Iterative Outlining

In my “writing status updates” I try to write each month, such as the one this week, I’ve often alluded to my process of iterative outlining, but until now I don’t think I’ve ever explained the process in any detail. And then Grace Pennington’s description of a similar technique reminded me that I ought to explain. So today I’ll talk about how I’m planning to go about writing the Shine Cycle.

Before I begin, I should also mention that I don’t do all of this in a row at one time for any given story. Because I want it all to “hang together,” I do whichever of these steps is “next” for one “planned story,” update my task tracker (checking off what I just did, and adding the subtasks I’ll need to do for the next step to the bottom of the tracker’s list), and move on to the next story.

The first step is to extract “a story” from the “big work” that is the Shine Cycle. In most cases I’m simply going with the division that I came up with when I began to formalize the Shine Cycle and to recognize (the faintest glimmers of) the extent of its scope, but there are a few where I have decided or probably will decide to split what had been “a planned novel” into two or three (or perhaps more).

After identifying the sequential boundaries of the story I’m developing, I trace and list the major thread or threads of the story, so I have some idea of where the story is going.

Next, I try to “assign POV.” That is, I try to decide which of my long list of characters (a small subset of which I’ve profiled on this blog the story, or each piece of the story, should follow. I make a point of this because if I were to stick closely to my original conception of most of the stories that will make up the Shine Cycle, we would most likely—and at best—bounce haphazardly through the heads of an all-but-endless sequence of point-of-view characters. And I try to do it here because it’s an inflexible prerequisite for the next step.

Once I have the main points of the story listed and my main characters in mind, I try to distill the story down to one sentence—a “logline.” This step wasn’t originally part of my plan, but after reading Jordan Smith’s book on loglines (which I still need to review …) I became convinced of the benefit. And while I haven’t gotten much farther than the next step in the process for any of the stories planned for the Shine Cycle, the discipline and clarity of thought needed to write even a clumsy and amateurish logline has already improved my concepts for the stories I have started to outline.

After writing the logline—which in every case I make a note to ask for critique on before I get beyond this step—I “outline the story by sequence.” I divide each “thread” that I listed into “sequences,” smaller threads that I think can be further divided into a series of scenes that will each follow directly and naturally from the previous scene.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten in most of the Shine Cycle. I’ve gotten through this next step but no farther in a handful of cases, mostly early in the series outline.

With the outline at “sequence” level, the next step is to “outline by scene.” To do this, I’ll think of and write down the list of what scenes are needed to complete each planned sequence. I think of a scene as a narrative passage all set in the same place, over consecutive moments, and seen through the same point-of-view. Scenes might, in the end, flow from one into another rather than being divided by a sharp “typographical break” or even merely a narrative “cut,” but they’re still separate scenes, just as sequences can be “interlocked” by inserting scenes from the second before the last scene(s) of the first without turning them into a single sequence.

After that, if I have the patience to continue outlining rather than just jumping in and writing, the next step is to “outline by action.” For each scene, I will briefly list in order, but not yet really describe, each action, movement, or event that the scene should contain. This is, more or less, the technique Miss Pennington described in her post, though she says she does this outlining (“summarizing”) in a “just-in-time” fashion just for whatever she plans to write that day. I may decide to take that approach myself; I’ll have to see when I get there, since until I read her explanation of the increased speed “summarizing” ahead of time gave her I was dithering about whether to do this level of the outline at all or simply try to skip from “outline by scene” to “write.”

Lastly, once a passage is “outlined by scene,” the final step in this process is to write it. (And then revise and edit it, of course, but that and anything further is beyond the scope of this process.)

Somewhere in this process I have to determine what characters other than the main or point-of-view character are involved, and what else has been happening in the world and/or universe that is relevant and worth mentioning. I don’t have a definite place in the iterative-outlining process for making definite decisions about those issues, because “the earlier the better” but also the earlier the more likely I am to want to change my mind—interspersed with all these incremental-outlining tasks on my task tracker are worldbuilding and character-development tasks that allow me to have slightly more information to answer questions about “supporting casts” and “events elsewhere.”

So that’s what I’m doing and planning to do. “General outlining,” “Point of View assignments,” “Outlining by sequence,” “Outlining by scene, “Outlining by action,” and then writing the things. I’ve got my work cut out for me, but so long as I can keep my next steps broken into simple enough pieces—as this process of “iterative outlining” does—I think it should be manageable, God willing.

Do you have any thoughts?


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