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Friday, February 15, 2013

The Bare Bones: Outlining a Story

In previous posts, I talked about some of the methods I use to begin constructing my stories, including fleshing out specific settings and the form I use to create my character bios. So, on the same topic and moving up the complexity chain, I want to talk about the method I use to outline a story, particularly a novel.

Now, I know that outlining can sometimes be a controversial topic. Some people swear by outlines, others refuse to touch them, some suffer panic attacks just thinking about them. They don't work for everybody, that much is certain. But as for me, I find they're not only an essential part of my creative process, they also afford me a certain amount of focus as well as relaxation. What's more, if for some reason I'm unable to write for a significant amount of time, I don't have to come back to the project and wonder where in the world I was going with it. I can pick up my outline, spend ten minutes perusing it, and get back to work.

The reason outlines work for me is that I tend to be a structure person in the rest of my life, too. I like to have my day planned out (at least the big things), and I'm not a fan of surprises. When I take on a job or task, I plan it out. So it's no surprise that I carried this habit with me to writing. Furthermore, I've tried writing "by the seat of my pants" before. Not a single one of those projects have ever been finished. I usually end up writing myself into a corner that I can't get out of. So, I outline.

That said, my outline process is fairly loose. Here's how it works:

Once I've set up the character bios and I've determined the motivations for each character, I have a fairly good idea of where the plot needs to start, and where I want it to end. In other words, I know who the characters are, I know what the conflict is going to be, and I know what resolution I'm working toward. With that in mind, I start jotting down a series of "major events" and scenes, plotting out the basic arc of the main plot. I write these by hand on blank paper, simply because using a pencil and paper helps me focus and prevents me from getting distracted. It'll look something like this:

1.) MC comes home from work one day and realizes his best friend is missing. Finds signs of a struggle at her place and a mysterious note. He tries to contact the authorities, but somehow bad guys find out and now he's being hunted too.

2.) MC flees town, enlists help of a strange homeless person who shows signs of being more than he seems. Bad guys pursue.

3.) MC and friend are cornered, and engage in first gunfight. MC has to come to terms with using violence in self defense. Starts to question what his best friend was involved in to have such bad guys involved with her disappearance.

And it goes on. Sometimes I'm very brief with my bullet points, because I'm not really sure of what details I want to include. Other times, I'm very lengthy and specific, because I've imagined these scenes out in details. It's also a good idea to at least mention subplots as they begin, so that you don't forget to write them in as you go (as I've done a few times).

Sometimes, each bullet point represents a chapter. Sometimes two bullet points take up only one chapter together. Sometimes, one bullet point could be three or even four chapters. I don't get super specific here, because it allows me a great deal of flexibility while I'm actually writing the book. Anyone who has written for any amount of time will tell you that plans change, you come up with new ideas, you change your mind about things, and what you first thought up isn't necessarily what comes out on the page. I like to keep that in mind while writing my outlines, so that I'm not locked into just one path. I still have plenty of options.

Once I've completed this basic outline, I now have a good representation of the plot. No matter where I'm at in the actual writing, I can pick it up, glance over it, and I know where I need to go next. We're starting to see an actual story developing here. From there, I go into a much more detailed and specific outline. I take each chapter and break it down into five bullet points. All five of these things must happen in the chapter. The chapter is not over until they're complete. This requires a bit of planning. You don't want to try to cram too much into a chapter, or it'll be monstrously long. But nor do you want to include too little, or it'll only be a couple paragraphs long.

I've heard it said that you should make your chapters as long or short as they need to be for the story. I believe that's true--to a certain extent. Extremely long chapters can be daunting to readers, and can make it hard for them to pick up where they left off, especially if there's a lot going on. Lots of really short chapters can make a reader feel like they're getting whiplash, like things are happening so fast, they can't keep up with them. Therefore I try to keep my chapters more or less uniform in length, but there's still room for variation. My chapters tend to be around 2,000 words at the low end, and around 4,000 at the high end. Most fall closer to 3,000 words.

So, using the example of the above "rough outline," let's plot out the first chapter of this story.

1.) MC's had a long day, didn't get much accomplished at work, he's frustrated. He knows it's his best friend's birthday, but he's in a bad mood.

2.) MC decided to stop off at the bar for a quick drink. Ends up running into old buddies, spends a few hours there.

3.) MC finally stops by his best friend's house to wish her a happy birthday. Finds her front door kicked in.

4.) He makes a desperate search through her house, finds signs of struggle, blood, but can't find her.

5.) He's about to give up when he finds a note tucked under a book on the coffee table. It's addressed to him, in code. MC realizes it's up to him to find her.

And that's that. Resist the urge to get too detailed here. Obviously, you could stand to be a bit more detailed than this example, depending on how well fleshed-out you have the scene in your head. But don't get bogged down trying to come up with every single detail here. Remember, you want to leave yourself some flexibility, and above all, you want to get to the actual writing some day! I leave the final details for when I'm actually writing the manuscript.

I generally plot out two chapters in advance, using this method. That allows me room to keep writing if I'm on a roll. However, once I'm done with those two chapters, it forces me to go back to my rough overall outline, and make sure I'm still on track and not writing myself into a corner.

And there you have it, my sage advice on outlines. I'll stop now before I get too full of myself. Next time, what I've learned about making the time to write, the writing environment, and things that inspire me while I'm actually writing. If I can remember what I mean by all that the next time I try to make a post.

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