Thursday, April 8, 2010
OUTLINING A STORY
Anyone on this blog whom I’ve taught will recognize the following. It’s always the first lesson I give in both online and “on-ground” creative writing classes. I decided to post this because recently, on another forum, I’ve been seeing a lot of conversations based on outlining. What I’ve observed from their remarks is that the great majority have only experienced one kind of outline—that old composition thing with the Roman numerals that go on for pages… What I’m going to show here is a very different kind of outline. One that makes sense. Is infinitely simpler and actually works.
Let’s cover some history first…
Like a lot of writers, I wasted a lot of time in my writing career simply because I ignored what is probably the biggest "secret" in creating short stories and novels. I didn't outline.
Outlines were a particular type of hell English teachers visited upon you - those horrid things with Roman numerals and topics and subtopics and all that junk. Yuch! Outlining took all the fun out of reading a book.
I also read interviews with writers who said they never outlined. It would destroy their "creativity" many claimed. The way to write a story was to create a character, start them out in trouble and kind of follow them around as they had neat adventures. What it took years to realize was that my characters had great adventures and it was kind of fun following them around...until somewhere between pages eight and twenty when they would peter out. I had a drawerful of some of the best starts of stories you ever saw. Problem was, they never went anywhere. And most of them never came close to an ending. Oh, a few did, the really short ones. There were even one or two that came to a respectable length...after rewriting them twenty times.
What I didn't realize for the longest time was that writing involves the processing and integration of large blocks of trivial bits of information. As the length of my stories grew, so did the complexity. All of a sudden, I was on page thirteen and I suddenly remembered I couldn't have my character chase the bad guy...because on page two I'd given him bronchia asthma. I had to go back and "cure" him. What I didn't realize was something pretty obvious. A story, like the life it represents, is basically complex. Stories aren't built like a line of dominoes, it more resembles a web, and when you tug a bit harder on one of its many strands, the whole business vibrates. And changes shape. Not only did I have to remember the many details and their connections, I had to keep them in a logical order. Virtually impossible.
I even managed to write several books in this manner. Looking back on those days I cringe. What an awful lot of energy I needlessly wasted!
Here was my typical process. I bet at least some of you have gone through the same procedure. I'd get a great idea, so great that I'd have to drop the baby if I was holding him, and fly to my typewriter. (Remember - this was in the days of yore when they had those ancient artifacts...) As fast as my fingers could fly, I'd write. A hundred words would accumulate. Then, two hundred. Then...well, then I began to run into problems.
Something I did in the first hundred words didn't quite fit with the three hundredth, but I wasn't quite sure what it was. Something was just "off". It would bother and confuse me, but I didn't want to deal with it. So, I'd push on, fix it later, whatever it was. Just get the stuff out, in the white heat of creativity. That's what rewriting was for, right? To fix stuff that didn't fit.
Only now the writing really slowed. The next fifty words were the hardest. I was running out of steam. The idea I'd begun with seemed stale, trite. If I could even remember the original idea. Crap! I'd say, finally, slamming shut the typewriter case. Maybe tomorrow the Muse would redescend...
Hardly ever happened. On the morrow, a new idea would strike, with the same kind of heat as the first one and I'd be off and running with that one.
With the same results.
In no time at all, I had boxes of unfinished stories. Sound familiar?
Well, I learned a trick. I won't go through the whole sorry history of how I wasted time and learned, little by little, to work smarter. What happened, after many centuries (well, it seems like that now) was that I began kind of jotting down a half page of notes. I even began figuring out my endings before I began.
Now I began to finish stories. Not a lot, but a lot more than I had previously. After a couple of years of this, I began to expand my notes. Never once did I think of what I was doing as "outlining." There weren't any Roman numeral. How could that be an outline?
