Outlining, A How-To

 

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Hello everyone! In a previous post, we discussed the overall process required to start and finish a plausible draft. There are many ways to get from point A to B, but it always helps to explore your options a bit. I’ve been writing for almost a quarter century now, and I’m still learning! I lurk the interwebs for inspiration, like anyone else. Sometimes, I’ll stare at my computer screen for hours on end, writing and deleting sentences like some manic coder. The point is, writing is never easy! Even best-selling authors struggle with their concepts and narrative from time-to-time. Don’t believe me? Check out your favorite author’s twitter feed. They suffer from the same doubts, nerves and fears we all do. Does my story flow? Are my ideas original? Does my prose make any sense? How can I make my characters likable? Where should my story go from here? This is what I lovingly (hatefully) dub the ‘story pit’. We’ve all been there, and we all know how hard it can be to climb back out.

If that paragraph stressed you out at all, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. No worries. Grab a notepad, a pen, a cup of coffee and pull up a chair. We’re gonna get through this together.

How do I personally combat the ‘story pit’? Outlining. It’s a necessary evil for me. The first thing I’m going to pitch to you, is the importance of list-making. Lists are life. They help you form cohesive, cogent plots from random ideas. More on this in a bit.

In ‘The Process’, I sketched out a few brief examples of where to get started, and how to organize your ideas so they might be translated into text. Essentially, every story starts somewhere. For some writers, it’s their main character they imagine first. Others, it’s the world they wish to create. Some even begin from the ending, and work their way backward through the plot to flesh out their scenarios. However your imagination works, the way you transcribe those ideas can be the difference between the ‘novel I want to write’ and the ‘novel I’m editing’. To get there, you must have a functional outline. Yes, it’s true that there are a lot of writers out there who can organize a stellar plot from the get-go. Bravo to them. For the sake of this article, we’ll pretend those mutants don’t exist.

1. Lists Are Life– If you thought I was joking here, you were wrong. Write EVERYTHING down! Keep a notepad in your pocket, your purse, your briefcase, beside your desk, on your calendar, next to your coffee maker, in the bathroom…well, maybe you don’t have to take it that far, but you feel me. If you’re not keeping track of your ideas, no one will. Keep that in mind. You have that random 3 a.m. spark of inspiration? A possible ending? The perfect antagonist? Love-interest? If you don’t record those thoughts, you will forget them (we’ve already agreed to ignore the inhuman writers with steel-trap memories, RIGHT? They don’t really exist…trallalalalala). For the sake of my argument here, the first list you should be making, is your core story. Your Theme (Main Idea). What do you want to say and how do you want to say it (Plot)?  Where is it being said (Setting)? Now make that list…make it! Make another one for the characters you imagine will be making these points for you. All those random thoughts you have had during the day, move them to your lists and leave them there. Add to them as more occur. If you can keep this up for a month, I guarantee you, you’ll have quite a lot of ideas to get started with. Lists work!

*If you work better on your computer and aren’t all old-school like me, here’s a website I’ve used before. Most Macs and PC’s come standard with ‘Notes’ and ‘Stickies software, but if you’d rather try a different format, click here: Download Stickies

2. Make Your Web– Now that you have all these notes, and your house looks like an obsessed detective’s office- what do you do with them? Remember when you were in seventh-grade English class, and your teacher drew a bunch of bubbles filled with random gibberish on the chalkboard? In the middle of that mess of bubbles and squiggly lines, ‘THEME’ was dead center. Well, your English teacher was on to something there. The Story Web doesn’t just work for studying, or discussing ‘The Scarlet Letter’; it can help your fiction too. As I mentioned in ‘The Process’, go to Michael’s or Target, and buy 3 extra-large, white poster-boards (or buy your own dry-erase board- whatever works for you); a pack of mechanical pencils/markers, and wall-safe tape. Now, gather all your notes; the stickies, the journal entries, the chicken-scratch napkins you lugged home from that cafe or bar. I think you can see where I’m going with this?

Handy Free Story Map PDF- Click to Download

Your Theme (Main Idea- what you want to say) goes dead-center in your first bubble, on your first poster-board. Draw lines above and below it, then two more bubbles/boxes. One should say ‘Plot/Setting’, and the other ‘Subplot/Conflict’. Draw another line…then another bubble, writing  Characters; ‘Protagonist’ on one side, ‘Antagonist’ on the other. See what I mean? Now your notes are coming together, aren’t they? Your story is taking shape…a weird shape, but a shape nonetheless. On your second  poster-board, draw a bubble labeled Setting– here is where you will add the backstory bubbles you need to flesh out the ideas discussed in your theme. When you’re done with both, hang them on the wall next to your workspace. You’ve just established Theme, Plot, Setting, Conflict, Characters and their agendas. In the second, Timeline and Context. Now go have a cup of coffee and admire your handiwork. You, my friend, have a story.

