For a stocking stuffer this Christmas past, I received a copy of Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, the book about writing that everyone knows from the oft-cited section about excremental first drafts.
I write those. But what I'd never heard before is the chapter on plot treatments. What is a plot treatment? Well, it's not when you visit the graveyard and freshen up the greenery. Rather, it's something to do with the process of writing. Lamott entwines her definition with a story about revision, where the plot she wrote did not match the story in her head that she loved. So she revised and failed, and revised and failed.
In an impassioned harangue to her editor, she got her mind out of the way and poured out the story, the characters and the plot. He loved it. So she ran away and wrote a plot treatment. It's not an outline, which is how you tell a story to a computer. It's not a stack of note cards. A plot treatment has more in common with Cliff Notes than anything else.
You write down the action, the relationships, the things that make you love the character, the salient details of setting, the phrases that you can't shake.
AND KEEP MOVING.
I believe Lamott's figures were close to a 40 page plot treatment for a 300 page novel. So, thicker than those yellow books you clung to in HS and college (and grad school, yes, I've seen you get them through the library's interlibrary loan program).
Why do I like this better than I, II, III, a, b, c? That linear stuff has never made sense to the writing part of my brain. Maybe it's because I'm from a family that is horrible at telling joke, that cracks up before the punchline or leaves out the fact that Mr. Jones didn't own a dog. But this, this is a narrative process.
And I'm much less likely to walk away from a story than I am to abandon an outline regardless of whether the dog is in the right place or not.