Ghost Heart Outlining

Before you get any farther, read THIS. Seriously, read it and be amazed at science and also because otherwise, unless you have previous experience with ghost hearts, what I’m saying will make less sense. It might still make sense, but depending on how successfully I convey what I mean… well…

How about we move on. After you check out the whole ghost heart phenomenon.

As I mentioned in my WUW post a few days ago, my method of outlining isn’t chapter-by-chapter, at least not before I actually start the book. I have to outline my stories completely, from beginning to end, but not on a deep level. In fact, outlining each chapter paralyzes me. It puts me under too much pressure when I barely know what’s happening in the first place. It’s like dropping me on a map and telling me to go when I don’t even know what my final destination is supposed to be. (I am not a fan of driving without directions.)

I, for one, would rather not resort to going in circles before making an informed decision. It’s just not how I roll. Drive. Travel. Whatever.

Instead, I build a ghost heart.

My method could be likened to the snowflake method, but with a lot less pressure to know exactly what’s going to happen. That is, it starts small and builds up and up until I have a one-page synopsis that I pieced together from my previous steps. The benefit for me is that I have a one-page synopsis when I’ve finished (albeit a bad one), and I also have a much better idea of my plot and my characters.

One of the things I find absolutely paralyzing about the beginning of the snowflake method is how much the method demands from the beginning. It’s hard enough to come up with an elevator pitch–that is, one to two sentences detailing your plot, ideal for snagging people’s attention on short notice–after you’ve already written the book. To do so before I’ve even started, before I’ve truly discovered my characters and plot, has never been something that I can accomplish in a way that I find satisfactory. The best way I’ve found to combat this is to *not* put the condense-your-whole-book-in-twenty-words pressure on myself. Instead, I figure out everything about the story instead of the entire story by itself.

My first step is 99% mental, 1% maybe writing things down if I don’t want to forget them. Here, I let myself percolate on plot points I think I know, letting them simmer until I have enough to tease out into an actual story.

Next, I figure out what I’m writing on the more technical level–Do I have a title? What’s my genre? What are my themes? How long might this be? (I usually have a pretty good gauge on how long my first drafts are going to be, so it’s useful for me to think about this because it tells me if I have a viable novel-length story with which to work.)

Then, I move into the specifics that I know. Who’s my protagonist? Antagonist? Secondary characters? Tertiary characters? And then I figure out what kind of people these characters are. What are their motivations? Why should the protagonist have the book told from his/her POV? The antagonist has to have a better reason for being MUAHAHAEVILLL than being mad. So what’s his/her deal? And who are all these other names, and why are they indispensable? Would they have a tendency to slow down the MC, or are they good catalysts to get the MC moving? (Both types are useful and necessary.) Are there too many pushers? Are there too many pullers?

After that, I figure out setting. For the book I’ve been working on outlining, I put a very vague description here and skipped it for a while, filling it in as I figured out more of the plot. Since the story I was outlining is set in a world I’ve worked with before, I didn’t need to put a ton here; however, for books in a totally new world, I’d put a paragraph or two about the magic system, what kind of people live in the world, any aspects of politics that I know, and other elements that tell me what my characters will be dealing with in the environment.

Then it gets fun. (Also more difficult.) Because now I’m at what I call the bare bones. On the surface level, it’s pretty simple because I only have to identify five aspects of my plot: The introduction, Disaster 1, Disaster 2, Disaster 3, and the Denouement. They’re all the parts that move the book from exposition, to Act 2, to Act 3, and to the end. If you’re not mentally in tune with your plot, this part can be really difficult. However, figuring out these plot elements at this point is important to me because it gives me scenes to move toward and away from. Whatever those disasters are, they have to be BIG; otherwise the book lacks a good balance of tension (not the case for every book, of course, but generally). So the only pressure I have is figuring out those BIG parts–which is easier to do than piecing together the lulls, because the disasters are often what gets me excited to write a story in the first place.

Once I get the bare bones, I tease out more of the story with the Save the Cat “beat sheet” by Blake Snyder, recommended to me by my lovely CP, Marika. You’ll be able to find plenty on the beat sheet if you do a quick Google search, but it’s basically a fill in the blank with these criteria:

  • Opening image (The first thing readers see, whether that be emotionally or visually)
  • Theme stated (What’s the theme?)
  • Setup (Backstory–but not too much!)
  • Catalyst (What changes things?)
  • Debate (Character faces a conflict and makes a choice)
  • Break into Act 2 (After the choice is made, there’s a big change)
  • B Story (Subplot)
  • Fun & games (“The promise of the premise,” the fun stuff)
  • Midpoint (Could be a false high or low; stakes are raised; things are not as they seem; the fun is over)
  • Bad guys close in (things getting worse)
  • All is lost (The opposite of the midpoint, but it is another apex, and motivates a change in direction)
  • Black moment (self explanatory)
  • Finale (The climax)
  • Final image (the opposite of the opening image)

Once I have all those pieces, I have all the parts of a synopsis. From there, it just comes down to putting together the different parts in a cohesive way, and I have an outline and synopsis.

And then I’m ready to start drafting.

Now, you’re probably wondering why I made you look at that ghost heart at the beginning. Well, it’s pretty simple, really–while I’m outlining, I’m putting together all of these pieces, all of the parts that get to the heart of the story. With my outline, I’ve constructed the ghost heart of my story. I have the structure, and everything is present to make the story work–all the veins, the motivations, the chambers. I have everything.

Except the blood. The life. Those comes with the actual drafting, and then my heart will be red and pumping.

Are you a plotter or a pantser? Have you used a beat sheet while outlining or during revision? Let me know, and tell me how you liked it!

Be sure to check back on Wednesday for my WUW post–I’ll be talking about LEGEND by Marie Lu!


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