March 13, 2019

Building a Roller Coaster

By Amy Willoughby-Burle

Hello, I’m Amy, and I used to hate outlining. I was a pantser, a roller coaster rider, a small flashlight in the forest wielder. In short, I believed that the magic was in the mystery and that pre-plotting a novel was akin to receiving all my Christmas presents wrapped in see-through paper.

I knew that some authors outlined and I believed in the formula of Freytag’s pyramid, but that was something I did after I wrote the novel. (Yeah, sounds a little kooky, I know.)  I thought that if I planned the story ahead of time, I’d lose those amazing moments when in the heat of typing something begins to happen that I, the writer, didn’t see coming.

Then I got a novel published and upon talking about ideas for other books, my agent asked for the craziest thing. She wanted the synopsis of a book I hadn’t yet written. What? Well, I thought, I’ll give this crazy notion a try, but I won’t like it.

Wrong. I actually loved it. I thought I’d lose all the mystery and spontaneity. I thought the story wouldn’t still surprise me and that seeing the roller coaster before I got on would lessen the thrill of the ride. Instead, plotting allowed me to daydream more about the story and the characters, to work out issues before I spent three months writing a subplot that wouldn’t work, and it gave me a framework in which to finish faster and to produce a more fully realized first draft.

As you know, if you’ve ever ridden a coaster, seeing all the dips and turns ahead of time doesn’t lessen the thrill at all. It heightens the anticipation. Here a few tips for how to work the outline angle when it’s not your cup of tea (yet).

  1. Your outline is a map. You don’t have to go that way, but it keeps you from getting lost.
  2. Your outline provides pick and choose places to jump in to satisfy the thrill of the unexpected. Bounce around and then come back to fill in the gaps.
  3. Pre-plotting help you practice the art of pacing and building the coaster from the ground up. Check out that Freytag’s pyramid. It works for a reason.
  4. Keep it simple. Don’t write down everything that happens in the scene, just make a few notes about what you want to accomplish, what a character learns, or what conversation you want to explore.
  5. Enjoy the process. It’s the next step after your first book is published. Your agent, or you if you’re submitting to a publisher that doesn’t require one, will make proposals based on the outline for the story you haven’t yet written. Think of the ability to write a synopsis as less of a necessary evil and more of a super power.

Try it. Turns out it’s a thrill ride all of its own. Happy plotting.
Amy Willoughby-Burle grew up in the small coastal town of Kure Beach, North Carolina. She studied writing at East Carolina University and is now a writer and teacher living in Asheville, North Carolina, with her husband and four children. She writes about the mystery and wonder of everyday life. Her contemporary fiction focuses on the themes of second chances, redemption, and finding the beauty in the world around us. Her debut novel, The Lemonade Yearwas featured on both Southern Living’s and Pop Sugar’s top summer reads for 2018. Sara Gruen says of The Lemonade Year, “When life gives you lemons, read this book. It’s a delicious glass of humor, heart, and hope.”  Amy is also the author of a collection of short stories entitled Out Across the Nowhere and is a contributor to a number of literary journals and anthologies. Social Media Links:  Facebook  Twitter  Pinterest  Instagram

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