Tag Archives: outlining

Outlining in 10 Steps

I’ve always been able to hold the broadest of outlines in my head. I always knew what the story was, who the characters were, what the goal was, what would happen at the climax and how the book would end. I’d also write in-depth character backgrounds and then I’d put the story in their hands and the characters would tell me how to get to the climax and reach the story goal.

This method of sort-of-plotting and writing by the seat of my pants worked well enough writing fantasy stories. But I wondered what I’d do if I had to provide an outline for a novel or a series. I also wanted to write a mystery/crime novel. Mystery conventions include planting solid clues and red herrings, and developing a credible outline of events. Flying by the seat of my pants, wasn’t going to accomplish this. I had to learn how to outline.

After studying and reading about outlining for mysteries, I created a system which works for me no matter what genre I write in. It’s a mash-up of many bits of wisdom and has its own gaps. The first few points can be done in any order.

1) Know the story goal and the consequences of not meeting the story goal. Keep the stakes high. For example, Zex must steal back the magic cooking pot from the ogre because leprechauns are dying because the gold which sustains them.

2) Build the world. The world determines what your character can/can’t do and the rules which must be followed or broken.

3) Understand the genre requirements and the type of story you are telling. Is it a fantasy (elements of magic or the fantastic) which is told using the Hero’s Journey story arc? Is it a rags to riches, folk tale, thriller, revenge, forbidden love, or crime story? In a fantasy, you’ll need to know how the magic system works and the cost of using magic. In a mystery, you need to know the crime scene, the victim, the perpetrator, and those involved with the victim before you can outline.

4) Create character backgrounds because that will inform their motivations and will determine how they act and react.

5) Figure out your theme – you’re writing the story because you have something to say about the human condition. That something is what you are passionate about. Theme can be as simple as good versus evil or as complex as exploring how people deal with death. Once you’ve thought about the previously mentioned items in this list, take a moment to reflect on what the theme or point of your story is about. This is important because it affects how the story is outlined and written.

6) Assign each character a position or stance on the theme. Some will be for it. Some against. All to varying degrees. For example, let’s use the theme of the ends justify the means for our story with Zex the leprechaun. You must decide if he agrees, disagrees, or believes some variation (sometimes it is necessary) of this theme. All characters (or groups) should have differing views on the matter because that is a source for conflict and tension.

7) Note the beginning, the turning point, the climax, and the end of the story. These are the goal posts you are aiming for. If you are using the three, four or five act structures, or a story telling structure such as the Hero’s Journey, note the events which meet the key requirements for that structure. This should include genre story telling requirements.

8) Broadly fill in the gaps. For mystery, I chart everyone’s motivations and their relationships with the victim. I note the crime scene details then I plot the events leading to the crime scene, and where everyone was when the crime happened. I know who the perpetrator is and how that person will be caught. Then I plot the cat-and-mouse game of clues and red herrings. When writing fantasy, I employ a similar method because the protagonist’s journey is about a problem needing to be solved.

9) Fill in the details by creating scenes. If you’re a pantser, please don’t panic, this method I’m about to share still leaves lots of room for the imagination. I use this system to outline a few scenes at a time (not the entire novel). The broader outline (points 7 and 8) keeps me focussed on the theme while this one allows for tension, conflict, and action on the scene level. I call this the “And Then” method and I must credit author Mahrie G. Reid for showing it to me.

And then something happens. And the character feels ….

For example: And then Zex tripped over an invisible rope and fell into a trap. He panics over his silliness for watching the butterfly rather than focussing on the task. And then the ogre hovers on the rim of he pit, telling Zex that he will be cooked in the magic pot for the ogre’s dinner. Zex feels frightened. And then, Zex swallows his fright and forces himself to outsmart the ogre. He feels emboldened.

Or for a romantic fantasy: And then when Josh rips off his shirt, Kimberley sees the slash of the dragon’s claw across his back. At once, Kimberley feels her heart flutter and she feels faint at the sight of blood. And then Kimberley vomits and feels embarrassed.

