The Open-Ended Outline


Vision 76


The Open-Ended Outline


Ashe Elton Parker


Copyright © 2014, Ashe Elton Parker All Rights Reserved

            How's pantsing your story working for you?  Or, if you're not pantsing it, how's the outline going? Stuck? Beating your head against a wall? 

We all do at some point, whether it's over a story we're writing off the top of our heads scene after scene, or plotting out to great detail in an outline.  I've had the same difficulties myself.  I used to pants stories exclusively, but rarely ever completed any.  So I tried writing complete outlines . . . which works if I have something approaching a completed manuscript to work from; all it is in that case is me shuffling plot points around to heighten conflict and adding more to build the story into something more than an emaciated shadow of its full potential. 

I have tried writing complete outlines for fresh stories.  It doesn't work so well.  And, since pantsing doesn't work most of the time, as much of my writing is 50,000 words and over, I spent a fair amount of time struggling with creating outlines withoutfirst writing the stories—or without starting the writing shortly after achieving five or ten plot cards. 

It took me a few books to realize how well this method works for me.  I mean that—it works.  I've found, for me, if there are a limited number of plot cards ahead of where I'm writing the story, it enables me to be productive.  And not just on writing, but on the outline.

This is how I operate:  I'll either write one or two scenes, then begin the outline, reverse-outlining the already-written scenes; or I'll work for two plot cards, and write a scene.  With either beginning process, I work to acquire at least ten to twenty cards ahead of where I'm writing scenes, usually at a pace of two plot cards per one scene written.  Sometimes I'll work beyond that point, particularly if the outline-ideas are flowing, but I don't force myself to if I'm not feeling it.  I know next time I come back to outlining, I'll have scenes in mind.

This method has one notable asset and a number of lesser ones.  The primary one?  It's incredibly flexible.  I've always found it more difficult to alter a completed outline, so having an open-ended outline within a certain "distance" of the card I'm writing from enables me to see more possibilities than I tend to when I'm focused on finishing an outline—because when I'm focused on finishing an outline, I do five to ten cards all at once, out of order, then organize them in with the rest of whatever of the outline I already have done.  It's a much more disjointed and disconcerting process for me, because while it's possible for me to summon the ideas out of order, organizingthem is difficult for me. 

But with an open-ended outline, all I need is a complete list of plot points, which don't necessarily have to be organized, though I prefer to as much as possible.  I use Scrivener for my writing, and I keep the pane split vertically, with text on the left, plot cards on the right, and I switch between the list of plot points and my writing when I finish a scene and move to outline-mode.  I get one plot card—if I have the top limit of cards I want to have written—or two—if I'm working up to that point.  Simple.

I've discovered this method works as well on incomplete-but-acceptable-so-far stories as well as ones I'm only just starting.  I usually do a reverse outline for these incomplete stories—a sentence or two of summary of scenes written.  Once I complete the reverse outline, I write two new plot cards, a scene, two more plot cards, and so on.  When I get to the limit I chose, whether it be ten or fifteen or twenty, I start adding only one plot card per scene written as I do on projects begun with this method. 

The flexibility of this method is very important to my creative mind.  Not having a completed outline indicates to my creative mind I'm not "locked" into any particular path with regards to the story.  I've found it much easier to go back through and add cards with scenes I haven't thought of, or to discard scenes which are no longer pertinent, than I ever did with any outline I started from scratch with the determination to complete it.  Because, to be honest, I'll sometimes see a scene which has the potential to change the story substantially, and the mere thought of having to go through more than twenty plot cards to correct already-outlined scenes to fit the change fills me with dread; I did that a time or two with outlines from already-written-but-unsatisfactory stories. This is something I have no desire to go through again.

Yes, the idea of leaving an outline incomplete before writing can be somewhat frightening.  It is, I think, a viable method for moving on a project which is giving you trouble.  Whether you write with or without an outline already, this method can be used.  That's the beauty of it, part of its flexibility—it doesn't need to be finished.  So, someone who writes by the seat of their pants can use it to work past a sticking point in their story.  And, if you're trying desperately to be an outliner, but finding that you lose interest in the story, or the ideas fizzle out after a certain number of cards, writing one or two outlined scenes out can help shake loose the ideas. 

It's worth a try, whenever you think it may help.