A Flight Of Outline

A fan of mine, and someone who is one of my favorite people online, recently asked me how to outline a story. I don’t know if this was a short story or a novel. The outlines are vastly different. However, I thought I’d give him a quick overview of my process. You non-writers hum along with the tune or something. (Actually I think it would be fascinating as a reader to know how a writer one likes plots/outlines. I know it fascinated me to find out Terry Pratchett can reach the end of a novel with no clue what the closure incident will be.)

A few things to keep in mind before we start – think of this as our pre-flight announcements.

1) Everyone’s process varies. Kevin J. Anderson would no more reach the climatic incident of his novel with no idea what it would be than he would set his hair on fire. Clearly HIS process works for him, and Pratchett’s works for Pratchett. If your process is completely different from mine, it probably just means you’re not Sarah Hoyt. This is a good thing, now I think about it. The world is rather overfull with Sarah Hoyt most of the time.

2) A working outline is different from a proposal. Both are different from a synopsis. And both are yet again different from a concept. A proposal is made to read pleasantly and slanted for the house you’re sending it too. It is written in the present tense. It must start with some sort of hook paragraph, and you must have sort of a general road map before you go into what happens. Say, the proposal for DST should start with “It is the 25th century.” That level sets the editor reading it. A synopsis is sort of the same as a proposal, but often sketchier, more condensed for shorter attention spans. (At least that’s what I call it. This term is not absolutely nailed down. Some people call a synopsis + 3 chapters a proposal.) A concept (And so far I’ve sold three books on concept) is something much shorter, often no more than a paragraph. Say “Urban Fantasy in Space with tough girl and gene-modified man with a hard past.”

3 – For the purposes of this post, I’m talking about a working outline: a road map to your story, which you create to help you figure out where you’re going. Kevin J. Anderson says to think of it as looking up the road ahead in a map. It doesn’t mean you won’t stop at lookout point or take a picture of the pretty wild flowers. It just means you’ll have some idea where to turn and which exit number you’re aiming for.

4 – I won’t simply post one of my working outlines because a) they’re usually written long hand – that, editing and trying to find a voice are the only things I still do long hand. b) they would make no sense whatsoever to anyone else, not even my nearest and dearest. I will forever cherish the image of my husband having stumbled on the working outline for one of my unpublished novels while I was writing it, saying in a totally puzzled voice, “Allyra is a banana tree – WHAT THE HECK DO YOU MEAN?”

Now, ladies and gentlemen, tighten your seatbelts, and bring your seat to its full upright position. We are in line for take off.

So, where do we start? That is often the big stopping point. Unfortunately, I can’t help you with it. Where you start depends on who you are, and the little snag is that I’m not you. (Yes, I know, it vexes me immensely, too.)

It all depends on how ideas come to you. For most men, they seem to come as story. As in “I have this story about this guy who steals a spaceship, and then the space police is after him and…” For most women, it seems to come as character. As in “There’s this guy, and he’s really desperate. He’s lost his job and his woman and… He has to do something. So, he steals a spaceship–” Your mileage may and will vary, but I found this held startlingly true for middle schoolers when I acted as advisor a young writers’ club.

Both of those beginnings will carry you through the first chapter. The slant will be slightly different, but they will get you there, and perhaps part of the second. And then your grind to a halt. You’ve run out of the spark that motivated the story. Now what?

(I’ll note often when I get ideas I write down the first chapter and a half to get them to leave me alone. Unfortunately they’ve gotten really cunning and now make me write an outline, too. Yes, I have an ongoing fight with ideas. Yes, they seem like foreign entities. Yes, it is entirely possible I’m insane, why else would I be a writer?)

Now you sit down and think about it. Unfold that map.

There are two ways of maping the story depending on how you got it.

If you got the character, figure out how you want him to change. Then figure out what incidents will be needed to make him change. Backwards. I.e. figure out who you want him to be at the end of the book, and then figure out how he sees the error of his ways.

For instance, take our scrappy spaceship thief. First we need some background for him. Let’s say he is the son of a wealthy man who ran away to establish himself in this casino planet. (What, I was in Reno last week?) His father has found him, got him fired, got some big wheeler to seduce the girlfriend for whom Scrap McThief was doing everything. He has no money, and he must do something.

At the end of the book, say, you want him to have found true love (not that tramp he was hanging out with in the beginning) and have discovered that his father only did what he did out of concern. Also, he’s figured out he’s a lot like his father and ready to assume his position at McThief’s inc.

Okay. So, to get there… Scrap needs to start off trying to find his girlfriend, but things need to happen along the way to make him change. Um… why is he the way he is? Well, let’s say (a lot of this is arbitrary but since you want him to grow into responsibility it makes sense to start out at the other end) that Scrap has been raised by his indulgent father to not have a sense of responsibility. So, being responsible for himself would be an odd experience. Being responsible for someone else…

So, when Scrap steals his spaceship, and while he’s on the run, he comes across a young girl, stranded on an asteroid.

