This Riot Isn’t in My Outline…

This is an 1857 wood engraving of the riot that I need to squish into the middle of my novel. The image is in the public domain.

My outline failed this week, halfway through my historical novel.

Until now I’ve been rowing along happily using my outline as the oars. I didn’t write down every scene, so there’s been a lot of invention along the way and some changes to the order of things. But each scene has led to another bullet point event on that hallowed outline. And I’ve stayed true to that unswerving vision. Until now.

I’m in the position of having to add another bullet point. And it’s a riot. Yes, really a riot, not the laughing kind. I recently watched “Gangs of New York.” Its historical inaccuracies have been pointed out in this National Geographic post, but the fact is that the riot in the opening scenes occurred when my protagonist Henri was nearby. Surely he would have been affected by it. Possibly hurt in it. Surely many modern-day readers, dropped into this place and time, would think of that movie and wonder about the absent rioting.

This new scene, of course, opens up all kinds of possibilities for Henri’s character development. And of course, I’m terrified. Whatever happens here affects the next few chapters, which have already been written, and might bounce me away from hitting another bullet point or two. Most importantly, the outcome of this street battle will affect how Henri sees his role in America, and how the other characters view him. But I’m putting my apprehension aside and working on this new scene. The advantages of adding it outweigh my fear.

Incidentally, while researching, I came across an invaluable resource for anyone writing about New York. The Bowery Boys offer free podcasts about the history of the city. They have a great archive of fascinating shows, and I’ve downloaded a bunch to enjoy during my upcoming writing retreat.

If you’re a plotter, do you often make major changes to your initial outline? Have you ever had to scrap part or all of your outline because your story moved in a different direction?

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
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7 Responses to This Riot Isn’t in My Outline…

  1. The one novel that I wrote with an outline pretty much followed it, except on some small details. However, for the last novel I wrote, I had the incredible experience of planning things for my characters and having them say, and emphatically, “No, we’re not doing that.” It was bizarre and amazing and slightly insane, but I loved it.

    I find anything unplanned that happens during the writing process to be exciting, and I’m glad you’ve stepped into this new addition to your plot wholeheartedly! Good luck :).

    • So interesting! Thanks for sharing your two different experiences. I love when characters rise up and do their own thing, and that’s one of the reasons I never wrote an outline until this novel. I wonder if, in doing this kind of revision of my outline (broadening the story), I’ll find the same kind of magic. I’m sure there will be some unplanned happenings in the second half of the draft, too, as in my initial outline, I just listed “Civil War” as the bridge between the middle and the end. I’ve since worked out some details and scene ideas, but it’ll be interesting to get to that part of the writing and see what actually happens on the page. And thanks! I’ll need some luck this week. I leave tomorrow for a writing retreat and hope to get a lot of work done.

  2. I’m a pretty strict plotter, but that’s prior to draft 1. After the first draft is finished, all bets are off. I delete entire chapters. I move stuff around, kill characters I’d planned to keep for book 2, and do whatever strikes my fancy 🙂

    Good luck.

    • Oh that’s fascinating, Kathryn! I wonder if I’ll start making major changes like that once I compile this first draft that’s mostly outline-oriented. Thanks for the window into your process!

  3. I don’t outline (well, not usually — I am outlining the chapter I’m writing now and the next two, just because there’s so much going on), so I don’t have the experience of characters getting out of control, simply because I never have any idea that they’re under control in the first place.

    Perfect example: I just got some feedback on my second chapter that my new main character, a 13-year-old girl, might not be sympathetic enough. She’s very guarded emotionally (she’s had a rough life), but the suggestion was that I needed to reveal a bit more of what she’s feeling.

    So, in the scene I’m working on now, I tried to delve in a bit and figure out what she was feeling. And I found out that she’d been thinking about killing another of the characters (a very nice character, but one who the girl regards as a possible threat to her new family). She decided not to do it, but mostly because she was sure she couldn’t get away with it.

    So much for making her more sympathetic.

    • Your characters are very willful, aren’t they, Anthony? Love your example! My current protagonist, Henri, is so agreeable. He listens to the people around him and trusts everyone (getting him into some serious trouble), so I wonder if that’s why he’s been so agreeable in following my outline. He has never pushed back or gone someplace new. Like Kathryn said, maybe he’ll assert more of a will in draft 2. That’s certainly a major part of his character arc–learning how to control his own life.

  4. Pingback: What I Learned at the Writing Retreat | Laura Stanfill

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