In the Mind of an Outliner – Arcs and Structure

This is my third post about outlining. You can see the others here and here.

One of the challenges of the beat board, for me, is portability. I’d like to say that I can remember all the nuances of the characters, that they are all friends to me and I just converse with them, but that isn’t the case.

Carrying around a full size cork board doesn’t tend to work with my life, and I don’t always have the option of writing in the same location each time I do. I needed to take all the ideas I had and put them in a form that made sense, was portable, helped continue the story and lent itself to visualizing character arcs and overall structure as well as providing a way to see when and how the characters interacted and when they faded for too long.

Enter the word document.

Somehow, in all my technological training. I’ve never learned how to take a screen shot of a Word doc.

I lay out the characters across the top, give each column a color and mark ages or other qualifying information as I go. There are snippets of what will happen in the scene, along with notes to myself to remember while drafting (i.e. describe lushly, make this uber romantic, etc.).

I plot out the whole book. There are chapters where characters aren’t present (see pink and yellow above) and that’s okay. But if I go several chapters without them being in a sideline, passing scene, etc. I am able to question the role they are serving at this point. I am sure that many writers have had the experience of writing a character in before realizing they aren’t serving a purpose besides existing. That sounds harsh, but taking the time to describe someone who isn’t really an anyone is time that takes away from the characters who are driving the story.

This is also the chance I get to figure out how many chapters are in the book, if all of them need to be close in word count or if there are some that need only a few pages. I try to be as specific as necessary for the ideas to be memorable when I come across them again.

And then? The whole document gets sent to my critique partners. You can see that I made comments while they were talking, but then I also copied and pasted comments they sent to me. I won’t fix them here – that’s not the point. This is a service document, intended to keep the ideas close so my snippets of writing time are spent writing, not trying to remember.

This document gets loaded onto my Google Drive the synced with my iPhone and iPad so there is never an excuse to not make progress. Even if I can’t be actively writing at a time, I can take out this document, think through scenes, solidify ideas, etc.

This is front loading a story with lots of work. I know this. But as a teacher, mom, wife, and all the other things, I realized I was doing more work trying to keep a story in my head than taking the time (several weeks) to really think through where I was going. Having a structured system lets me see the big picture and the small picture. This very logical approach allows me to tap into my emotions more, play with the lyrical nature of language while drafting instead of writing bare bones for fear I would forget what was coming next.

It is what lets the writing part flow.

How do you prepare before starting a new story? If you are a pantser, what do you do to keep everything sorted? 

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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher. Her days involve running kids around town, Diet Coke, small amounts of chocolate (more when necessary) and conversations with herself. She writes Women’s Fiction, listens to lots of classical music and is an editor for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter.

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