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Your Story Outline: What It's All About

by Rekha Ambardar

Enid Blyton, the phenomenally popular British children's author of the 1950s, produced 200 books. Yet she never worked from an outline. Characters invaded her imagination and she let them lead her in writing her story. Horrormeister Stephen King also kept up his prolific output without the help of an outline.

For most writers, though, outlines are the blueprint from which they write their stories. The practice of outlining a book before trying to write it is especially beneficial to beginning writers. First, it requires thinking the story through while eliminating a lot of wasted time chasing unworkable ideas. Second, it provides a blueprint to which the writer can refer while working on a story over the course of months or even years.

Use of an outline is not a popular practice because it is hard work. It isn't easy thinking a story through from start to finish. But writing 100 pages only to find that they don't lead anywhere and have to be discarded is a lot more discouraging. Moreover, outlining gives a writer a chance to add to the details of the book, and to decide how all those bits and pieces will fit into the big picture of the story.

"Plotting" and "outlining" are terms that are often used interchangeably. For our purposes, an outline is a summary of the basic plot of the novel that you'll write. An outline shouldn't be confused with a synopsis that you'd send to a publisher after finishing the novel.

Here are some outlining methods suggested by successful authors who have offered workshops both online and in the various chapter meetings of the Romance Writers of America (RWA). You can combine a few of these or use one or the other of them. Perhaps, you already have a method that works for you. If so, you could see how some of these compare with the ones you use.

"W" Folder

This is a simple low-tech method. All you need is an ordinary manila file folder, a pen or pencil, and your imagination to create a visual representation of your story.

Open up a file folder and write a large "W" over the entire folder -- one V on each side. Your story starts at the first leg of the "W". Your initial crisis is at the bottom. The top middle indicates the point where problems may be resolved. The bottom of the next V is the blackest moment. The story is completely resolved by the top of the last leg. Scenes and other notes can pencilled in along the legs of the "W". With this method you can insert information that is missing. The folder can then double up to hold your research and other information necessary to your story.

Spreadsheets

You can use your good old Excel program for a simple chart. If nothing else, a spreadsheet can hold vast amounts of information, so it beats pasting things on your wall. For example, columns can be used for each chapter for fifteen or twenty chapters, ad infinitum. Your rows could be your main characters and the minor characters that influence your plot. Or else your columns could be the chapters and the rows could be the pivotal scenes in each chapter. And you could add, delete, and move scenes around. As you start writing you could pinpoint exactly where a particular character appears in a given chapter without thumbing through hard copy to look up something.

Index Cards

Color-coded index cards are helpful in keeping track of whether or not your story has a balanced amount of goal, motivation, and conflict. The cards may be coded as follows:

  • Pink= Heroine's POV
  • Blue=Hero's POV
  • Purple= Goal
  • Yellow=Motivation
  • Green=Conflict

Put down scenes as they occur -- no details, just enough to know what it's about Write scenes in any order, keep adding cards and scenes till you can't think of anymore ideas. Now organize your cards and keep them in order. The scenes should move n a linear fashion -- Event A should occur before Event B. Decide what scenes are most exciting to the main storyline.

Add details at the back of the cards, such as Location, Time -- what day and time is a given scene taking place? Characters -- list all the characters who will appear in the scene. Main POV -- each scene shoud have only one POV character. Main POV character's goal in the scene -- what is this character trying to achieve?

Post-It Notes

Post-it notes can be smacked on a big chunk of bulletin board paper, and like index cards, post-it notes can be color-coded. Using a yardstick mark off columns on the bulletin board paper -- a column for each chapter. Jot down important scenes on colored post-it notes and move them around as you construct your story. Do you see too much of one color? Separate them and place them such that your story is in balance with the goal, motivation, and conflict of your main characters.

The Three-Act Structure

Writing mainstream fiction is a nebulous process. Although anything can happen in mainstream fiction, most stories and movies follow a three-act structure, and readers and viewers are conditioned to expect it. Genres are devised by customizing the three-act plot points to create a romance, thriller, fantasy, mystery or whatever.

Lisa Wingate, author of Tending Roses (Penguin Putnam NAL), discussed the merits of the three-act structure at a recent workshop. According to Wingate, this type of structure gives the writer a skeleton to hang the story on and to flesh it out.

The component parts of the three-act structure follow below.

Act 1 -- Setup and Explosive Incident

This is the opening scene showing the characters and where they live. In most cases the main character is spiritually bereft since there has been a loss of some kind. The Setup is short, only a few pages. In a movie, it's a few seconds.

The Explosive Incident blasts the plot into motion. In the Hallmark movie The Last Cowboy, Jacqueline "Jake" Cooper comes to her father's ranch to attend her grandfather's funeral after an absence of eight years. She's estranged from her father after her mother's death because he has been unable to get over his private sorrow of losing his wife, and thereby distances himself from his daughter.

Act 2 -- The Journey

This is the longest part of the book or movie. There is the least amount of spiritual work done here, but the story is taking shape. The character begins his journey in which he tries different ways of solving his problem. In The Last Cowboy the ranch is heavily mortgaged and in jeopardy. John tries ways of dealing with it, one of which is using his daughter's savings -- which only causes more problems between them.

The Maze

The character goes through a maze, he tries different passages that look promising but is blocked each time and is forced back to a lower starting point.

Midpoint Solution

Somewhere near the middle the character feels that he can solve his problem by cutting corners, by making spiritual and moral compromises.

Midpoint Crisis

There's a man-eating tiger in the maze. In the movie, lightning strikes the ranch and it catches fire. John decides to sell his cattle.

Culminating Crisis

A huge life or death question occurs here and the character has to confront and overcome his demons. In the movie, Amos, a dear family friend who has been trying to reunite father and daughter, has a heart attack, and John and Jake are set adrift, confused by everything that has happened.

Part 3 -- Highest Point and Resolution

The character and the reader/audience are suddenly lifted out of their hopelessness. There is an epiphany of sorts. The demons are defeated and scattered. Jake in The Last Cowboy has been busy behind the scenes. She has found a different bank which will finance a stable and she will breed racing horses. Her father still has fifty head of cattle and he can start all over again- being a cowboy is the only thing he's ever wanted to do.

This last plotting method helps the writer in thinking the story through by using movies as models -- movies rather than books are easier to analyze in that the main plot points are visual.

These are some solutions to the mystery that is outlining. Once you have the blueprint you can digress to your heart's content, and answer those "what if " questions, knowing that you have your story safely stored in a notebook or your computer, and that you can return to it anytime.

Related Articles:

The Outline Demystified, by Moira Allen
http://www.writing-world.com/basics/outline.shtml

To Outline or Not to Outline, by Timothy Hallinan
http://www.writing-world.com/fiction/outline2.shtml

Why Do I Need an Outline? by Cheryl Sloan Wray
http://www.writing-world.com/fiction/outline.shtml

Copyright © 2006 Rekha Ambardar
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Rekha Ambardar has been writing and publishing short fiction and nonfiction in print and electronic magazines for the last ten years. Her first novel, His Harbor Girl, was released in 2004 by Whiskey Creek Press, and another short contemporary romance novel, Maid to Order, was released in 2005 by Echelon Press. In February 2006, her short story, "A Lover's Serenade," was published in No Law Against Love, the first anthology in the Charity series from Highland Press. The publisher's proceeds for this release are slated for breast cancer research. Rekha teaches business classes at the International School of Business at Finlandia University in Hancock, MI. Visit her website at http://rekha.mmebj.com.

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