Reverse Engineering An Outline

I have long had a good idea about the plot of my story, Gods Among Men, and a high-level outline for the first half of the story.  Lately, as I have been working on my new website and planning to forge ahead with writing new material, I have come to realize that it would be useful to have a brief chapter-by-chapter outline of the whole story. 

This goes back to my natural inclination as a plotter, as opposed to a pantzer (someone who write “by the seat of their pants”).  My plot is convoluted enough to easily get lost in, so I need a road map to guide me. 

Having made that decision I was now faced with the prospect of actually writing the outline.

The Insights of A Child

As a child I loved to solve mazes, to trace a line from beginning to end through a convoluted collection of passages.  And as a child I discovered something that shaped my thoughts to this day: Most mazes are easier to solve if you start at the end and work backwards.

All mazes have a plethora of choices at their beginning, false paths and dead-ends design to confuse and confound those trying to solve them. 

But almost all mazes have only one route open to the end, a predefined choice essential to completing the puzzle.  And while the path back may be littered with choices, it is often easy to spot which ones dead end and which lead back to the beginning.

And so in life I have often found that if you want an end result, it is easier to plot your way back from that end result than to decipher how to move forward from where you are.

And This Relates To Outlining How Exactly?

As I tried to wrap my mind around the effort of creating a chapter-by-chapter outline, I came to think about the insights into my story I had some months ago.   Those insights focused upon my realization of what the ending must include, and what was required to get there. 

And that I discovered is the key to the outline I shall create. 

Starting at the beginning and going forward to the end is hard and treacherous.  It is easy to get lost in the details, to pursue sub-plots and minor character arcs that go nowhere. 

Starting at the end, however, and working backwards is much easier.

The finale is about Damon and Artemis, the end of their character arcs and the conclusion of the plot.  A known point I must reach. 

So what must happen immediately before to set up that scene?  I can answer that question, and in doing so write down the outline for the preceding chapter.

That preceding chapter will also include the ending of plot threads and arcs for lesser characters.  Those endings must be setup by chapters that come earlier in the story.  Now I know what to write down for those even earlier chapters. 

And so on and so forth, until I reach the parts of the story I have already written.  Back-tracing through my maze of a plot to my known beginning.

It may seem an odd technique, but it is one I have used often to solve difficult problems.  And when faced with a thorny plot is a useful way to sort out the wheat from the chaff.

Continuity and Where it Forces You to Go

Last time I wrote about Pantzing Versus Plotting as contrasting styles of writing. Despite their multiple differences, both styles share one point: A need for continuity.

Pantzers often don’t worry much about continuity during their first draft. For example, I heard one pantzer tell how they began a story with their central character as man who by the end had become a woman. Not as a plot twist, the author just forgot they were man and began writing the character as a woman. Obviously, a fixed choice of gender must be made during the editing process.

As a point where pantzers and plotters agree, the both must maintain continuity from sentence to sentence.

For example, another pantzer told of when he wrote about his hero being hit over the head with a mace. He followed the logical train of events from that point and ended with his hero dead on the floor. This, in turn, fundamentally changed the direction of his story from that point forward.

For myself, I have written many sentences that had unintended consequences within my story, though none so serious as killing off a central character. As an example, in …Awakens the Outer Circle,…, the second chapter in my epic Gods Among Men, I wrote a sentence off the top of my head that went places I never expected. The sentence I wrote was:

“Artemis Arrowsmith woke from the dream reaching for her bow.”

Seems innocent enough, doesn’t it? But consider all the things implied by the sentence. I establish the character I want to write about, Artemis Arrowsmith. Then comes a key word: woke. She was asleep, unaware of what was happening around her, and something made her wake up. What was it that happened? I didn’t know for sure at that moment, but it fit with the word “Awakens” in the chapter title; and I knew it involved Damon Roth’s appearance in Guildtown, the event running through the next few chapters. I.e. Her waking up was related to the central plot.

