There are 57 varieties of how to outline, and how to avoid outlining. Most of the writers who complain about outlining resent the loss of freedom, or fear they will lose the fun of characters evolving straight from the writer’s fingers into the story. These are valid arguments, but what does an anti-outliner do when they really do need to outline?
You can try this exercise. I call it the “And Then” Exercise.
Step 1: Summarize in one paragraph the first 100 pages of your story. Include the inciting incident or whatever sets the story in motion; the protagonist’s relationship to that incident; what the protagonist has done (thus far) in reaction to the incident.
Step 2: Write a sentence describing what will start off the next big plot point of the story.
Step 3: Begin writing a series of “And then….” sentences to describe what will happen next. By that I mean, literally, write the words “And then.___________” and tell what the protagonist does or what action happens, step by step.
You can “and then” your way to the end of the book, or just to the end of the next act. The purpose of the “and then” is very simple. It will provide the next step for the story. And the step after that. And the step after that.
Here’s an example. (Spoiler alert!)
Step 1 (summary): A shy young woman works as a companion to a rich American woman. On vacation, she meets a wealthy Englishman named Maxim de Winter. After a whirlwind romance, she marries him—against the advice of her employer, who warns her that she can never replace Maxim’s ravishing first wife, the tragically killed Rebecca. When the bride arrives at her husband’s home, Manderley, the warning rings true. The new Mrs. de Winter is awkward and unsure. Her feelings are compounded by Manderley’s domineering housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who remains obsessively devoted to Rebecca. From the moment the de Winters arrive at Manderley, Mrs. Danvers undermines the new bride’s attempts to be a proper wife to Maxim and a confident mistress of Manderley.
Step 2 (upcoming action): Manderley hosts an annual costume ball that, this year, will also serve to introduce the new Mrs. de Winter to society.
Step 3: The “And Then” sentences:
And then Mrs. Danvers convinces Mrs. d-W to wear a ball gown that is a replica of one in a painting in the house.
And then, at the ball, Mrs. d-W is humiliated when she discovers that Rebecca wore the same dress to last year’s ball.
And then there is a storm that further disrupts the ball.
And then Mrs. Danvers manipulates Mrs. d-W into contemplating suicide by convincing her that Maxim regrets marrying her because he will always love Rebecca.
And then, because of the storm, Rebecca’s sunken boat and her body are discovered.
And then Maxim tells her that Rebecca was evil, vile and unfaithful and they hated one another.
And then he confesses that he shot Rebecca because she told him she was pregnant by her cousin.
And then the boat is raised and it is discovered that it was purposefully sunk.
And then there is an inquest.
And then Rebecca’s cousin tries to blackmail Maxim because he knows Maxim killed Rebecca.
And then the new Mrs. d-W tells Maxim she will love him despite what he has done or what the inquest finds.
And then Dr. Baker testifies that Rebecca was not pregnant but actually had cancer.
And then the inquest rules that Rebecca committed suicide, because she knew she was dying.
And then Maxim has a premonition about Manderley and insists on driving home through the night.
And then the de Winters arrive in time to see the estate destroyed, by fire, by Mrs. Danvers.
And then the de Winters leave England and are content in a quiet life together.
In this example, the “and then” system covers the major plot points only. You can get into as much, or little, detail as you wish. The purpose is to keep the forward motion of the story going by setting the basics down on paper. With the next few, or all, steps recorded, there’s no reason to sit on the 100 Page Wall and wonder, what do you do now? It’s right there in front of you.
So, write that 100 page summary. And then….