And then...one day I got one of those Joycean epiphanies. What I was doing was an outline! But, these weren't outlines like Missus Grundy had us doing back in P.S. 121. These were just notes. Notes kind of organized. And I discovered something else. Those old writers were liars. Hemingway, Steinbeck and Shakespeare - they all claimed they didn't outline, but they had to. Their stuff all held the kind of integrity that only comes in thinking through a project first before you pick up the saw. They just said they didn't outline. All of a sudden, I knew better. Those guys probably didn't think they outlined either. I doubt if any of them had Roman numerals on their notes either. I'd bet money they had notes, though, and copious notes...and copious notes organized into some kind of system. Before they ever picked up the ol' writing quill and wrote "Chapter One". Probably what a lot of them did was write a first draft...and then used that for their "outline". Without calling it that, of course, or even thinking of it in that way. Hemingway didn’t outline—he had 80,000 word outlines (also called a “first draft). Same thing, just a bit cumbersome and time-consuming to create. I bet that's what they did though. They weren't any different than I was. Or you. If any writer begins their story without knowing precisely where they're going, any mistakes they make at first, any tiny omissions, take on added significance as he or she proceeds. As length grows linearly, complexity expands exponentially. Fact of life. The writing life anyway.
If one is muleheaded enough, a story can be bulled through without outlining. Even fairly long stories. It's kind of a masochistic exercise though. It may take twenty, even thirty rewrites to get a decent story that way.
Don't ask me how I know this. I'll begin crying. I'll have to. My wife knows I recall experiences like this and keeps all the sharp instruments locked up.
Novels are the worst experience in the world without an outline. After you spend several years learning to juggle thousands of details in your head - you can get pretty good at it - you can write longer and longer material. Except, that no matter how good you get at retaining all this stuff in your head, you'll probably end up stuck on about page ninety. That seems to be the magic length for novels. Not quite long enough by about three hundred pages. Short stories seem to peter out around between pages six to eight.
If you've got an outline you just don't have these problems. Stuck? Glance up at your outline and instantly you'll be reminded where you are in the story and your perspective will return. The dizzy feeling will recede.
Okay. Sales pitch for outlines over. I learned my technique from taking screenplay writing classes. Those guys always outline. That's how they can write scripts so quickly. I took a class in this program with Martin Goldstein and I wrote a 108-page script in two days. And Mr. Goldstein says it's a great script - has attached himself to it as the producer and not only that - this "two-day" script was just named a semifinalist in the Academy Foundation's Nicholl’s Fellowships in Screenwriting awards. Not bad for two days work! I wrote the first 64 pages in about eight hours and the remaining 44 pages in about ten hours. Piece of cake. Of course, I spent about a week and a half on the outline. I do write quickly, so don't use my times as a model. Without an outline, I'd still be writing...
Let's get to these puppies. Here's how you create an outline for your story. Ready?
1. You make notes to yourself as you imagine the story played out.
2. You arrange those notes.
3. As the writing proceeds, you refer to them.
That's it. Or so I thought at the time. It was a lot easier than what I used to do, but there was still something I was to learn.
I got lucky. I happened on a book that really opened my eyes as far as outlines. I honestly can’t remember the book—I’ve got thousands and thousands and thousands of books, literally—and I wish I could so I could give the author his proper credit (I do remember it was a man), but he gave me the best outlining tool I’ve ever come across. It’s nothing at all like those ten-pound puppies with the Roman numerals as you’ll see.
The outline I propose you try that I took from this guy’s book on writing consists of five simple statements that describe the major actions through which the story will be told. One statement for each major focus. And each statement will be short, consisting only of two to three words. A human noun, a strong, concrete action verb, and (most of the time) a direct object. (We won't count articles such as "a", "an", and "the" as words.) The simpler an outline is the more it focuses on the important relationships in your story. Words actually count for more in an outline than in the story. An outline like I'm proposing should have no more than fifteen to twenty words in it. Twenty words max for a 400-page novel. In a story, the almost-right word can sometimes suffice, but in an outline, it has to be the perfect word. Another difference between this version of an outline and the ones Missus Grundy had you do is that the statements in her outlines represented topic sentences and as such specify what comes at the beginning of the section they represent. That's because in logical writing, the writer states her premise first and then develops it.
In dramatic stories, however, the dramatic action that makes your point comes at the end of each section - where climaxes belong. What this means is that your outline statements represent endings, not beginnings. This is an important point to keep in mind. This is ultra-important to grasp. I’ll say it again: Your outline statements represent endings, not beginnings. I think this is why we hate those old Comp I kinds of outlines. It doesn’t allow any room for creativity at all. This does.
