So, the outline of what began as a simple-enough story has become less a sturdy structure and more of a jungle, complete with tangled vines. All you remember doing is adding a reflective scene or two to lend your structure some satisfying symmetry; frosting your characters with a little more philosophy, a little more humor; taking mental notes as you listened to the news, read a great book, watched your favorite movie again, observed a breathtaking sunset, etc., each time thinking I’ll use this in my writing, and my writing will be richer for it.
And now here you are. A less-intrepid Mowgli in your own damned story.
Rescuing a comprehensible story that flows well from an outline gone jungly is possible. Here are some tips:
Pitch Your Story
Back-of-the-book paragraphs have probably intrigued you enough to plop down $30 for a hardcover. On the basis of a summary that took you thirty seconds to read, you’ve probably committed two sitting-still hours of your life to watching a full movie. If you’re trying to scale your story back to vital pieces that fit sensibly together, writing such a summary (or pitch) can help.
If you had half a minute to pitch your story to one of these brusque, British, book-genius types—short on patience, soft spot for greatness—what would you say?
This exercise naturally helps you think about what would make you want to pick up and read your own story, which in turn can help you refocus on the compelling-most points of the unique beast you’ve written . . . and rewritten . . . and rewritten.
Write Your Synopsis
You may not need to create a full proposal to sell your novel—but you may just need one to finish it. Trying to jump into a mangled outline and make repairs can give you such a case of nerves that suddenly vacuuming under end tables, Windexing faucets, and finally trying your hand at that retro scifi-romance you know you’re capable of writing all seem very, very important.
Writing your synopsis, on the other hand, can lend itself to a starting-fresh mindset. Concentrating on brevity and logical flow, fill as many pages as needed (two to twentyish) with the highlights of your story, focusing on characterization, major events, how those major events connect, first- and second-string problems and their precise resolutions, and so on.
If your story has holes that need to be filled, or vines that need to be hacked back, those issues will probably manifest clearly. In a synopsis, you don’t have to “murder your darlings,” but you do ignore them by and large as you put together a no-nonsense version of your story.
Well, go organic anyway. By which I mean: take a break from structure altogether. Are visions of a thirty-page multi–font–colored outline looming in your head? To the point it’s hard to pick out what your real story’s even about anymore? Then maybe it’s time to take your eyes off that particular forest (or, again, jungle) and focus on a single tree.
Think of one of your characters, one with a voice that’s fairly well defined. Listen to her. Think of something that feels natural for her to do, some niche mischief that is so her. Don’t start planning exactly how it tethers to the whole of your story. Just write it. Organically. Let go and let your character. Write not exactly for the broad joy of writing itself but for the joy of reconnecting with this character in this story.
Doing so can work in the same way as sitting down for dinner with someone you love the hell out of but haven’t spent enough time with lately—it can help you rather effortlessly clarify your priorities. Which in turn can help you weed out the irrelevant so that what does matter can really shine.
And Finally . . .
The outline itself. When you’ve pitched, proposed, and gone organic on your story, you will probably have a much clearer idea about keepers versus clutter. Before you start trying to upcycle that clutter into a new story, though, return to your outline—you’re ready to tackle it now.
Naturally, different approaches complement different writers, but you may find some benefit in starting your outline anew. This could mean scrapping the old one wholesale and working primarily from your synopsis to make a different point-by-point, scene-by-scene story map. Perhaps you want to print out a physical copy of the old version, hack out all the pieces you don’t like, pin the few you do to the wall, and fill in the gaps with stick notes culled from your synopsis.
However you handle the outline from this point, remember that you’ve done the legwork to fix it already. Don’t let that gratuitous outlining of yore intimidate you now. You got this.
And if you need a hand with outlining or are looking for a developmental, content, or copy edit, you can always get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Upcycle symbol attribution: By Powaz (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.