10) Now, it’s time to write the story. I write the first few scenes, and then I go back and use the “And then…” method to plot out the next few scenes.

As you write the story, the outline will change. How things happen will change. That is normal and shows that the characters, the plot, and the conflicts are dynamic. Using some form of outlining has the benefit of faster writing, less major revision, and it will help you write the dreaded synopsis because the key elements of the story are determined.

 

Plotting by Character Arcs Instead of Outlines

Plotting. Plodding. There’s a reason those words look and sound similar. Sometimes, plotting a novel can take all the fun out of actually writing the thing. With every move and event preordained, what’s left to surprise the writer while writing?

If prewriting is getting you down, I offer you an alternative: prewriting by way of character arcs.

If prewriting isn’t getting you down and you’re hardcore geeking out over it, I still recommend these books by K.M. Weiland: Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel.

Character arc. What is it? Simply, it’s the journey the character takes in a story. Expanding further, there are three types of common character arcs, according to K.M. Weiland’s Creating Character Arcs: Positive (what we usually see in movies, books, and television, also known as the hero character arc), Flat (wherein the character does not change but has the wisdom of what is right throughout the entire story, an example being the main character’s teacher or mentor), and Negative (this could be an antagonist’s character arc, or a character arc in which the character destroys others and themselves as well).

Let’s say you’d like to write a Positive Character Arc for NaNoWriMo. What does that look like? Let’s go through K.M. Weiland’s Positive Character Arc structure.

  1. Exposition – The Lie Your Character Believes
    • Where does your character start the novel, internally speaking? Is everything perfect, utopian? Does everything suck? Does the character simply believe everything is perfect (aka the character is lying to themselves)? Set up a characteristic moment for your reader that displays your character’s…eh, character. Set them up in a fairly normal situation or normal day. And also, organize your character’s internal storm: what does the character want? Now, what does the character need?
  2. Exposition – Your Character’s Past
    • Weiland calls this the character’s ghost. What happened to your character to make them believe that they need what they want and ignore what they truly need? Why does the character need to change?
  3.  Act One
    • Set up your character’s life in this act. Make sure their motivation(s) is clear. What is he after? What does she want?
    • First Plot Point – something happens here that expands your character’s mind and vision. “The point of no return.”
  4. Act Two, Part One
    • Adventure! That’s what your character will be doing here. Fumbling around, trying to figure things out, and definitely failing.
  5. Midpoint
    • My favorite part in a story; the character’s realization. Maybe he’s in over his head. Maybe she realizes there’s a lot more than meets the eye. It’s the turning point not only in your story, but in your character’s thinking and possibly motivation.
  6. Act Two, Part Two
    • This is the part where your character starts taking control. What does your character need to do to take charge?
  7. The Third Plot Point
    • Your character’s low moment. What happened? Is morale down, did they lose something as big as a battle? The character can no longer evade the truth, they must look at it in the eye and accept it.
  8. Act Three
    • The ramp up before the climax! Intensity, speed! Thrusters on full! In one word, your character is: determined.
  9. Climax
    • Weiland describes the climax as the reason for the story. This is where your character realizes the truth was worth the heartache and pain along the way. The reason for the journey.
  10. The Resolution
    • Now you can show the character living the truth instead of living in the lie they first believed at the beginning of the journey.

Instead of writing your story around what happens, with this method, you’re writing your story around what your character does to push the plot. I personally find these stories more engaging than stories where events happen to the character. I like to see the main character in control, messing up, making amends, and patching things up on their own.

I’d like to take a final moment to remind you that there is no wrong or right way to pre-write. The way that works for you IS the best way, whether that means a big, juicy outline, a short outline, pages and pages of character arcs, or jumping right in. In the end, we all must eventually jump in and write.

