In the way that I design my stories, I want every chapter to have a purpose, to have its own spotlight, its own conflict and drama. I refer to this as the chapter’s “inner story”. While chapters are the framework of a story, I argue that a chapter is more than just a mechanism of format.
Too many times I’ve read chapters where the only purpose they served was to describe time pass as the protagonist went from A to B. If you find yourself writing a chapter that really lacks a prominent point, then most likely, your readers will think that the pace of your story will slow. This can be prevented if the author focuses on developing the mini-story within each chapter. Sometimes we authors are too close to notice it. Usually, one would have to take a step back from their writing and think like a critic in order to realize it, but I believe I’ve found a better way.
It’s one thing for an author to outline their story from start to finish. But it’s another if the author can take the planning to another level of granularity by architecting the framework of each chapter. Just describe the key story element for each chapter so they each drive toward a distinct purpose that supports the flow of the overall story. I’m convinced that this approach prevents pace & flow issues, generates more memorable qualities throughout your story, and keeps readers engaged. These key story elements can be:
Events that force your characters into a certain decision
Chapters that revolve around your theme
Critical moments of character maturity (for coming-of-age type stories)
A new mini-conflict is introduced (that supports the overall story) and must be resolved
If you interested in giving this a shot, try out this exercise. Review your outline (hopefully it’s structured so you have some idea of what’s happening in each chapter) and write a synopsis of each chapter. Are all of your synopses exciting or intriguing? Do they serve a purpose in your story? If you can’t summarize your chapter by describing its reason for existence in an exciting/intriguing manner, then that chapter should be analyzed until its “inner-story” is found.
Here’s another way to look at it: If the reader could only sum up each chapter with one sentence, what would be the dramatic or exciting key story element that you’d want them to takeaway from it?
How do you outline your story? Do you think this technique could work for you? Let me know your thoughts.
Writing is an art form, an extension of our vibrant imagination put into the written word. Writing is a artistic expression of ourselves, our thoughts, our feelings, where the turn of a phrase can excite an audience and a fictional character can tug at our hearts. There should be no doubt that the art of writing is intertwined with an author’s muse, inspiration, and creativity.
But when a writer first conceives of a story, what does he/she do? Create an outline of course! But when we generate outlines, we are putting our story into a box. Albeit, the author pours his/her creativity into the outline, but I fear that for some the creativeness of their ingenuity stops there.
As a writing exercise, try thinking of an alternative plot point from what you currently have planned, and begin outlining the events that would occur from this new pivot point in your novel. Then compare the two story paths (original vs. new); which one was better for you?
I recently did this and was thrilled with the results! My original outline didn’t capture all the particular details that lead up to Chapter 9, so upon my arrival at this point in my story, I realized my characters were stuck. There was now an obstacle that wasn’t there in my outline. I was forced to improvise – and that is when I had this epiphany!
The more I write, the more I favor organic character development – and by extension: story development. I am usually a big planner, down to every detail, so I know how important story outlines are, but now I try to keep my outlines at a high level so that I won’t stifle my creativity as I write.
I’m in the middle of planning book 2 of my series, The Chromium Smith, and I thought it would be a great time to see if I can improve upon my story outline process and share everything that I’ve found. When designing the outline for book 1, The Soul Smith, I used a chapter by chapter approach toward planning the plot-based events. However, I found it cumbersome because I couldn’t fit all the chapter’s events I had planned into just one chapter, resulting in continuous revisions to my outline. After I abandoned a written plan, I found that I was able to develop my characters more organically as I wrote. I felt that this was a positive byproduct of the lack of a written outline, but I wasn’t without any plan at all.
With book 1, to compensate for a lack of a chapter-by-chapter written plan, I had conceived of the overarching story line and used proper character motivation to get from A to Z. I added one additional mechanic that I coined as ‘The Logic Test’ which prevented me from having any holes in my story. Lastly, whenever I thought of a great scene for the book, I wrote it down immediately. This list of scenes became my ‘Bag of Tricks’ that I was able to pull from whenever I felt a little stuck, or deprived of creativity. All of this was the same tried and true method that I employed when designing stories for role playing games.
So why even do the extra work to generate and maintain an outline? Well, when I submitted my short story, The Ravenous Flock, for critique at Critter’s Writer’s Workshop, I had one reviewer say, “I suspect a lack of outline.” In that instance, my A to Z approach didn’t work so well, but I blame that on my initial choice of an ending (which has since changed). Plus, with my novel, I had made an embarrassing mistake with a character’s name where I unintentionally changed the spelling of it half way through my book. I could have really benefited from a good character tracker system. Also, some publishers like Xchyler Publishing require a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of your book (among other things) when submitting your manuscript for consideration.
I had asked Xchyler Publishing why they required a chapter-by-chapter synopsis and this was their response: “There are a few reasons. 1. It shows you know your story, which means you have spent time, and at least read back through it. 2. It helps our editing staff know what the main points are. So if/when they need to be edited down, the key points remain.3. It shows you are devoted to the success your book as much as we will be.”
What is the goal or purpose of an outline? It is there to help you flush out any holes in your plot, to ensure that your story is solid, and to help you write your novel. It will help you stay focused, monitor your pacing, and will guide you through your story. It will help you think through your novel, so that you can make any changes to plot or story upfront before you write yourself into a corner. In addition, it will (at times) help prevent writer’s block.
What does an outline need?
Places and Scenes
How do you design an outline? There are numerous different methods that work well for different people. It could be as simple as a bunch of post-it notes or as scientific as Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. After searching the web, I’ll share a few ways below:
Flash cards or Post-it Notes: Great way to stay organized and keep all the pertinent info in an easy to find place. Have a post-it for each character, write down descriptions for reference, who they are related to, etc.
White Board or Mindmapping: I rather enjoy white boards, and I have a simple one in my home office because I like staring at a visual to be reminded of things, or to think through issues. Similarly, you can connect thoughts, or plot events to characters to show motivations, etc using mindmapping. The free iPad and iPhone app called Total Recall is a great tool for this.
Simple Document: Whether you organize everything into a table, or you have a story board process using PowerPoint, or you write down everything in paragraphs of text, a simple document is a great place to start.
Software: There is too many to list, but you can see them (and buy them) all here: Writers Store
Chapter by Chapter: I tend to think that this document should be made as you write your novel, so that it can become a useful reference guide. It will help you remember which chapter introduces what character, what events occurred in what chapter, and can help you take a glance at the pace of your novel. Reader’s dislike changes in pace, so if your plot-driven events are slowing down, it may be time for some revisions.
The Snowflake Method: Created by Randy Ingermanson, this is an incredibly detailed planning process. It was developed around the idea that novels are designed. At its most basic concept, you start small with one idea and then you expand it outward; writing individual story lines for characters and expanding them to full page descriptions, expanding the plot from a one page synopsis to a four page synopsis, create a scene list and grow it into a multi-paragraph description of each scene, etc. You do this until every tacit of your novel has matured, and then you write your first draft.
Combination: I plan to use a simple document to keep track of characters, as well as a white board to help me think through character motivations, and a chapter by chapter outline to help me monitor the pace of my novel and use as a good reference. Feel free to use your own combo to ensure that you have a solid plan in place.