Behold the Inside Outline

With Susanne Dunlap

 “Art is fire plus algebra.” –Jorge Luis Borges

The fire in Borges’s quote is the emotional content, the passion of creativity that makes it possible for a writer to get in the “zone” and let the words flow, spending hours, days, weeks, years crafting a book.

The Algebra is the structural underpinnings, the shape of your story and the details of the plot. The framework that the fire brings to life.

Some writers love the fire part, and are happy just sitting down and letting the words flow and seeing where the story goes and how the characters react to it. These are the ‘pantsers,’ who like to create by the seat of their pants, so to speak. Pantsers are likely to find themselves with a big, messy first draft, full of raw material but not hanging together and requiring a complete rewrite or even rethink.

Other writers want to figure out the structure first, to outline and plan everything before they write a single word. They are the ‘plotters.’ These writers tend to create tightly plotted books that go from scene to scene logically and lead to a satisfying ending, but sometimes miss the necessary emotional depth to fully engage the reader.

A lucky few can hold it all in mind at the same time, keep the structure solid and let the magic flow.

For the rest of us, there’s the Inside Outline.

I can hear the pantsers all the way from my enforced isolation saying, “Outline! Nooooo!” And the plotters are shaking their heads and saying, “I don’t need another way to outline. Mine works fine.”

But the Inside Outline is different. It’s a way of seeing all the layers of your book at the same time and being able to track how they work together—in a single living document. It melds your plot with your character arcs, revealing whether each scene not only advances the plot, but makes your point and reveals important things about your characters. You can create an Inside Outline no matter what stage you’re at in your project: the very beginning, stuck in the middle, or facing a complete first draft that you know needs work but can’t figure out exactly where.

The Inside Outline is, frankly, a revelation. Still have your doubts?

Listen up, pantsers: Your Inside Outline is not etched in stone. You can still write with that fire in your belly, and your characters may still surprise you and veer away from where you thought you were going. And then you simply adjust your inside outline to reflect those changes and ensure that your structure doesn’t fall apart.

Don’t panic, plotters: You can start with your carefully constructed outline and just add the other elements of character arc and point. This will reveal where you have scenes that advance the plot but don’t relate to your main character’s arc of change or emotional journey—or vice versa.

I can’t wait to introduce writers to this incredibly useful tool in my half-day online workshop. The Inside Outline is a great way to refresh your perspective on your current project, or get a handle on something you’ve been thinking about writing and haven’t yet started. It’s ideal for both beginners and experienced writers. So join me online on Saturday, April 18 from 9:30-12:30!

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