated you as my favorite writing blog on the write to done site.