In which I grok phase outlining

(So, I wrote that whole post about voting before I left, and then got back home and realized I forgot to hit publish. Duh, Claire. Anyway, I’m back, lines were very short, but I did write 262 words, most of which was at the Starbucks afterwards, enjoying my free coffee. Free coffee! Just for voting! I really do love this country.)

Okay, so onto phase outlines, and how I finally figured out how to make them work for me. The concept of a phase outline is described in this article by Lazette Gifford, and I discovered it a couple of NaNoWriMos ago. And from the first time I read it, I was intrigued, but I didn’t quite grok how to make it work for me. (An aside: I love the word “grok“) 

Here’s how I just made sense of it.

A phase outline, as I understand it, has a couple of different elements to it. First, it breaks scenes down into “phases,” each phase coving anywhere from 100-500 words of the finished scene. Then, for each phase, you write a sort of detailed description, covering the highlights of what’s going on. Lazette gives a few different examples in the article, but the one that has always made the most sense to me is phase number 197, which is an exchange of dialogue. (Dialogue is the element in writing that’s most intuitive for me, for reasons I’ll explain later, so that may very well be why.)

To quote from the article, the phase reads (In part) “ Wounded!  Not bad.  Bad enough to put you down!  ”

The finished text for that phase reads 

“You’re wounded!” 

He had not seen his mother worried like that before.  She tossed the bow aside and dropped to her knees, her face pale in the torchlight the others had brought to the open door. 

“It’s not that bad,” Lehan insisted, though his voice slurred a little more than he would have liked just then.  He didn’t want to be weak in view of the townspeople.  He had never trusted them much. 

“It’s bad enough to put you down,” she said, shaking her head and gently pulling at the bloody cloth at his shoulder. 

So you can see that the text in the phase is pretty much the dialogue in the scene without any tags.

The first time I read this article, I sort of got how phases translated into the text, but I didn’t get how exactly one created the phases in the first place. I keep going back to the phase outline every time I write, because it seems like a useful tool, but I couldn’t make it work for me. 

Now, to go off in what may seem like a different direction for just a moment. I’ve heard some writers describing their writing process as being like watching a movie unfold in their mind’s eye, but that’s not exactly the case for me. For me, it’s like being read a story out loud–I see occasional images, but I think the words, including things like dialogue tags. (I think in dialogue tags all the time. It’s sort of strange.) 

This NaNoWriMo has been a surprisingly easy one for me so far. In part it’s because I prepared very well for it in October, but I’ve also been doing something that’s really helping. I’ve been telling myself the story of a scene before I write it. 

When you tell a story, such as about something strange that happened during your day, it’s very different than writing one. You cut out a lot of things, use shorthand for things your audience will understand. You don’t use much description, or verbatim dialogue really, unless it’s something that particularly sticks in your mind.

I think this will make more sense with an example. Here’s the 262 words I just wrote:


Dexter thought about what Mrs. Wright said all day. As six o’clock rolled around, she had made up her mind, and she called Luke at work before she’d even left the building.

Hello,” he answered. His voice was rich and warm, and Dexter smiled into the phone.

“Hey handsome,” she said.

“Dexter,” he said, sounding surprised.

She laughed. ” Who’d you expect, the Pope?” she teased. “So I just wanted you to know, I’m planning a surprise tonight. Something special. So don’t go out and get dinner before coming home, okay?”

“Tonight? Will there be cooking involved?”

“On the stove and everything,” Dexter promised.

“In that case, I think I might grab dinner ahead of time after all,” Luke said, a hint of laughter in his voice.

“You jerk,” Dexter cried. But she was grinning, and she knew she must look very silly. “So I’ll see you at seven-thirty, then?”

“Well, actually, there’s this thing… A late meeting. It just came up.”

“Oh,” Dexter said.

Luke must have heard the disappointment in her voice. “But you know what,” he said. “I’ll keep it short. Be home by eight or so.”

“Oh, perfect,” Dexter said. “That’ll give me a little extra time to get ready.”

“Exactly,” Luke said. “And as a side benefit, it minimizes the chances that I’ll be around for the inevitable explosion.”

“Remind me why I love you again,” Dexter asked in mock exasperation.

“I’m pretty sure it has to do with my brilliant wit and dashing good looks,” Luke suggested.


“Sure, you keep telling yourself that,” Dexter said.

Here’s the story I told myself about this scene before I began writing. “Dexter has been thinking about Mrs. Wright all day long, so she decides she’s going to say yes to Luke tonight, and plans a big dinner to celebrate. When she calls him, he’s surprised to hear from her, and seems pleased by her hints about this big thing she has planned, but has this meeting with the woman he’s been sleeping with (yeah… uh, spoiler alert). But he decides that he’s going to tell his mistress no, and spend the evening with Dexter instead.” 

Okay, so that’s about, what 80 words, to the 262 words in the snippet? It’s longer than it would be if I wanted to turn it into a phase in a phase outline, because it’s got a lot of extraneous information in it–easier to tell a story than to write one like that. But it did what I needed it to, telling me what I needed to write that scene easily and quickly, rather than taking forever to get to the point. And you’ll notice that a lot of the information in the story I told myself is hidden in the snippet–alluded to, but not yet stated. 

Another example is a snippet I posted earlier, when Luke proposed, specifically, the actual proposal. The bit of the story I told myself about that scene went like this: “When he pulls out the box, Dexter realizes what’s going on, and is horrified. “You’re proposing to me in your parents house?” His parents could announce it at the party. “Your parents hate me.” “They don’t hate you.” “Your mother hates me.”” 

The point that I’m trying to make here, in a very roundabout way, is that when I thought about a phase outline in that sense–abbreviated storytelling–it makes a lot of sense to me. I can sort of see taking the time to write out an outline for an entire story that way. Not now, of course, now that November’s already started, but maybe next October, when I’m sitting around with nothing to do…

ETA: By the way, Holly Lisle is running a special in her e-book store to help Lazette Gifford out in making necessary  repairs to her house this winter. Zette runs Forward Motion, and edits the Holly Lisle Vision zine, which has great articles on writing, including this on. There are some great books available through this special, and 100% of amount you pay goes directly to Zette herself. Please check it out, and see if there’s anything there that strikes your fancy.


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