Outlining After the Fact, Remembering Where You’ve Been

Who did what in that last scene again?

In the popular terms of “pantser” and “plotter,” I’m not really sure what camp I fit in with yet. Besides the unique experience of NaNo, (which didn’t help me create anything of quality) I’ve never sat in front of a blank screen waiting for the characters to take action on their own accord, dumping whatever words pop into my head onto the screen. At the same time, while I like writing down bits of inspiration and short-hand scene notes for later use, I don’t create an outline of an entire book either. When I get a flash of a good idea out of order (I have to write linearly, otherwise my brain gets scrambled and I lose track of the whole book), I make a note and these scraps get stored away for later. But this isn’t an organized method–literally, it’s a respectable-sized mountain of torn scrap paper with scribbles on them. I don’t properly pants or plot.

I’m not sure if aligning myself with one of these writing methods would improve my writing, or at least improve my productivity, but I do know that whatever it is I’m doing with the current WIP–pantsing, plotting, or a combo of the two–isn’t quite working.

I noticed in the past couple weeks that, despite my commitment to writing linearly, my brain was still getting scrambled around the plot line, my memory was fuzzy regarding different characters, and before I could sit down to write anything new, I had to reread the entire book to refresh myself with the story and get into the right mindset to write more. This reviewing time was severely cutting into my writing time. After an hour read, I’d only have a half hour left over to write anything new. And then three or four days later when I had a free hour or two to dedicate to writing, I had do do it all over again because–again–I had forgotten the most recent plot developments which would inspire the next plot developments, I would have forgotten the voice–everything.

Basically, I needed a more effective method to dive into my story. Reintroducing myself to the story by rereading 15,000+ words (and growing) EVER SINGLE TIME just to write another thousand words wasn’t really getting me anywhere.

Solution? Outlining after the fact.

So I went through the six chapters I already wrote and created an outline of what happened, what characters were introduced, etc. It’s less than a page long and takes me five minutes to review before diving into chapter seven. Every time I finish writing a new chapter, I stop, reread it, and outline the major events that will need to be remembered later. Did a new character get introduced (if so, what’s their name and relationship to the MC)? Did two characters have a fight (and if so, what about)? What’s the setting?

Reading the full arc of the story in that way–seeing how chapter one links to the next one and the next, seeing the progression of events and character development in that condensed manner–is SO HELPFUL. Every new chapter I write, now, is better connected to the overall story. It’s helping me write more cohesively and with greater focus and I think when it’s revision time, it’s going to save me a massive “WHAT IS GOING ON WHAT WAS I THINKING WHEN I WROTE THIS PILE OF UNRELATED CRAP” headache.

Do you struggle with keeping your story straight? If so, what do you do to keep track of it all? Or do you all have magical computer brains that forget nothing?

(Image located on Flickr Creative Commons. Courtesy of Cornell University Library, Human Ecology Historical Photographs, Collection #23-2-749, item H-O-09, Div. Rare & Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.)

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6 thoughts on “Outlining After the Fact, Remembering Where You’ve Been

  1. merlenygate says:

    Good idea. I like that. I’m a dyed in the wool, colour-coding plotter but it strays from time to time so an outline after event makes sense. Have you ever tried ‘drawing’ your story? Big sheets of paper, three act structure, lovely!

    • hannahkarena says:

      How do you DO that color-coding plotting thing? How did you learn to do it? Is there some writing bible that outlines the steps for you? I’ve seen vague instructions or photographs depicting other writers massive color coded, wall-encompassing plotting methods before…but I don’t get them.

      I’ve never tried drawing my story before. What does that look like? I’d love pictures or examples if you have them!!

  2. Kay Kauffman says:

    This is a great idea! I like to say that I’m a recovering pantser. I don’t think I’ll ever become a full-on plotter, but my last book and my current WIP have both been semi-plotted and it was sooo helpful. I find that I have to do a bit of rereading when I settle back down to write, but usually I only need to read the preceding paragraph or two to get me back into the story. Usually.

    I’m lucky in that I don’t normally have trouble remembering what happened when, where, and to whom, but frankly, I find it surprising given that my memory in other areas of my life is utter crap and I’m on the second book in a series.

    I don’t expect things to hold out like this forever – I may start using this outlining-after-the-fact process. It’s really rather brilliant. 😀

  3. catwoods says:

    Great idea to outline as you go. I typically have a notebook that I jot down ideas in and refer to it as I write. Also, when I finish a rough draft, I print out a paper copy and fill the margins with all the questions I didn’t think to answer my first time through.

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