Starting Over Again … Again

Ungrateful God, the second volume of Unwilling Souls, is with my copy editor as we speak. While I’m not quite ready to announce a release date yet, it’s time to start thinking about the next volume. Beginning a new book is an exciting time full of a blank page’s endless possibilities. That being said, I’ve never done the third book in a series before, but before Ungrateful God, I’d never done a second volume in a series before, either. So it’s worth reflecting on some of the lessons I’ve learned when writing sequels. After all, a lot of those blank-page possibilities will lead to a pretty crappy book.

Do a better job outlining: Ungrateful God will be released many months after I’d originally hoped it would. The main driver for this was the substantial content edits my editor handed back. These were very necessary edits from the standpoint that the book was not living up to its potential (it is now, big time!), but they were also very unnecessary from the standpoint that I could have avoided them if I’d done a better job outlining. So that’s the plan for Book 3, a thorough outline followed by a call to my editor to go over the book’s structure and remove any large weak points before I ever put a word down. I’ve already begun this process, and given that Book 3 will be even more complicated than Ungrateful God (itself more complicated than Unwilling Souls), I’m hopeful I can avoid some pain and suffering later by doing this work up front.

Decide what kind of story I’m telling: I don’t mean to imply I’ve got no idea where the story is going. I have rough notions of major plot points for each of the remaining books in the series. But I also don’t want this series to feel too formulaic. Each book, while both standing alone and telling a portion of a larger story, should feel different than the other books in the series (at least, that’s my desire, but every author’s mileage may vary). So while Unwilling Souls was a chase book with a mystery at its core, in Ungrateful God the pure mystery element is much more front and center, leading to an explosive ending. Similar stylistic decisions must be made before the outline for Book 3 can really resonate. I have a good idea what the answer is, but telling would be, well, telling.

Decide how long between books: I don’t mean the time it takes to write the books, though that’s important too (see below). In this case, I mean the in-world time between books. Ungrateful God begins more than a month after Unwilling Souls ends, so quite a lot has changed between the volumes, and the author has to convey that information to the reader in a way that neither confuses nor bores them. Time jumps are a good way to skip straight over stuff that would otherwise bog down the story into parts that are more interesting and relevant to the story at hand. But they aren’t appropriate for every book, and as it turns out, Book 3 will begin right where Ungrateful God leaves off.

Decide how long between books, the other way: Simply put, I wrote the bulk of the first draft of Ungrateful God too damn fast. I’d set myself (and my editor, more importantly) a deadline I was determined to meet, and I burned myself out getting there, another reason the draft needed so much work. I’m still learning the answer to this “how fast can I write consistently?” and I’ve given myself more time for Book 3. It will help avoid unrealistic deadlines and ensure I can turn in a more quality draft to my editor when the time comes. I’d like to be able to put out more than one book a year, but the reality is I work a full-time day job and I’d also like to, you know, see my loved ones on occasion.

Determine if the formula needs shaking up: Above I said I try not to be formulaic. But the truth is that if books in a series bore no resemblance to one another, they would make for a pretty poor series. I decided early on that in order to make the story as epic as I wanted it, I’d have to play around with the viewpoint format from book to book. In Unwilling Souls, Ses Lucani is the lone viewpoint character. In Ungrateful God, Ses remains the primary viewpoint character with the vast majority of chapters, but I add a second, minor viewpoint character as well. In Book 3, I plan to continue that trend, with a second minor POV (for three total), and so on. At the moment, that works for me as a way of expanding the stories I can tell. Harry Potter fans know that JK Rowling occasionally broke with a strictly Harry POV in later books to give us an idea of what was going on in the wider world. One extra POV per book is a nicely pleasing number to me, but I reserve the right to change my pattern should the needs of the story demand it.

All this pre-work is a new experience for me, a dedicated pantser of a writer. But after several attempts at this and taking honest note of the delays the style has cost me, I’m confident the increased productivity (and decreased wait time of my fans that will result) will be worth all that unpleasant change.

About the Author: Gregory D. Littleheadshot

Rocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (all right, during) classes. His first novel, Unwilling Souls, is available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through Amazon.com. His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens, A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology, and Dragon Writers: An Anthology. He lives in Virginia with his wife and their yellow lab.

