The conversation about outlining has evolved into talk about craft books, and our favorite advice blogs. Kristin Lamb comes to mind because she hits homers with each post, mostly, and there’s a bunch of others who love and appreciate the writer and want to encourage and help you.
And the sum of those blog posts is that this is a craft, and it’s got a whole lotta stuff you that needs your attention. The granular: Typos, homophones, punctuation, commas, no commas, periods, don’t use passive, don’t use adverbs, how big to build your sentences and paragraphs and chapters. That’s just a few of the solid bits that tend to be more objective than subjective, I think, except for how big to build those last three. And I see you back there, you people who are saying, “Well, shoot, you must learn the rules before you break them, and I know them rules, so I break them, and JK Rowling got to do it, so I can too.”
No, you’re not breaking the rules artistically. You’re causing the reader pain with your abuse of the comma and the semicolon. This isn’t art; it’s feces on a wall. You can put a nice card next to it that says, “Feces on a Wall. Brick, Feces,” but that doesn’t make it art, or good art, or anything.
So the macro is the overall plot structure, three acts, character development (arcs for all, personalities of each character, their qualities and characteristics), the scenes you decide to show the reader and the scenes you don’t. The macro is still objective, in a way, since certain things have to be done in a specific manner or your reader will throw your book at the wall, where it will stick to the aforementioned feces. You can have the most beautiful prose in the world, but if the scenes are boring or not advancing the plot, it’s just drivel, it’s Wagner, it’s mashed potatoes without gravy, it’s harmony without melody. Or your protagonist might be too perfect, and instead of grinding her way through a bloody battle to survive, she just waltzes through it and is never in any danger. Boring. Do something mean to your little darling. Make her fail. Failure will bring out the character arc.
And that’s the purpose of the outline. A good outline is going to introduce the macro. We’ll meet the characters beforehand, maybe eat some cheese and crackers and drink a little wine and say, “How do you do?” and they’ll say, “Great, thanks. I can’t wait to get into this novel and really start doing a genocide.” “Whoa, there, sparky, I think I have some people you’re going to kill, but nots go crazy.” “Wait, I thought I got a genocide? This might not be the book for me.” “Hold on, why don’t you meet the protagonist, he’s over here.” And they mingle, chat, maybe they smoke cigars together and bond over single-malt scotch. In the meantime, you’re outlining scenes so that you have a classic three act book, and you know what everyone is going to do before you get to the granular. What does each scene need to accomplish? Oh, yes, it needs to accomplish moving the plot forward, of advancing the story, or it’s up against the crap wall with it.
While you’re mapping out your scenes, then you can also place the character arcs. Each scene can influence the arc in some way, so that you know how to write the scene to make sure the protag is going to make it to his destination on time, and you know what the destination is.
Plus, you’re tracking the pacing of each scene. Too slow? Too fast? If you’re too slow, the reader will walk away. If you’re too fast, the reader will grow tired and walk away. Either way, they’re super-fickle. The fix is having the scenes flow with enough action to keep it moving, and not too much of the dull boring stuff like your character acting as a mouthpiece to tell the world why you hate Donald Trump so much.
And then there’s the up and down of the scenes. Just like Classical Music, you have a nice Allegro to start, then the second movement is andante or slow, and then there’s a nice scherzo at the end to round things out. A slow sandwich, where the bread is two quick pieces. Do that in your book, too. It keeps things flowing.
During all of this, you need a plot that is interesting and not too obvious. We don’t want a recap of something else we’ve read, we want something new and delicious and fantastic. Oh, and make it slightly original.
This, all of this, is why writing a good book isn’t an easy task. We were talking to a young lady recently and asked her what she did in college. “I have an English degree.” The snarky side of me thought, Oh, you took the easy way and studied a language you already knew. However, I know that it’s not like that. Just knowing English isn’t enough: Composing something that people will read, willingly, and then come back and buy more of your product because they like what you write, that’s an accomplishment far above analyzing the deeper meaning of a Clean, Well-Lighted Place or A Rose for Miss Emily.
And this, all of this, is why seat of the pants isn’t the best way to get it done. There’s too much to go horrifically wrong if you’re not paying attention. Great plot, but no character arc? Dull. Character arc but no plot? Dull. Your characters are writing the story? Tell them to shut up, there’s a plot and they’re along for that ride. They are, after all, figments of your imagination, and with a little self control, they can do whatever you want. Making that look organic, that’s what makes you a writer, not stringing words together in formulas to please the pharisees of writing who cannot look beyond function to see any form.