3. Know Your Ending– Here is where I’m going to get a bit controversial. I covered this in ‘The Process’, but I can’t stress it enough. Now that you know what you want to say, the world in which you want to say it, the characters who are going to say it for you, the conflicts and antagonists that will try to hamper those characters from achieving their goals, and the backstory you need to flesh out those characters and their world; YOU SHOULD KNOW EXACTLY WHERE YOU WANT TO END THAT STORY BEFORE YOU WRITE IT.  There are lots of authors who won’t agree with this, because they’re into zeitgeist, free-writing, poetry and chaos. Well, bully for them. They’re not wrong, per say, but I contend that most of them will not publish anytime in the near future. If they have, their work does not appeal to the majority of traditional-leaning readers (know your audience folks). While many of them offer great advice in lieu of flow, style and creative inspiration…what they do not offer, generally (I SAID generally!) … are cogent plot-lines. Now, before the pitchforks and torches come out, I’d like to say that I happen to enjoy the writing style myself. Sometimes it is very liberating. Stream of Consciousness can be an excellent cure for writer’s block. You’ll never hear me say it isn’t worthy. However, it’s not going to help you write a complicated plot…and it’s not going to help your story make sense to the average reader.

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STORY STRUCTURE is probably the second-most important item you’ll need to master, after organizing your plot. Every story has a Beginning, A Middle and an End. Even your chapters, should be organized this way. Why? Because it makes sense. Because it gives your story depth, credibility and flow. It keeps your readers engaged. Simply put, it is crucial to creating a constructive plot. There are many ways to go about this, but I’m here to offer mine, so here goes…

ThreeActStructureFlat

You have your notes. You have your Story Web. You know what you want to say. You know your characters, from your protagonist to your supporting cast. You have explored the world you’ve created, and given it and your characters a backstory. Now what? The ENDING, is what. Remember that third piece of poster-board I mentioned? Well, here’s what it’s for. Make three bubbles/boxes. In the first, write Beginning. In the second, write Middle and the third, write End. Fill the THIRD box in first.

I do things this way, because it’s easy to wander around your plot without a purpose, unless you know where you intend to take it. Your ending is the climax of your story. It’s where your world, your characters and their conflicts are all going to come to a head. It’s what your beginning and middle are leading to. Hence, you should really know where that journey is going to end, before you pack up and leave. You’ll spend more time trying to figure out where to get started, if you don’t have an end-goal already in mind. Once you know where you want to go, it’s much easier to plan the journey.

4. Chapter Log– Now your outline should be just about ready to go! You have all of your notes and supplementary materials written down. Your characters are starting to look like real people. Your world is cohesive and easy to understand. Your conflicts are well thought out and urgent. And most importantly, you know where you want to take your characters…and HOW you want them to travel. On that last bit of poster-board, where you’ve written down your Beginning, Middle and End. Draw lines descending from each. Consider each of your chapters, their own short stories. They too, should possess the basic story structure, which leads you to the next scene in your story.

Normally, I like to sketch out a brief idea of how many chapters I’d like to have in each section of my BME, so I have a better idea how long it’s going to take my characters to get drawn into each event. You don’t have to do things this way, but it helps. Like my free-writing brethren- I tend to ramble, if I haven’t set up some fool-proof checks. Prose is fantastic, when it has a direct purpose in your plot, but never mistake a beautiful description for plot- I’ll get into ‘purple’ writing in another post.

To put the Chapter Log to the test, write another brief Story Web; label it Chapter One. Where does the chapter begin? What happens to the character that draws them to a shocking, mysterious or intriguing conclusion? How does that relate to your ending? Repeat the process for Chapter Two, Three, and so on. Sometimes, it can help to divide your book into Parts, so you can visualize your own BME. If you’ve taken my advice and have pre-ordained the amount of chapters you’re going to include, by the end of this exercise, the story should be pretty much finished! All you need to do after this, is fill in the blanks. Get creative. Now is the time to invite your readers to see, hear, taste, touch and feel this world the way you want them to. SHOW them your world!

 

Outlining is a crucial part of the creative writing process. You don’t have to do things my way, but you will have to get organized one way or the other, if you intend to finish a book this century. I have personally tried to escape these time-consuming, admittedly tedious steps in about a hundred different ways. In my experience, NOTHING works as well. Without this process, my writing is a scatter-brained, unreadable mess. Or worse- I’ll just keep starting stories over and over again, and never finish them. If I don’t nail down every point in my story’s structure, I will wander aimlessly through various unrelated plots, give birth to random, unimportant characters that lead the plot nowhere, and change my mind a hundred times in every scene. If the story you have burning in your gut needs to be told; Make sure you DO IT JUSTICE.

I hope this article has helped you in some way, even if you don’t follow my advice to the letter! Please feel free to comment or message me to discuss your own process, ask questions or just to say hi! I’d love to hear from you!

Happy Writing, fellow writers!

-L.M. Riviere

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*Image Copyright: Alder Falls by L.M. Riviere.

 

 

 

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