Phase Outline Method – Going Deeper

Someone on the NaNo forum asked how people solve the plot conflicts in their stories. My first thought was — just wait. Any story I’m currently working on is rolling around in my head even when I’m not thinking about it consciously. In that magical way the brain has of pulling stuff together so that it all makes sense, the solution usually reveals itself sooner or later. Sometimes later. Sometimes much later.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be a conflict. It can be a gap that doesn’t want to be filled (how do I get from A to C?), or a complication that needed to be untwisted. If there’s one thing you can count on as a writer, it’s that you’ll always be dealing with an endless variety of interesting (and frustrating) problems.

I don’t always want to wait around for the mental slow cooker to do its thing. But I’d never considered that there was any logical way to tackle those problems. I have two ways of getting stories written. For NaNo, I make notes, ask questions, and then shuffle everything around into a more or less chronological order. Then the writing begins. In between NaNos, I get an idea, think about it a while to make sure there’s something solid to work with, and charge in. Either way, I always reach a point where I don’t know what to do next. If it’s NaNo, I weasel around the bad spot and take off from there. Otherwise, I generally stop dead, maybe for months, until the cooker comes up with a solution.

The more stories I start, the more I realize this stop and go is just too frustrating. I don’t enjoy having a dozen or more stories in various stages of completion. So what’s the solution? The same method I’m using for NaNo. I’ve been concentrating on prepping for NaNo, so I wasn’t really thinking any further until I read that question on the forum. I was just going along, using the Outline to build up the story, very happy about how well it was going. Having it all laid out as a scene by scene summary was giving me a good sense of the whole, and it was easy to see where it needed more development. What happens next? What is this character feeling now? What complications need to be overcome? What are the outcomes of a certain action?

I’d made a little stab at chapter summaries in the past, mostly because Scrivener makes it so easy, but it was always as an after-the-fact kind of thing, to help me remember the content of each chapter. I’m looking at The Warden, last year’s novel, and cringing at what I hoped would be the final revision, because it’s so hard to remember everything that goes into each chapter. Have I mentioned that I have a really terrible memory? I can see now that the obvious solution is to go back to the beginning and write a short summary of every scene, rather than work by chapters. When I start on it again, I’ll only have to look over two to 4,000 words of summary rather than 80,000 words. It will be much easier to see what needs to be cut, and where more development is necessary.

So, for the rest of October I’ll be testing the Phase Outline method on one novel yet to be written and one already written. Interesting times ahead.


2 thoughts on “Phase Outline Method – Going Deeper

  1. When it comes to plot lines I have to admit that I don’t delve too deeply as I invariably find myself omitting something crucial. As you say, let your brain stew in the background while you get on with some other boring task and it will untwist itself, the solution flashing up at the most inconvenient times – usually when you’re walking the dog and have absolutely nothing to write with, or luxuriating in a very wet bath.

    Good luck with Phase outlining. Interested to hear the results of your experimentation.

    1. I’ll definitely be reporting on how it works out. So far, I’m resisting using it during the revision of The Warden, but I think that’s because the plot is well-developed already except for the last few chapters. So I probably won’t use it until I get to those chapters.

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