You can reach him at his website (www.gregorydlittle.com), his Twitter handle (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.

 

Learning to Piece Together the Story Puzzle

I have found that there a few divides amongst writers more contentious than the arguments between discovery writers (pantsers) and outliners. I used to be firmly a member of the pantser camp. While I recognized that outlining had its benefits, I felt that planning with such excruciating detail would “ruin the fun” of creation. Plus, outlining was difficult and boring. The outline would only change as I got into the trenches and discovered something new and shiny, so what was the point? I had tried to outline a few times, I argued, and it hadn’t worked for me. It never would.

Fortunately, I had a few friends patient enough to take the time to convince me otherwise. Outlining isn’t a single, specific, regimented process, they argued, but rather a way of approaching a story deliberately. I would still create, discover the characters, the world, and the plot in the brainstorming section of the process. Then, the outline itself would be like writing an extremely condensed first draft. I would be able to edit it for major structural problems without the emotional baggage that came with hours and hours spent working on prose.

Once I had a coherent skeleton, I could write the first draft without worrying about writing my way into corners. My structural edits would already be done, and so I could focus my creative energies on producing powerful prose, vivid descriptions, and touching emotional moments. Not only would my first draft be better than what I had done before, it would also take less time to complete.

As for the “inefficiency” of prewriting, any time that I spent up front would be repaid twice over in the back end of the first draft. My manuscript would be leaner and free from most, if not all, structural problems. Additionally, outlines were guides, not shackles. Of course the outline would change as I wrote, but I would “discover deliberately” rather than wandering off into the weeds. I would be able to compare new ideas against a well thought out plot and be able to decide what was truly better for the story. Though it took a few years of conversations and cajoling, they eventually won me over.

Convinced, I decided that 2016 would be the year that I learned to outline. I struggled for a few months and grew disheartened. Outlining was proving to be as difficult, boring, and ineffective as I had feared it would be. I took my problems back to my writing group and we talked through numerous blocks. The issue, I eventually came to realize, was that I hadn’t learned the skills I would need to outline effectively. I knew how to work with character, with plot, with theme, and with milieu. I had all the pieces, but didn’t know how to put the puzzle together.

Again, I was lucky in that I wasn’t alone in my struggles. Of the three members in my group, two of us were discovery writers who were trying to make the transition. After some discussion, we decided to act as a group to resolve the problem. We enrolled in one of David Farland’s online classes, The Story Puzzle. Over the course of 16 weeks, the Story Doctor walked us through his process and theories, answered our questions via email and the biweekly conference calls, and provided valuable feedback on the writing assignments we submitted to him.

It was hard and frustrating at first, but eventually I found the joy that has always driven me to write. I was still discovering and creating, but by doing so deliberately I was finding more than I had expected. My story improved with each passing week and I began feeling the itch, the need to dive in and write prose. I resisted and kept working Dave’s process. By the end of the class, I had all the pieces that I needed and some good guidance on how to put them together into a functional outline. I was in no way ready to begin writing the first draft, but I knew how to get there.

Time passed as I continued to work on my outline. I built my world, wrote down scraps of description and dialog, and found ways to heighten my story and characters on every level. On the first day of each month, I surveyed my progress and decided if I was ready to start prose. Month after month, I judged that I was close, but not quite there. It wasn’t that I was stalling, like I had in the past when my project seemed intimidating. Rather, I had a task list that I needed to finish.

Then came the first day of another month. November first. NaNoWriMo had just begun. I looked over all of my prewriting and decided that, yes, I was ready. I dove into the prose and emerged thirty days later with my first ever NaNo victory. The story wasn’t done, in fact I had quite a ways yet to go. Rather, I had proved to myself that with a good outline to guide me, I could out-write my old pace by a fairly significant margin. Most importantly, I knew that I could do it again. And again. It was the sort of skill that I could develop into a career.