In almost all novels, there are three major movements involved as the protagonist struggles to resolve his or her problem. There are dozens—maybe even hundreds—of smaller movements, but by and large, there are almost always three major movements or crucial points. That’s what this kind of outline will show. First, the inciting incident that kicks off the story. Then, the result of each of the three major movements. Finally, the resolution. Five statements. That’s it. The whole of your novel is contained therein. With enormous freedom within it for those who are afraid their creativity will be stifled…
This is so important to grasping this that I’m going to belabor it a bit. Each statement represents the result of the major action taken to resolve the problem. Not the beginning and development of the action. Major difference and for those that don’t get this, it’s always because they haven’t shifted their thinking and definition of outlines from those old comp definitions and models. Again, it represents the outcome of the major action. How you as the author get to that outcome is totally up to you. It gives you complete creative freedom. Look at it as the same thing as driving from New York to Los Angeles. You know that’s your goal. Get to L.A. There are a thousand ways to do that. You might drive down and go through Arizona. You might go north and go through part of Canada. You might zig-zag northwest and southwest the whole way. You might go directly west in a straight line. What’s important is that you end up in L.A., right? That’s what this kind of outline does. It gives you your outcome (arriving in L.A.), but it allows you complete freedom in how you get there. I know I keep repeating this, but I also know from experience how ingrained those godawful comp I outlines are in our brains, that it’s important that you grasp the difference.
I'm going to use my own story I Shoulda Seen a Credit Arranger in my collection titled "Monday's Meal" to illustrate a typical outline. The first statement will be:
Complication or inciting incident:
Debt endangers Pete (This is the complication that provides the occasion for the story. Every story must have an inciting incident to kick-start it. Something must happen that changes the protagonist's world and by doing so, creates a problem/goal. This is where stories must begin - not with setting or backstory. Act I, as it were.)
Development: (This is the second part of the outline. The development steps that lead to the resolution. Act II, as it were, following Aristotle's Poetics)
1.Tommy cons Pete into a kidnapping
2. Pete and Tommy botch kidnapping
3. Pete escapes
Resolution: (This is the third and final step. Act III.)
Pete pays for mistake
Here’s the outline without the extraneous material:
Debt endangers Pete.
Tommy cons Pete into a kidnapping
Pete and Tommy botch the kidnapping
Pete pays for mistake.
I used this for the 18-page short story that appeared first in The South Carolina Review and then I wrote a 92,000 word novel… using the same exact outline. Worked perfectly for both of them. Oh, yeah. I also wrote a screenplay for this that was a finalist in both the Writer’s Guild and Best of Austin screenplay competitons… and guess what? You guessed it. I used the same exact outline and it worked perfectly. There are major differences in all three versions, but the central story remained the same and was a practical instrument in all three forms. It works!
This came to seventeen words, two over the optimim. If you're under twenty, you're fine. Once I have this outline, the rest is just filling in the blanks. But, everything in the story must contribute to the outline. I can't, for instance, start talking about Pete's childhood in New Orleans, for example. Not unless it contributes to the situation he's in.
Now. Look at the elements. There's each of the three things I said should be in the outline. A human noun, a strong, concrete action verb, and a direct object. I didn't, for instance, say "Pete is in debt" for my complication. Why? Because is is a static verb. Always think in straightforward active terms.
You might also notice I didn't have a happy-sappy "Hollywood" ending. Those don't work in literature. They work (I guess) in direct-to-video movies (and more than a few that we see at the theater) and in supermarket novels, but not in quality fiction, and that's what we're interested in here, I assume.
Doesn't look much like Missus Grundy's Roman numeral outline, does it? But, if you read the story and then compare it to the outline, you'll see it's all there. And it allows for you to roam and be creative within the story. You just have to remain within the strictures of the outline. But, there's a heck of a lot of freedom there!
Let’s look at just one of those statements, the first one. Tommy cons Pete into a kidnapping. In the short story, titled I Shoulda Seen a Credit Arranger, this action took about four pages. Tommy comes into a bar where Pete’s hustling pool, draws him away from the huckleberry he’s hustling to another bar, where he lays out the scam, to kidnap the head of the Cajun Mafia and amputate his hand and hold that for ransom. That was how I got to the outcome of the outlined point.
