Changing Perspective: An Outlining Revelation

I experienced a “eureka!” moment recently in regards to outlining, and I’d love to share it with you:

My outlines tend to falter, especially towards the end of books, because I’m not approaching them from the right perspective.

Have you ever played a video game where you can tilt your user perspective? You can watch like a distant god, peering from up high across all creation, or come down to character level and move throughout the game as if you were walking the land yourself.

When I outline, I tend to be at sky-level. Like a puppeteer, I’m peering down into my stage and figuring out how to move my marionettes around. Or like a Chessmaster examining my board and calculating where each piece will end up. I’m very good at technical outlining; I love charts, and diagrams, and color coded maps.

But all that organization and plotting and calculating so frequently fails me. I get to a scene and realize I have no idea why my character would want to make the move I envisioned for them, and suddenly my whole plot falls apart.

Why is that?

The answer, I realized, is perspective. When I’m at sky-level, I’m more concerned with locations and plot points, and not so much with emotions and motivations. It’s only when I’m actually writing and interacting with my characters that I realize their motivations are often deeper than I anticipated, or their feelings naturally fall into conflict with my plans.

I don’t think it’s a case so much of characters being autonomous and uncontrollable. I think the fault lies with me for not actually considering how these people would act and react.

I need to be at dirt level when I’m planning, I realized. It’s fine to check the general shape of the story from up high every now and then, but to have an emotionally accurate plot I have to actually follow my characters around, rather than anticipate the direction I think they’ll want to go.

But still, it would be silly to write the whole book just to get an accurate outline. That’s why I prefer to do what I call ‘scene sketches.’ I start summarizing the scene and even write what characters will say to each other. For example: Harry complains to Ron that he doesn’t know what step to take. Ron is too preoccupied with his romantic endeavors and doesn’t respond coherently to Harry. Harry gets upset about this and storms out, telling Ron that if he’s not going to care about the fate of the free world, then Harry will just do everything himself!

It’s dialoguing without the actually dialogue. Although sometimes of course I’m so excited I break into actual dialogue right there, and then suddenly I have a real scene on my hands.

All of my thoughts tend to be very direction-oriented. Every word and concept has a seeming physical location. So my new motto over the nth revamp of the Nameless outline is to think at dirt-level, not sky-level.


On a personal note, I had a lovely, stress-free holiday season with my family. I read 90 books out of my goal of 75 for 2013, and my goal in 2014 is to read an even 100! If you don’t use it already, I highly recommend using the Goodreads Reading Challenge.

My beloved cat Kitten has been diagnosed with intestinal lymphoma, but chemotherapy for cats is nothing like chemo for humans, it turns out, and I’m pleased to report she’s actually more energetic and acting like her old self. We’ve embarked on what could be up to a 2-year journey of keeping her comfortable before she ultimately succumbs to cancer. I was devastated at first, but am invested in being a good caretaker and friend for her in her final days. In a weird way it’s nice to have the inevitable finally happen and have a plan to deal with it.

I have no goals this year other than hitting my reading goals, and supporting Chris while he finishes up his bachelor’s degree! However I’d love to hear about your goals if you care to share them in the comments below.

I hope we all have a wonderful 2014!

One thought on “Changing Perspective: An Outlining Revelation

  1. Caitlin Vanasse (@CaitlinVanasse) says:

    It’s good to hear you had such a stress-free holiday season and that Kitten is doing well! Also, yay for achieving 2013 reading goals and making new ones for 2014. I once again have made a slightly ridiculous reading goal and I also want to really shrink my TBR pile this year. Maybe I can get and keep it under 900? My other goals (which I’ve been hesitant to write down because then I’ll have to reach them) are to memorize Romans 8 and to blog at least once a month (which sounds so paltry but I try to make achievable goals and it does sound achievable.)

    Also I really appreciated this examination of perspective and I think it can be applied to other parts of our lives. For example I’ve been trying to look at what I want to do with my life from up high so long, to write a years long plan and make myself a path, but perhaps I need to be living it at dirt-level, not so focused on where I’m going for my career as I am focused on what direction I’m pointed in for the next few months or year. You provide wonderful insight as always, Savannah.

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