Then comes the phase, “from the dream.” What dream? I had no idea when I wrote that sentence what the dream was. It just sounded like a cool way to open the paragraph. Plus it fit with waking up from a slumber. But now that I had mentioned a dream I had to come back to it in some meaningful manner. This need for continuity spawned a major, unplanned, subplot which I had to weave into my central plot.

The phrase “reaching for her bow” was originally a throw away line. I meant it only to identify her as an archer. Now however, it was linked to her waking up and the dream. The dream made her feel threatened, so she reached for her weapon. Why did she feel threatened? The content of the dream had to supply that emotion, so the throw away line became a driving force for the subject matter of an unplanned dream sequence that was mucking with my central plot.

I began to understand the appeal of pantzing: don’t worry, fix it in the edit. The problem with this: I had a plot I needed to get back to.

Also in this innocuous opening are a host of simple questions: If Artemis is waking up, where is she? Why is she there? Is she in a bed, or on the floor, or on the ground outside? Is she in jail, or at an inn, or in her own home, or in a forest? Is it morning or night time? Are lights, noises, or smells associated with what just woke her up?

Each of these questions deserves an answer, and each answer drove the story in one direction or another. Each question carried infinite possibilities, and each choice limited the possibilities available to answer the next question. The need for continuity with random sentences drove plot changes in my story, both major and minor.

I’m sure a pantzer would understand and have accepted it as a matter of course. For a plotter like me it was damn frustrating. It is part of what took me so long to get the story started properly. The beginning of the story shapes the middle which determines the end. Small changes magnify as they go along until they whole story changes in ways that are hard to predict or control. Fortunately, I had characters and events in my story powerful enough to bend the subplots back to main plot. The additional subplots added muscle, but the plot, for me, is the bones that provide structure.

Pantzer versus Plotter

There are two basic schools of writing: Pantzing and Plotting.

Most of the writers I’ve talked to have been pantzers, meaning they write from the seat of their pants. They have no idea where the story is going until they have written it. At best, they have a few general moments they know they want to work towards, often they know how they want begin and end the story, but little more than that.

Pantzer’s don’t know who is going to live or die in their story at the beginning, or even who the central characters are, until the words are on the page. They don’t know who will live and who will die. They often don’t know who the heroes or villains are, or what they are fighting over, or why they care. Pantzers write sentence after sentence to discover the story they want to tell, then edit what they wrote so it reads well.

This, to me, is a bizarre way to write.

I am a plotter. That is, I need an outline before I can write. I need to know who the central characters are, what their goals are, what they will do to achieve those goals, and what they won’t do. I need to know who lives and who dies, how they die, and who would be better off dead. I need to know what the conflict is over, how the characters break down into sides over the conflict, why it is important for each side to win, and what the result of any particular side’s victory means to them and others. I need all of this and much more information; not in a vaguely defined way, but hard specifics I can write towards.

Pantzers have the advantage of speed. A pantzer can crank out a good size story in a year or two. I spent decades fleshing out the story for my epic, Gods Among Men, before I felt like I could really write much of it. I wrote a lot in those decades, but whenever I ran into a question I didn’t already know the answer too I had to stop and spend days, weeks, and even months finding answers that satisfied me and worked with my central plot.

I think the result is worth the extra time it took. I can give detailed answers to almost any question about the world or the characters or the plot. More importantly; I like, really like, my plot, my characters, the story arc, the settings, and so on. I love the world I have created in my mind, with all of its flaws and including the parts of it that run against my personal ideology.

Currently, I am editing At The Lady’s Behest Comes…, the first book in Gods Among Men. I hope to have it up to submission quality by late this year, though I fear that is optimistic. Looking forward, I believe I can create first drafts for the remainder of the story as fast as any pantzer could, maybe faster. Editing each book to make them publishable will take longer, of course, but I know where I am going and I have an outline to get there. That’s a nice place for a plotter to be.