Then, in the novel, it took about 80 pages to get to the same point. I had more room with the novel. In the novel, Pete still has the same problem—in heavy debt to the Mafia for gambling—and Tommy cons him into the same kidnapping as before. But, this time, to get to that place, there’s some other developments. First, Tommy talks Pete into kidnapping a supermarket manager and holding his wife in their home with Pete guarding her while Tommy and the manager go to his store and clean out his safe. But, before that, the pair realize they don’t have suits and part of the supermarket caper is that they have to go into their nice neighborhood and without suits they’ll stick out. So, because they’re tapped out and neither have a suit, they decide to pick up operating capital (to buy suits with) by robbing a streetcar. Which goes horribly wrong. Now, because of a surveillance camera on the streetcar, their pictures are everywhere on TV and the stakes are really ratcheted up. Besides escaping the Mob, they now have to worry about the law. Finally, they do kidnap the head of the Cajun Mafia and remove his hand. See what I mean about the freedom this kind of outline allows? Enormous freedom. They still get to the kidnapping, but this time, instead of driving straight through, they go way down south to Arizona before they wend back up northwest to L.A. Same outline, same outcome, different way to get there.
In the screenplay, they don’t get to the kidnapping until about page 45. And, some other things happen there that didn’t in the short story or novel. But… they still end up in L.A. Can you see how this kind of outline gives you a roadmap as well as complete freedom? It really, really does. It’s why when I see as I did in the recent postings of another forum about people spouting off about how they hate outlines, I know they’ve never been exposed to this kind. They’re always thinking about 10-page (or longer!) monstrosities with all those Roman numerals, describing the beginnings and travel route to their scene or plot point goals. I agree. Those are horrible, horrible, mind-numbing and creativity-stifling monsters. This isn’t at all.
What this kind of outline does is force you to think through the story before you write it. You spot problems before you waste two hundred or two thousand (or more) words on them. Suddenly, writing becomes a breeze. It really does.
In the story above, the definition of a story is adhered to. A story consists of a character in trouble - has a need, wants something, etc. A story always begins with the inciting incident - whatever happens to drastically change the protagonist's world and create a problem for him or her (it has to be the biggest problem in his/her life at that point and one the reader will deem worthy enough to follow him in solving it, reaching his/her goal). Pete's in trouble - he owes a lot of money to a nasty bookie. He has to do something about it. He does get tricked by Tommy into an ill-fated kidnapping, but once he's in it, he begins to take his own action. You can have coincidence in a story, but it should never be a coincidence that helps the main character. It can appear at first to do so, but it never really can. It must always hinder the character. And stories are drama, which means you must create scenes, not wander around inside the head of the character, and scenes are by definition, action. There must be dramatic action. Also, a protagonist may be reactive at first, but very quickly he or she must become proactive, acting on his or her own behalf to solve the problem, gain the goal, etc. Reactive characters (characters to whom things "happen" in which they spend their time on stage reacting to those things) are boring and don't belong in good fiction. And lastly, because of an action the protagonist takes, there must come a reversal and a change in the character. What Joyce called an "epiphany". Characters in fiction, must, as a result of the actions of the story, become profoundly changed from the person they were at the beginning of the story. Also, the character can't just think through the problem, although obviously, that can be a part of his epiphany, but it has to be occasioned by an action that he can then process internally. The epiphany also cannot be attained through a conversation with another character. There has to be an actual action which changes him and turns the story. Once that happens, the story is over. Get out. Start a new story. But first create an outline for it. You'll thank yourself.
A logical question is: What if I see a “better” story or way for the character to get from Point A to Point B? Maybe even an entirely different story? No problem. Just change your outline and you still have a roadmap that’s easy to follow and one that give you complete freedom.
The nice thing about this kind of outline is that you save paper. You can write the whole thing on a napkin or even a matchbook cover…
Once you've created an outline of this sort, it's almost impossible to stray in the wrong direction. If you find yourself doing that, just glance at the outline and get back on the right road.