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Between Straw and Stone: Writing from a Master List

Schools of writing tend to teach two ways to write a novel. One is to just sit in front of the page and write the story as it flows out of you, keeping it loose. The other is to construct a plot outline that tells you exactly what is going to happen at each step, guiding the writer chapter by chapter. Writers who use outlines find free-writing to be like a straw house, not enough structure or strength to make a clear story. People who free-write find the outline confining like a house built of stone, not allowing for inspiration or creativity.

Both methods can be problematic. It’s easy to get lost in a novel without a plan. When you hit the “swamp zone” – the middle of the novel where everything begins to bog down – the story can wander, creating a lack of resolution or direction.  It’s also easy for writers who use an outline to get bored or blocked trying to follow a step-by-step plan. Things seem to be happening by rote and the writing is flat.  Fortunately, there is a third option: write from a master list.

A master list indexes the major plot occurrences to guide the writer from the beginning to the end of a story highlighting the main events, but leaving plenty of space for asides, creativity, and flashbacks. It helps with writer’s block because it acts like a beacon. If you finish once section, the list shows you what has to happen next, so all you have to do is figure out how to get from C to D.

For example: here’s a Master List for Cinderella.

  1. Girl lives in cruel home, neglected, treated badly.
  2. Prince holds major dance.
  3. Girl helps sisters get ready, laments she can’t go.
  4. Fairy Godmother helps her go to ball.
  5. Girl and prince hit it off but she has to leave.
  6. Girl’s life worse than ever at home.
  7. Prince miraculously finds her and takes her away.

From that – a writer can add tons of creative scenes: a flashback about how the girl ended up in the home, a side story where the girl shows her goodness by making sure her sisters look beautiful, a political intrigue involving the prince and the ball. But – if you get to the middle and you aren’t sure what to write – you can say: “Okay, the godmother has her ready to go to the ball. The next big thing is that she and the prince hit it off. So – what happens between those? A scary carriage ride? Having to sneak in because she doesn’t have an invitation? A bug splatters against her slippers and she has to clean it off? She’s chair dancing and the prince notices her?” Knowing where the story is going helps writers be creative, but wind up on course.

A list is not as micromanaging as an outline, so if the plot starts changing the list can be changed. Let’s say after point 4 you decide some rebels storm the palace to kidnap the prince. So 5 becomes “castle is stormed, princess jumps into the caravan to be with prince,” and number 6 carries the list “Girl and prince hit it off.”

In writing, the best way to write is the way you write best. If you find your method is letting you down, give the Master list a try. There is always an option between straw and stone.

THE BOTTOM LINE:

  1. Each writer has a system that works for them. If you don't have one, try this. If you do, let it go.
  2. The best solutions are usually somewhere in the middle.
  3. One of the greatest moments in writing is when a story takes an unexpected turn and breaks out on its own. Follow it and see where it goes.