Okay, from here on I can’t get more detailed without writing the whole d*mn outline and making this ten pages. So, you take it from there. What incidents does he need to learn what he needs to learn to get to the end? Keep in mind that all the time he’s chasing his lost love, and being chased by intergalactic police.

What is the culminating incident where he has the dark night of the soul and has to change? Once you have those in place, writing the book is a matter of going finer-grained on events.

You’ve reached cruising altitude. Now go!

Now say you start from plot. You know that Scrap McThief will be on the run from the police the whole book, or just about. And that he’ll be chasing his wayward girlfriend. You know in the end he is in a position where the police can’t touch him and his girlfriend is punished. But all you have in the middle is this hazzy feeling of a loooooooooooong car chase in space. And you have the sneaky (and correct) suspicion that the reader will get bored.

(Understand I’m gaming the system here to get more or less the same plot. Yes, these two could end up as completely different stories. But it’s easier for me if they don’t.)

All right, then, Scrap-boy needs to up his jeopardy. There’s this girl abandoned in an asteroid, and she’s running away from something terrible. He has to take her up, but he has no idea exactly what she is, or what taking her up will mean. And it’s clear there’s another set of bad guys after her as there are after him.

What type of incidents would make this interesting? Well, as they land in a world, she seems to have connections. She acts in unpredictable ways. She puts them in danger, until the time she saves his *ss. He can’t drop her now, but she seems to put them in yet more danger. And all the time they’re chasing the tramp.

It ends up in a confrontation in McThief’s headquarters and the girl, in addition to the eventual true love, is a police spy/mole who got figured out by the bad guys in the casino, who are chasing her and who find that… Anyway, in the end, she justifies McThief to the police, speaks highly of him to his father, and voila!

You too have reached cruising altitude. Now it’s all a matter of finer-graining and going chapter by chapter.

If you get the sense using both approaches would make for a better story, you are indeed correct. It’s something I’m only slowly learning. (How slowly? Well, outlines from ten years ago seem really bad. From five years ago they merely seem insipid. I’m sure in ten years today’s will seem horrible.)

Anyway, I hope this answered at least some of your questions about outlining. Thank you for flying Crazy Writer Airlines, and I hope you think of us for all your future story needs.

8 thoughts on “A Flight Of Outline

  1. I used the computer program you recommended a few years ago. I got good mileage out of that but eventually decided it was more fun to just wing it with my plots.
    BTW, I just sent my first two chapters via email, currently all I have polished enough to show,, to my “Lady Friend.” She responded by saying some very nice things. But, I notice she did not beg me to finish the rest of the story so she could read it. On the other hand, she lives in a high rise, she obviously didn’t get so disgusted that she threw her computer out the window. GRIN.
    In the end that places my story quality at just about the level I suspected it was at. I suspect I still have a ways to go before I challenge you but rapidly approaching the point where I need to put my story in front of a professional editor for consideration for real money.

  2. Ron, some readers don’t seem to want to say, “I really want to know what happens next” to those of us who haven’t broken through yet. (Fortunately, some do.) So don’t let that reason alone throw you, or stop you from writing, or doing whatever you can toward finishing your own stories.

    My late husband was one of the best editors I’ve ever known. He was not one to give “undue praise.” But he also would tell me when he thought I’d done something _exactly_ right, or made just the right point — or when I’d fixed the dialogue or whatever it was that he’d not liked the first time around. I knew without him saying anything that he wanted to know what was going to happen next because we talked “story” all the time, and he was my willing first-reader, editor and (obviously) confidante.

    One of the problems I have in particular with continuing forward is that my writing progress and process is so much slower with my beloved husband dead. But I refuse to let that stop me; all I can do is whatever I’m able to accomplish in a day, and if that’s editing something to get it out the door (something I try to spend at least one day a week doing for a few hours), then that’s what I can do.

    Anyway, this is a very long-winded way to say that I hope you will persevere and that you will appreciate that perhaps your lady friend didn’t know what to say — my sister reads my work and sometimes _she’s_ told me she doesn’t know what to say (I ask her mostly if it makes her laugh, as 90% of what I write should do that; if it does, I count it as a plus. I don’t look for detailed first-reading out of my sister even though she’s capable of it when she’s not stressed for time.) — and that as you get to know her better, and she, you, perhaps some of that will go away.

    Hoping this helps . . . Barb

  3. Apropos of nothing, when I looked at this post on the main page it said there were four comments. I click on that and I find here three comments (4 now I suppose with mine). Weird.

    “There are _four_ lights.” 😉

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