Using Character to Outline

Last week I talked about my plans for a major revision of my work in progress. In that post I mentioned that my main issues were world building and character arcs. As soon as I recognized that was where my focus needed to be, I began researching ways to develop these areas.

This research led me down a rabbit hole of posts on websites like Pub(lishing) Crawl and Writer’s Block Party. Here I discovered ways to interweave my characters with my world building, and ultimately develop a plot that will hopefully resonate in ways it currently doesn’t.

For those who just want the most useful resources, I’ve compiled a template for Character Arc using information from three different blog posts, and included the links for them.

Character Arc Template

Desires and Nailing Act I

Goal, Motivation and Conflict

Essential Story Beats

For anyone interested in my process over the last week and how I applied the above information, keep reading.

I originally put together this plan of filling out these sheets for my two POV characters and adjusting my current revision plans using the new information on goals and story beats. But I quickly realized, though the process of trying to determine the long and short-term desires for my characters, that they didn’t have any at the onset.

Oh, sure, my characters had goals in the story, I’ve revised it and plotted and outlined enough times by now that they had goals. But I realized when reading How to Nail Act I that they should have long-term and short-term desires that are actionable from the beginning.

Previously, Character A just had a desire to reunite her family. There were too many factors out of her control and she didn’t start the story with any sort of capability or plan on how she’d achieve that goal. Character B was along the same lines. His goal involved earning redemption for something in his past, but he had no timeline or concrete way of achieving that.

Realizing my characters needed actionable and larger scope desires from the onset left me with the realization that the why of the story was missing. Why does it have to be these characters? Why is it them called to action in the inciting incident? Essentially, why does it have to be them?

I didn’t have a reason, I had just written these characters in this world with this plot and that was it. No wonder even as the writer I wasn’t invested in the story. My characters needed to be integral to this story and the only ones capable of telling it. Once that major crisis was worked through, I knew I’d have to start from the beginning and establish those desires and the why.

It meant having to disconnect from the current story, which I had some trouble doing. I’ve read enough writerly advice to know that changing something as big as the character desires and the why would more than likely change the entire course of my story.

When the idea on Character A’s desires and why came to me, I knew that was the case. I loved where the what if took me, but it changed her relationships to the rest of the characters, it meant changing her knowledge and would require establishing some major magical world building that (once again) I’d been lazy about thus far.

I went with it anyway, I let the what if continue and while a large part of the premise of the story is still in my outline, I know I’ll have to rewrite every single scene with this in mind. Because a character’s desires and motives will filter into every action and word, changing how they come onto the page. Same for Character B, who’s goals haven’t so much changed as become much more concrete and actionable.

With all this in mind, I went into my Scrivener file, transferred the entire manuscript into a new folder at the bottom of the binder, and made a completely new, blank outline. Don’t get me wrong, I’m keeping a lot of plot points, but I wanted a blank file, one where I’ll be rewriting everything. I’m started from scratch in some ways, a blank page and a deadline to write a new draft, but in many ways this is still just a revision.

It’s a revision because it will be my 9th draft, and regardless of whether or not I have the previous draft in front of me, there’s no way all that trial and error won’t affect how I write this one. I think my words will flow better, and I think I’ll be able to cut to the heart of the scene easier.

I still have a lot to do. The outline and world building needs to be fleshed out and I know changes will have to be made as more becomes clear about the story and world. But for now, I have a much better idea of where the story needs to go, and how my characters are the only ones capable of getting it there.

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Revising Using the Three-Act Structure

unnamed-2            This past week I’ve gone back into the 4th draft of my manuscript and, using the notecard outline from that draft, plotted it onto the three-act structure.

I did this because I knew the plot was lacking, and going back to the basics of planning a novel was the only way I could see to figure out what still needed fixing. What I learned? My story was stopping before certain major plot points happened. Namely, I was essentially finishing the story at what would only be the end of Act Two.

Last week I mentioned how short I thought the word count for draft four was, and considering it was missing an entire act that makes much more sense now. It also explains why after draft three I realized I’d never written a climax scene into my novel and had to go back and build up to that in draft 4.

I’ve been writing the new scenes I mapped out suing the three-act structure, and I have a few tips that go along with this.

1)    It’s never too late to replot.

Whether you consider yourself a plotter or a pantser during the planning stage, no novel will be at its best until revisions include outlining. More than that, you’ll outline before, during, and after every single round you do. That’s just the way it is. Sound stressful? It can be, unless you consider that replotting gives you permission to never really stick to that plot. In the six scenes I’ve been writing this week, I’ve already deviated during the drafting.

The 2,000 words I wrote today I know involve a voice unlike what I’ve already used for that POV character in the chapters that I’ve already revised. Oh, well. I kind of like this new voice, at least elements of it. And I Know more revisions have to take place in the rest of the novel, as I’m far from done. So, better to realize where the plot holes are and replot than let it turn to trash.

2)    Don’t worry about the length of each act.

If you were using the three-act structure before the first draft, then I’d say make a word-count goal for each scene or chapter. But in the case of a manuscript already mostly drafted, just let it happen. In my first two acts, I have multiple chapters/scenes that belong to the same plot point. I also have scenes that I wrote because I like them in the story. These scenes build character, world build, or move along the plot in some way not directly explained by the plot points in the three-act structure.

On the opposite hand, the scenes I’ve plotted now that I realized they were missing? One scene per plot point, and often less than 2,000 words (I’m aiming for between 2000-3000 words per chapter). I think for the second half of the second and the third act this is okay because the action should be speeding up anyway.

3)    Understand that you will have to make major changes

If you feel the need to plot your already revised manuscript (or not revised if this is between the first and second drafts) then odds are you’re already aware it’s missing something. This means when you’re done plotting it out, you’re going to have to write scenes from scratch all over again, which for me is proving the hardest part.

After almost a year on this project, (and a failed Nano project in November) it’s been a while since I’ve gotten into writing from scratch. I’ve been revising several drafts and can get pretty creative doing that. But staring at a blank page? It’s like I’ve forgotten how to write altogether. I’ve been combatting this with writing sprints on MyWriteClub.

If you, like me, wish you could just be done with revisions and letting someone else read it, take a deep breath and remember why it matters to you that this story be amazing. It’s tempting to send your MS off to a critique partner, beta reader or even start querying, in the hope your revisions will become easier and clearer with someone else’s feedback.

But like I said, if you’re reading this post or you’ve already been thinking about replotting your project in any capacity, then you know something’s missing. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by sending something off that you already know isn’t complete. Sit down, breath, and make the changes. It’ll be worth it when the next time you look at it you can see how much better that draft is.

            This is technically the fourth tip, but important enough that I want to wrap up with it rather than include it in that chunky text above.

Don’t get discouraged. I’m facing this issue myself, where all the revisions and feeling of incompleteness that surrounds my MS makes me just want to move on to the next project. It’s extra tempting because starting March 1st I’ll be beginning to research and outline a different book for camp nanowrimo in April. But even if this MS never sees the light of day, going through every step of revisions until I’m absolutely positive it’s the best it will ever be, is a learning experience I can’t pass up.

When you’re looking at your MS and only seeing it’s problems, consider the passion and idea that originally sparked you to write that first draft. Don’t give up on the experience that seeing this project through will give you, even if when you finally reach that summit you just put the project in a drawer and move on.