Who doesn’t love a sprawling, epic narrative? Well, anyone who’s written one, tried to write one, or even started outlining one. Even a novella with a single character can spiral out of control. Stray thoughts creep in, scenes go awry, and suddenly you aren’t writing what you meant to, and you have no idea what’s going on. We’ve all been there, and we can all get back on track with the right approach.
Outline Your Full Novel
Some of us love outlining and some of us would rather visit a dentist every day for a week than engage in step-by-step prewriting. If you struggle to stay on target as you write, however, outlining may be a necessary evil, whether you like it or not. The point of an outline isn’t necessarily to tell your story before you’ve written it, but to remind you of all the awesome ideas you’ve had up to this point.
Things can and will change as you write. That’s fine. An outline just helps you remember you’re writing a war story and not a romance when you’re tempted to let your characters retire to a peaceful farm halfway through the narrative.
Write Endings First
If you know where you’re going, it’s much easier to reach your destination. Many writers give up on drafts halfway through because they start with great characters and an inciting incident, but they have nowhere to go. So, they whip off five or six chapters and then sit there, staring into the void, wondering why they started this trip in the first place.
Writing the ending to a story arc, scene, or even entire novel at the beginning of the process helps keep you focused on your destination. Just like an outline, pre-written endings may get adjusted as the story develops, but that’s okay. You still have a star to follow.
Determine the Relevance of Each Scene
Every scene needs to do something. Some writers instinctively follow their line of thought through the current of details and subplots trying to sweep them away as they go, but some of us need a lifeline to get from Point A to Point B. If you’re struggling to write a scene, or you find yourself burdened with several thousand words of fluff, stop and determine the purpose of your scene. What does it do? What does it set up? Would the story lose something without this moment?
Outline with Character Motivations
When in doubt, always turn to your characters. Even an outline or purpose statement may feel too vague when the pressure is on and writer’s block looms. Characters should always know what they want. Even if they don’t know what they want, you, as their creator, should be able to figure it out. Maybe their quest IS to find what they really want. Who knows? You will. Then you can guide the scene accordingly.
Map out each character’s motives in a scene. If you have even a general ending in mind, you can see how the scene functions in the overall plot. Is it helping your main character, setting up hidden traps, revealing a moment of tension between differing goals?
Find Your Theme Before Revision
Redrafting is rarely fun, and it always feels like it takes forever. Knowing what you want to bring out in your draft will shorten that eternity. Before you add or delete a single word, sit back and think about what your story says. Give it a quick read to see how it flows on the page. What are the themes? What scenes play into each other? Where are the loose threads, and what are your characters’ final motivations? Once you know what you have, it’s easier to trim and rewrite.
You are going to get distracted, and some scenes will always run away from you. These tricks will help you rein in loose ideas and improve your focus. The ultimate writing tool, however, will always be practice. The more you use your writing tricks, the more readily they’ll serve you.