Outlining As an Editing Tool
Posted on November 15, 2012
Most writers think of outlines as a way to get their stories started. If you’re an outliner, it helps keep you on track with your story while writing. Sometimes that outline gets changed along the way, but you keep it with you either virtually (through Word files or within Scrivener) or on your very own cork board to remind you to stay focused. However, outlines can serve as an editing tool as well.
If you’ve finished your work to have a first draft in hand, then one of the things you can do is to go back with “editing” eyes, and create your outline after it’s finished. How did you organize your story? Where did you give information as you’re world building? Where are your conflict points to drive the story? Where does your climax fit? Where do you resolve things?
A great outlining tool that I’ve recently discovered is Save The Cat by Blake Snyder. Written as a tool to improve screenwriting, his main points about deconstructing plot beats can really help you think about your book as well.
If you live in the LA area, the Blake Snyder team offers a Novel-Writing Beat Sheet Workshop that translates the screenwriting-minutes outline to novels). If you search for “plot beats” or even “save the cat beats”, you can find lots of downloadable forms that different writers use that can help you visualize and form your story and its important components.
How can a screenwriting outline help your fiction writing? Thinking about your writing in terms of visuals is a great place to start. One, wouldn’t we all like to see our books optioned for movies? Two, it gives you another way to think about and analyze your writing – think of it as a “fresh-eyes” approach.
The organization of a movie is much like the plot triangle (also known as Freytag’s triangle) that many learned in school. Instead of a plot pyramid, there are three acts. How you get into and out of those acts drives your story. For example, what is your opening scene to draw people into your writing? Just as we want to be visually stimulated when watching a movie, readers want their imaginations stimulated so they can create your scenes when reading your work.
When you get to the end of your book, have you given enough plot points to drive the reader there? How did you enter and exit each “act” of your writing? In screenwriting, the pacing points are called beats. Using an outline to edit will help you see whether or not your “beats” are too long or too short – you may be able to fix areas that drag or add in details to “beats” that were too short.
Even if you don’t choose to use the “Save the Cat” approach (who doesn’t love that title?), reading through your work after you’ve finished your first draft and creating an outline as you go will help you see your story in a new way. It can help you catch errors, slow and fast sections, areas that may need cutting, and other issues that exist in every first draft.
I really like this idea because I’ve seen how “outlining” teaches me when I read a book. I can see how it works. So why not outline my own work? It ought to work for memoir as well.
That’s the great thing about outlining – it really can help in any genre. It should definitely work for your memoir writing!
Thanks for the tip!
I’m a big fan of outlines, but often stop writing in the middle of my first draft when something changes and re-outline. Would you recommend pushing through your first draft on the original outline and then modifying it after?
Absolutely. I think your initial outline is just a basic plan. You have to let the story tell itself. If your characters are anything like mine, they sometimes don’t always do what you want them to. Let you initial outline be flexible, write your draft, and then go back through and do an outline as an editing tool to see if you’ve hit the right beats. And as much as I love Scrivener (and I do), I highly recommend index cards, sharpie pens, and a table to outline!
Cool. I love working with index cards. Thanks for the reply!